Dave Snowden

Avoiding reality in favour of a vision

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Some time ago Ivan Webb reminded me of a quote from Doug Griffin’s book The Emergence of Leadership. To my mind this is the best book in the Stacy series. Its a good exposition of complexity theory without the obsession with Meade and the polemic against systems thinking. I came across it again while I was sorting out the library and reproduce it below:

The dominant view in the organizational world (is one in which) the future is split off and exclusively focused on in the form of vision, simple rules, values and plans, so distracting attention from the present and reducing the future to simple aspects that can be manipulated to determine the present

Now understanding the implications of this is one of the biggest problems faced by conventionally trained managers, and it may be a step too far for most consultants! I see three dangers in focusing on future ideal states, as opposed to managing more effectively in the present.

  • The organisation can avoid dealing with current realities by creating future promises. They can also blind themselves to weak signals that emerge which fall outside the boundaries of the plan. Self-confirmation error (ignoring anything that disturbs expectation) and rationalization (searching only for data that supports our pre-judgements) are rampant. IBM missed SAP and Microsoft (and hopefully Cognitive Edge) because the idea had not appeared in their plans, it was not strategic. Present possibilities are rarely as compelling as future visions.
  • Consultants like to be liked. I think a lot of them failed to have proper nuture at the time their limbic brains were attempting to co-evolve with the cortex. Instead we get the cunning of the cortex, linked directly to the reptilian brain without the inhibiting factor of empathy. The emotional gap thus caused means that they seek out workshops and presentations where they can be loved. This means not disturbing things, avoiding making people uncomfortable, focusing on the satisfaction form and the follow through revenue.
  • Its a bad way of doing strategy. The future will always be different from anything we can imagine. If we manage the evolutionary possibilities of the present then we have to be alert, we have to be resilient and maintain a state of anticipatory awareness. The British patient record system is a great idea of an idealistic and grandiose future vision now mired down in reality to the point of catastrophic failure. Have some goals and directions by all means, but stay flexible.

Aside from these there is the sheer time involved. I have spent far too many weeks as a General Manger, and a business manager before that, locked into strategic planning and budgeting processes which are all corporate games. I have seen political astute players re-language (their words not mine) their pet ideas to appear to confirm with the new strategic objectives. In IBM a lot of people used the find and replace function to change the twirly e-logo to on demand without evening thinking about the meaning of the new brand.

Of course visionary journeys through the silvan forests to the land of milk and honey that lies beyond is much more fun that dealing with the harsh reality of the present. Its also one in which your friendly native guide and their consultancy team will lead you by the nose.