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Trying to be future proof to counter uncertainty is dangerous business.

Recently I have had some interesting conversations where directors asked me 'how to' future proof their organisation, or to protect it against black swans in a time of raging uncertainty. Personally I don’t have a very positive connotation with things like: being future-proof. A focus on proof strives for a kind of certainty, or even evidence on a subject - the future - that is inherently unknown to all of us. It leads to wanting to ‘define’ and not ‘interpret’ future events, to control your destiny.

I looked up the term Future Proof, to understand better. Both Techopedia and Wikipedia explain the buzzword with terms like fortifying, to ensure, to defend and protect: ‘a future proof system is a product or service that will not need to be significantly updated as technology advances’. This is indeed how we like to protect ourselves from the outside world, using (virtual) walls, camera's and data to gain control and to secure ourselves from risk, and thus also from change. Yet not being able to deal with change is the same as not being able to learn anymore. Exploration has than been replaced with endurance.

A good example is a dead tree. That is often pretty robust and extremely efficient since it isn't using any energy and still standing tall, thus very future proof. Yet it has no real effect or contribution to its environment anymore. Is that what we want? Is there dead-wood in our own organisation?

I recognise the question of future-proofing from the days I was very involved with Scenario Thinking. Even then it struck me that companies would embark on a mission to work with great passion on creating speculative scenario’s, but not for seeking opportunities but moreover as a kind of risk-analysis tool. They would plot a positive, a negative scenario and than exaggerate both. The resulting strategy would then be based on trying to prevent the (super) negative and to try getting into what’s called the 'preferred scenario'.

Planning for a preferred scenario is dangerous business! 

This kind of preferred scenario thinking has several pitfalls because of the underlying mindset.

1] For example, striving for the preferred scenario makes you feel boss of the environment, as if yóu can control the outside world. Most likely they started with scenario’s for the opposite reason; to ópen up their eyes, to experience the possible and unforseen effects of that what you are not controlling?!

2] A second pitfall is about not just trying to ensure the positive, but the fact that we are becoming defensive. We will be trying to protect ourselves from the negative impacts, fortifying ourselves in the status quo. Sometimes even starting to long back for the days. A natural next step in such a protective environment is to create additional overhead (lawyers, managers, analysts and other specialists) as a wall and buffer towards that what is trying to hurt us from the outside. In this way you will end-up with even more load to protect. This buffer will distance your company even further from its clients, partners and other surroundings, increasing the chances of misreading or overlooking upcoming changes.

So paradoxically by striving to become future proof you have enhanced the chances of unexpected events hurting you for real. Trying to diminish the negative and planning for the positive will create the tunnel vision they were trying to prevent to start of with. That's the inherent nature of these so-called black swans, you are convinced they don't exist since you have never seen one. You just cannot prepare for all blak swans because you will than be hit by a purple swan or whatever. Planning and even defending a preferred scenario is dangerous business! 

People like Nassim Taleb emphasise, that in many organisations, it's precisely the strive for security that leads towards favouring robustness and conservation. Robust organizations protect and fasten everything they have, copy-pasting best-practices of what has already been proven to work elsewhere, not experimenting with next-practices. Being robust, being firm, will help you to stand steady when a big storm passes by, but the closer the change gets towards the roots of your organisation, the more easily the whole mass will pivot and crash. While a more agile approach, a more distributed organisation, with more powers closer to the edge will stumble but than also balance itself again. Such an organisation is in a continuous dynamic equilibrium

The Ise Jingu shrine in Japan breaks down the entire monastery every 20 years and than rebuilds it again to conserve their craftsmanship, engagement and sense of community.

When I started my previous company, FreedomLab, our premise was to close it down every five years. Really quitting it entirely, the building, the people, the bankaccounts, even clients. Going back to zero. This ritual was inspired by the famous Ise Jingu monastery in Japan. By closing down the company and than rebuilding it again the next weeks, helped us to remain entrepreneurial, to remain being experimental, to only taking along in a second iteration what matters going forward, not just out of routine or habit. It helped us to reflect and review everything that had become normal. It helped us to learn and meanwhile also to get rid of the 'dead wood'.

I do realise that it’s an extreme approach which fitted our Living Lab intentions. After our third close-down-and-rebuild I wouldn't recommend it as a practice fitting general organisations =) It was extremely rewarding, gave us deep insights but at the same time immensely scary, stressful and emotional for the entire team. The fact that you stop doing what you love to do, stepping away from it, taking the risk it won’t be there tomorrow gave us a better sense of the essence of what we were about. All of the hassle of breaking down and rebuilding really helped us clearing our mind, organisation and habits, shaping a uniquely generative culture and resilient team. For us this was the definition of a truly lean and thus nomadic organization. Not lean as in no-assets, nor lean of any heritage, but lean in the sense that we could focus on that what mattered most to us going forward and not just trying to sustain. We dared to let-go of stuff we loved, to be able to thrive!

