Over a decade ago, Wayne and I (along with our friend Doug) began writing a book. Although our target was clear, our time off course took so many turns that we ended up finding ourselves on different moons—connected through the stratosphere, but also miles apart.
When Wayne asked if I would be a guest blogger on Off Course - On Target, I agreed without hesitation. We frequently compare notes on where life has taken us and and we laugh about the parallels, knowing synchronicity isn't optional when your shared vision is so clear.
From the (unpublished) archives, here is a piece we collaborated on, which I've updated for this posting. If you heard either of us speak back then, it may seem familiar to you. I share it now, because although it's infused into all we do, I realize it's a topic neither of us writes about or speaks on actively these days—and perhaps it's time to bring it back into the light.
Although the Apollo mission, from which this blog found its name, illustrates so many fascinating themes, the metaphor has flaws. One flaw is that the target of a lunar mission is nothing like a typical organizational target. It's easy to predict exactly where the moon will be in, say, ten years. Anyone who knows how to calculate exactly where a market will be in ten years will be a guaranteed gazillionaire.
Organizational targets in general, and business targets specifically, exist in a future marketplace, and they are anything but predictable. This is truer now than ever before. Unexpected advances or shocks can turn markets and technologies upside down in a matter of days. The river of progress once may have flowed smoothly along, but as Peter B. Vail puts it: life is permanent white water now.
Being ready to alter course at a moment’s notice makes you most flexible in responding to the white water. But you also should know how to correct your course effectively—in such a way that it gets you to your target—unpredictable future and all.
Anyone who has ever made a decision has dealt with the uncertainty of the future. Sometimes, we deal with it effectively, sometimes not. One contribution of OCOT thinking is to boost your batting average in dealing with this uncertainty, by emphasizing how to promote the future you desire—even to invent your future. Although this is never completely possible, it is more possible than most people and most organizations seem to realize.
One way to shape the future while being off course and on target is through scenario planning. The most famous practitioner is Royal Dutch/Shell, the giant oil conglomerate, which has already developed global scenarios through 2025. Planning teams generate "what-if" possibilities of how the world may develop for no fewer than 400 alternate futures. They explore challenges arising from changes in the business environment that need to be faced by its businesses.
What if winter in Siberia is unusually cold, and there’s a drought in the Midwest affecting oil operations there, and a pivotal leader in Saudi Arabia dies, and...you can add your own contingencies. Shell makes a point of considering what to most people are unthinkable and unimaginable possibilities. Economic collapse. National turmoil. Terrorism.
These are not predictions, but are credible, relevant, and challenging alternative stories that consider the forces that may push the future along different paths. They help managers understand the dynamics of the business environment, recognize new possibilities, assess strategic options, and make long-term decisions.
The result is that Shell has a well-considered plan no matter what happens. They have 400 different courses to choose from as conditions warrant. They are, therefore, much more likely to pick the most effective route to the target, rather than being tied to an outmoded path.
Shell is not merely ready to react to whatever happens. Scenario teams identify the futures that Shell would most like to see happen, and then the corporation takes what steps it can to foster those futures.
They have more than the usual resources necessary for influencing events, and, as its former planning lead Peter Schwartz notes, more than the usual need to consider broad social developments.
Even a small business can (and should) apply the same principles on its own scale. Any organization's plan, for example, should include the scenario, “What if several key employees leave?” While it’s important to have contingency plans for that possibility, it’s even more important to recognize the many steps you can take to minimize the likelihood of it happening.
I was once the head of a department that learned it was going to be merged with another one. Members of our department brainstormed about the various ways senior management might organize that merger—having our department subsume the other one, vice versa, having us cover that function, having them cover it, and so on—and we developed plans for each contingency. We also, however, picked the outcomes we most wanted to have happen, and thought about how to present those outcomes to the executive team so as to maximize the possibility of their being chosen.
You can apply this same process even if you're an independent consultant or a department of one. In charting and then progressing along your own career path, this kind of scenario planning becomes invaluable, perhaps even indispensable.
In all of these cases, identify a clear target and then consider many different courses—along with their contingencies—that will bring you closest to where you want to be.
Guest blogger Marcia Conner, author of Creating a Learning Culture and Learn More Now, writes the Learn at All Levels blog for Fastcompany.com and coaches executives worldwide on using learning as a source of competitive advantage. She was VP of Education Services at PeopleSoft, founding PeopleSoft University and the first usability department in the ERP field, and was a senior training manager at Microsoft. Learn more about her at www.marciaconner.com.