Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Defining Moments

As we go past the 5th anniversary of what has come to be known as 9/11, I suspect for this generation and mine, at least in the western world, it will come to be one of those moments when each of us knew where we were and what we were doing when it happened. Given that I’m now half way through my life I can count the assassination of JFK, his brother and Martin Luther King together with the first moon landing as similar defining moments. Like so many things it will shape the attitudes and lifestyles for many years to come.

As the leaders of the free world focused on the war on terror, Sir David King, Britains Chief Scientific Adviser issued a chilling statement that too should have been a defining moment. On Oct 15 2005 he said that “the scientific evidence of climate change is irrefutable and the need to reduce greenhouse emissions is pressing. He estimates that by 2080 something like 50 to 100 million people will be displaced in Asia as a result of global warming if we don't do something now. Climate change, he says, has the potential to destablise the political and economic basis of the global system.”[1] But it was not. Most people know of 9/11 but few have even heard of, or care, about David King.

Why is it that a warning of such macro change fails to impact? Why is it that we can modify our travel behaviour at airports because of ‘terrorism’ but we don’t seem willing or interested in really changing our behaviour because of climate change? Why is it that we have a whole group of politicians who trade off climate change imperatives for short term economic wellbeing? And why is it that we would probably vote them out of office if they didn’t! Some think it is because we don’t feel compelled to confront problems we haven’t personally experienced. But who wants to experience a major climate change disaster? [2]

Last week I was in conversation with a senior manager from a large transnational. A cornerstone of their strategy, he told me, is that climate change is happening and that the world has moved into a future of more expensive energy. As a result his organisation is moving away from fossil fuel dependence to renewable sources as fast as they can. It was his view that most of the competitors and most of the public won’t really understand the strategy until there is a climate change event so dramatic and so irrefutable that no one, but no one will contradict it. “The timeframe for such an event,” I asked? “Around 2008,” he replied.

I don’t want to see any more defining moments caused by the negative impacts of climate change, although I’m all too well aware that in the famine areas of Africa, climate related tragedies are occurring as we speak. For me I would prefer a defining moment when most of us accept David King’s premise as being true, we shun the naysayer’s in the same way we shun the proponents of terrorism, and we agree to work with purpose and urgency to begin to unravel the disaster that we have created.

[1] For a more detailed version of his comments please go to www.foundation.org.uk and search for the 9th Zuckmann lecture
[2] I recommend Michael Watkins article: Predictable surprises: the disasters we should have seen coming Harvard Business Review, March 2003 for his thoughts on this matter.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Incrementalist to the core.

At a recent international procurement conference I delivered a series of future scenarios from the perspective of a rather older man in 2030. As I hope you might imagine I assembled all the usual suspects; climate change, environmental degradation, careless use of resources, failing infrastructures, irresponsible technologies and so on – and played out some of the impacts as they converge on each other . Like many future pictures they were quite confronting to many in the audience, whose life stories and world views were firmly attached to the current paradigm.

In one post session conversation, a senior strategic adviser said to me that he was ‘incrementalist to the core’ and that the kind of transformation I was suggesting was not realistic or even desirable. Naturally to support the case he picked up on a couple of factual errors I had made in a 90 minute conversation and interactive commentary – I hate that! What struck me as interesting about what he said was how his views would obviously directly effect both the design and the deliverables of the very significant projects that he was working on.

Two thoughts: firstly, there seems to be a gulf between ‘incrementalists’ and ‘navigators’ and its growing. Navigators believe living with accelerating change and making lots of them is what we all need to do; whereas incrementalists believe that only change which can be controlled and that is measured is desirable. Perhaps there is a fundamental wiring in the brains of both groups that cannot be undone whatever the circumstances and whatever the evidence.

Secondly, if the navigators are right – and I would suggest that on the big issues the evidence is mounting – then the delays caused by incremental thinking have consequences for those that support them. My worry is that in not articulating and exploring the incremental and the transformation options in a clear and credible way, we lock ourselves into futures that are not understood and that may be less than desirable. Of course those that have to really live with the consequences are normally those that have the decisions made for them.

It strikes me that all of us, in our lives, organisations and societies need to decide where we stand in terms of Theodore Roosevelt’s stark words:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Or will our present actions frame a future that will decide it for us?