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Anton Franckeiss

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The future will not turn out as planned


Anton Franckeiss reminds us that time marches on and our plans must not only stay in step, but inspire everyone to march together.
Organisational development, at its best, does not ask, "How do we get them to do x?" It recognises that the best answers come from the best questions, and asks instead, "What's the best way forward for us?" Neither HRM nor HRD – nor, for that matter, a simple combination of the two – it cannot be boiled down to a single process that we can implement. The organisation is business's equivalent of 'the body politic': a complex, multi-faceted organism that responds most fruitfully when treated as a whole.
OD is also about the future. After all, which other point of time does the organisation wish to be sustainably successful in? In a period of economic uncertainty that has undermined a previous sense of optimism (which may or may not have been realistic), a less euphoric enthusiasm for tomorrow is probably to be expected. I wouldn't wish to overstate the parallel, but another group of professionals concerned with our shared future and its implications – science-fiction writers – have wrestled with this topic.
One high profile author, Neil Stephenson, recently argued that sci-fi writers' greatest contribution is 'worldbuilding': placing technologies and game-changing events in a socio-economic context. And he is sufficiently concerned that the optimistic visions that dominated the mid-20th century have been replaced by a torrent of dystopian visions that he has started a project (Heiroglyph) to encourage writers to inspire today's scientists to get 'great stuff done'. And inspiring a response in others is another key attribute that writers share with leaders: until it is communicated, a vision is just a dream.
"Compiling any future vision must therefore accept that we are as capable of projecting our mistakes onto the enormous canvas of 'tomorrow' as we are of our successes and insights."
Creative visions of the future – be they from books, films or other media – illustrate another point about OD. William Gibson, another sci-fi writer (although he might reject the label), is aware that sci-fi – like an organisational vision – may be written for the future, but is written in the here and now:
"In hindsight, the most memorable images of science fiction often have more to do with our anxieties in the past (the writer's present) than with those singular and ongoing scenarios that make up our life as a species: our real futures, our ongoing present."
The new, in other words, is usually a projection of the now, or of an aspect of it. Compiling any future vision must therefore accept that we are as capable of projecting our mistakes onto the enormous canvas of 'tomorrow' as we are of our successes and insights. To give a real world example, the Campaign for Better Transport recently published its Car Dependency Scorecard 2012, ranking 26 UK cities. (Transport is not simply a matter of fossil fuel impact and resource management; despite the retro-futurist promise of tele-working, most of the workforce still has to actually get to the office, the meeting, the client)
Milton Keynes, an economically successful and still expanding new town just a few miles from my own office, scored poorly: 23rd out of 26. Originally designed to a 'master plan' in the late 60s, it displays a vision of the distributed, dispersed city. Its originally intended monorail systems excised by the economic downturn of the early 1970s, it emerged as – and remains – a sprawling city of grid-roads and roundabouts. As the report notes:
"Milton Keynes was originally planned as a car-based city designed around grid roads, so any policy will find this legacy hard to reverse rapidly. […] city plans still seem to be based on plentiful parking and some significant expanded road capacity is envisaged. These together will tend to undermine other measures and continue to lock in car dependency."
For now, it thrives. But it exists in a world of rapid change. Built in an era of landlines and answerphones, it now lives in a time of mobile communication. If the car's future timeline is transformed in the same way as the now quaint-seeming rotary-dial telephone in the hallway, its legacy might become an albatross. And a metaphorical bird that will be hard to shoo away. As Marshall McLuhan once said:
"Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts."
However we refer to the transformation of a vision into a reality – whether we call it 'planning' or 'implementation' – a quick look at the cannon of dystopian films and books provides a learning point. The 'villain of the piece' may be a government, a corporation, a runaway technology (or faith in it), but the underlying nightmare or source of discontent is that the vision has not been accepted but imposed. Usually a form of tyranny, they also share other traits: rigidity and a rejection of inputs. Their citizens are not led; they are controlled.
"However we refer to the transformation of a vision into a reality, a quick look at the cannon of dystopian films and books provides a learning point...the underlying nightmare or source of discontent is that the vision has not been accepted but imposed."
Town planning, whose practitioners now prefer the term 'urban design', provides an example of a better way forward. In Edgelands, a prize-winning non-fiction book about city peripheries, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts talk about desire lines, which they define as, "lines of footfall worn into the grounds, tracks of use", as a human response to implemented designs that work against our natural instincts:
Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the grounds, tracks of use.
Milton Keynes has plenty of desire lines: we don't have the time for the leisurely landscaped strolls its designers dreamed that we'd enjoy. But desire lines have real world applications, where organisations are open to the benefits of dynamic implementation: the footpaths of New York's Central Park are formalised desire lines (the park was constructed without footpaths and waited for them to emerge), while General Electric reviews the search patterns of website visitors to identify customers' real interests.
Consultant and Harvard Business Review columnist Umair Haque argued about organisations in his recent book, Betterness: Economics for Humans, that: "[…] having become something like Alcatrazes for the human soul, they fail to ignite within us the searing potential for the towering accomplishments necessary to answer today's titanic challenges."
In a future likely to be characterised by volatility, ambiguity and uncertainty, the challenge for those leading OD projects in organisations is not just to re-ignite that potential, but to accept those characteristics and embed them not just in their vision but in the methods they use to implement it.
Anton Franckeiss is managing director of ASK Europe plc


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