Science and Leadership for the Future: Strategy

Ross Dawson recently gave a keynote address on Science and Leadership for the Future to a small group of major media and corporate clients of New Scientist magazine.

Given the context, he was able to delve a little deeper into the issues than he would for most audiences. The video of his presentation was sliced into a number of brief segments. Below is the video of the section of his presentation on Strategy. Please click here to view the complete presentation.

Full Transcription: Science and Leadership for the Future – Strategy

Ross Dawson:

We’ve just looked at a couple of domains in science and technology which are starting to change the shape of the world we live in. Now, I want to come back and look at strategy. How does the way we think about the future enable us to create better decisions today?

Mental Models is a domain of cognitive psychology which was pioneered by, amongst others, Kenneth Craik, Henry Mintzberg, and more recently, and probably most famously, Peter Senge. This idea, that as humans, the way in which we look at and respond to the world around, is based on implicit models of how the world works. And if we were to look around at people generally, and also business executives, some people have some quite limited Mental Models; others have richer Mental Models. So in this particular example, we see that the Mental Model shapes how we filter the information that we have from the world around us and the decisions we make in result. Yet it is possible for us to use that inputting information to actually change our Mental Model of how the world works.

So there are crudely two types of people: those that have a fixed Mental Model of the world, which continues over the years; and those who are able to adapt, change, enrich, and improve their Mental Model, not least given that we are living in a changing world.

So if we look forward, we can see that there a number of trends as well as increasing uncertainties. Beyond a very near timeframe, predictions are essentially useless. That’s where the world of scenarios starts to become valuable where we can start to build some complex, internally coherent views of what may happen in the future. Scenario planning as a discipline is being able to say, “Here are a number of worlds. Each one of these is possible. Each one of these is plausible.” Now if these are all possible, then clearly we need to build our future based on thinking through all of these scenarios, not just a single one that we may like or that we favor. And this is a tool to more effective cognition.

Strategic decisions are made by humans, individually and collectively. So Scenario Planning, or to be able to think in scenarios, is a cognitive approach. And the intent of this is to enrich our Mental Models, enrich our ways of understanding how the world is changing and how to act as a result.
Now in this particular case, an oil drilling firm back in 1981 did a Scenario Planning exercise. They had three different Scenarios for the number of different oil wells that would come out over the coming decade or so. This is what actually happened.

Remember that 1974 is when we started to see the price of oil go from $2 to $10 per barrel, and is continuing to rise. One of the many things which they had not anticipated is that there was more and more drilling. They thought that trend to drilling would increase. One of the responses to the trend of an increase in oil price was that people were becoming more environmentally conscious. They were using less petrol. If you ever go to Japan, you’ll know that all drivers still turn off their lights at the stoplight, trying to save oil. And that’s just one of the many habits and behavioral changes that came about as a result of the oil crisis back in the 1970s.

So what this means is that it’s not so much Scenario Planning as a discipline that is important; it is Scenario Thinking, the ability for executives to be able to think that there are more than one possible, plausible world. What you will often tend to see in executive circles is you get forceful executives who say, “This is what’s going to happen,” and they fight for it. This is why people argue against them. They have a fixed Mental Model, and they are not looking to change that. The value of Scenario Thinking is to be able to get these richer ways of thinking… there are different worlds that are possible, there are different paths that this could follow.

So this leads to a case of Core and Contingent Strategies. You do need a Core Strategy. You do need to place some bets. You need to be able to say, “Yes, given all of the uncertainties we’ve looked at, then this is the path that we believe is the right strategy to take.” But you do also need to set some Contingent Strategies, as in, “These are some strategies we might take if it turns out that we were wrong.” We see some wildcards emerge, that some of these uncertainties play out in a different way than we expected. And this enables responsiveness, when you have a number of Contingent Strategies; it means that you don’t need to think through and to work out from scratch. What happens when the world goes differently than you expected? You already have some ideas of how you might respond to those.

Once you have built these ideas of different paths to the future in this uncertainty, these Core and Contingent Strategies, you can then identify some early warning signals. These are some things which will indicate early on that in fact what we expected to happen might not be happening. And this is where Horizon Scanning – the ability to look at science and technology, depending on how those may shape and identify our assumptions around trends and uncertainties (and how they are playing out) and the potential for wildcards – can then actually start to lead to a change in course very early on and be able to be ahead of those organizations that are all on that path.

Now thinking about the future is ultimately one off communication. It is about condition, changing people’s Mental Models, changing how people think. And I’m a strong believer that visual communication is a very important part of that. Having a long document that describes your analysis of the future is very hard to process because of the way that it makes us think differently. Visual communication is far more important, and we’re clearly seeing that in the rise of infographics and visual media that’s all on the Web. But if you’re looking explicitly on the future, it starts to become a domain of visual communication. Here are a few examples of that.

This is from Michelle Zappa who runs Envisioning Technology. This shows the center, and concentric circles show the future. And each of the different domains shows the different types of technologies and when they may be expected to emerge. So it starts to be very easily tractable in terms of being able to think through and to comprehend. Look at the technologies, envision the timeframes after them, and think through the implications of that. This is a very efficient way, cognitively, to process the information around technology and technology landscapes.

This one is from the Institute for the Future, one of the leading future organizations around the world. Here they show that there are five trends, which they are able to pick out, use colors, highlight, describe, and give some examples of them. And they have a rich array of visual communication to be able to facilitate thinking more effectively as a result of the analysis.

This is another one which one of my organizations created around the future of media. This idea of the future of news, looks at Interfaces in the center, the different array of factors around it where value will reside in the future of media. This condenses some quite rich information into something which can be projected moving forward. In fact, we’re creating this as a WebGL project at the moment where we can actually navigate through this in three dimensions on the web and be able to get deeper information around each of these as we go.

So these are just some examples of using visual communication, in particular, to facilitate rich analysis, going in to change Mental Models and different cognition to facilitate better decision-making.

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