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" - Peter Drucker

A famous saying is that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. That notion follows the belief that you can better have a crappy strategy with a strong, engaged culture than the other way around. Even when a strategy is wrong, a good culture will bit by bit autocorrect it’s direction, while a right strategy with no support or engagement of the underlying culture will fail per definition. So maybe the answer to companies wanting to find the right strategy for their future is a mission impossible? Maybe we can better start thinking what kind of culture could help you to prepare for that what’s laying in the future?

" Bio inspired design: What could we learn from 3.8 billion years of evolution of systems in nature?! "

For me (but I know I’m a radical on this topic ;-) it’s all about the design for thriveability which very much includes the spirit of creativity, taking the risk of not making it, daring to dépend on your environment - not control it. The term to thrive is a key aspect in the design according to the principles of Biomimicry: What could we learn form 3.8 billion years of evolution of systems in nature?! 

The reason I studied marketing was not to learn how to influence 'the people', but the other way around; how to be knowledgable about the needs of people and environment and how that could influence the direction of the company.

Amongst others we could learn that another way to prepare or deal with uncertain times is not to try and control the organisation or worse, trying to control the entire environment (users, partners, market etc), but moreover to allow for a more open system, a dynamic equilibrium, a chaordic structure and thus an organisation that is not preventing but continuously learning by training itself to deal with tensions and rapidly changing habitats. Such an organisation is less conservative and institutionalised, less protective, yet more agile, resilient, aware, engaged and present. Sounds great, but not easy at all; Letting uncertainty exist is extremely hard work!

"Letting uncertainty be, is extremely hard work!

Risk and even fatality are part of the formula of life for every existing organism, so why not for organisations? Early in my career I was trained at Hewlett-Packard, which was very Total Quality Control minded. I admired how planning & control can create such an immense scale and impact. But as a result af the control mind-set, 'world domination' became a kind of implicit purpose for these kind of corporations.

Later in my dotcom phase we went the totally opposite direction, extremely lean and agile teams, changing direction almost every day, using the immense energy and passion of the collective to deconstruct the barriers and pillars of the old system. But in a sense we were creating for the sake of creation and not rebuilding or taking responsibility of a new underlying environment that works for everybody. It just wasn't re-generative as a system.

The dotcom era broke down important barriers, but only now we are getting more into a re-generative phase.

I see the same now with the current start-up wave. Such start-ups try to become Future proof, not by being robust, but by being extremely lightweight: having no assets at all, no employees, not even a 'place' anymore. But does no assets also lead towards no responsibilities?! If you have nothing, if strategy can pivot anytime than nothing can hurt you, right? By almost being not exposed at all, by being so fluid, we will also have no real roots, we are not grounded, nothing to re-build upon? Is that an approach that will guide us through the uncharted territories of the future?

"The formula of life Σ Energy = Management + Creativity" - Sante Fe Institute

Link to my interview with G. West, on the formula of life

So rational, highly institutionalised, bulky, yet efficient and scalable organisations tend to become defensive and sometimes out right scared of uncertainty. I compared it to being like a dead tree, hyper-efficient, still standing tall with no real contribution. 

The opposite, passion driven start-ups, progressively shaping their own reality, embracing uncertainty to the max, are so fluid, can become so living in the moment that many of them lack real impact, they become drift wood, floating downstream with the zeitgeist.

If dead trees and drift wood are apparently not the answer, than how can we create a new flourishing ecosystem? After all this creative destruction, who is taking real responsibility and effort of re-generating and re-building our systems, together? How can we bridge those worlds of passion and scale, of efficiency and effect of people and systems? And how can we build that bridge while crossing it? For me those are the challenging questions of our time.

To conclude, there is a tention between ‘future proof’ elements like robustness, ratio, a control mindset versus the concept of 'adaptiveness' with elements like tention, paradox, the unexpected, imperfection, the subjective. That tention, that debate, is in a sense a mini version of the larger debate in society; rationality versus creativity, or the objective versus the subjective. 

Do we want to live in a world of efficiency, planning, knowing and control, where we-the-people have to adapt to the systems? Or can we appeal to a different way of organising, where systems adapt to óur needs allowing for more emotion, intuition, uncertainty, ambiguity and playfulness? 

Naturally it’s a crucible of both forces and that will be the epic challenge, for all of us.