COP 21 (the Paris climate conference) was NOT a cop out…

or How do you implement strategies that cope with the future?

The MSM (Mainstream Media) who have the capacity to be one of the less helpful elements of democratic societies, were quick to criticise COP 21 for not getting anyone to sign on the line at its conclusion on 12 December 2015.  That would happen later, in April 2016, but it didn’t stop the trigger-happy journos from sniping.  It triggered me into writing the following:

As everyone who has had anything to do with strategy knows, it’s all about implementation.  Anyone can knock up a strategy (actually, good ones are rare) but getting it agreed and making it happen takes a lot more than writing the paper.  Implementation is about communication.  And communication needs to generate ‘buy-in’.  And generating buy-in needs an understanding of the ‘buyers’.

On paper, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to get more women into Japan’s shrinking workforce was a great strategy.  In practice Japanese culture is not yet ready for this and targets have had to be drastically reduced.

Germany’s problem with its shrinking population (look up the demographics) prompted Angela Merkel to welcome migrants by the million.  For different reasons, the buy-in is not there, and her leadership on this issue has been severely tested.

The story of COP 21 in Paris is an exemplar of the kind of work that you need to do to get a strategy successfully off the ground.  Read Fiona Harvey (The Guardian 14 December 2015) to get a sense of the effort involved.  More important to register is the range and variety of techniques used, many invented just for this event: “confessionals”; “informal informals”; “indabas”.  And the techniques might not have done it had it not been for the attention to the layout:  20 cubicles for the sleep-deprived; offices close to each other for key players.  The layout was good but so was the support: 60 French diplomats; lawyers and translators; TV cameras capturing and relaying everything; a control room.

OK – it was a global conference with 196 delegates, surely you don’t have to go through all that to get a well researched and articulated strategy acted on by a board of directors?  Well, yes you do.  If there is one thing that strategists have in common it is the difficulty of getting listened to when executives get down to making big decisions.

Which brings us to Strategic Foresight.  What distinguishes the use of this term from ‘ordinary’ strategy formulation is its emphasis on incorporating the effects of the future.  And not just the observable future but the future if today’s minor trends become tomorrow’s major factors, or totally unforeseen events materialize.  Rather than try to pin down one future, a number of scenarios are worked up.

So what’s new?  Shell have been playing with scenarios since the seventies.  Hmm.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  (And the people from Shell would agree.  Scenario planning at Shell has almost died and been resuscitated three times.)

Partly it’s to do with getting everyone to see that the future needs to be looked at. Tomorrow isn’t going to be the same as today and it isn’t going away.  To the classic themes that we used to consider: political; economic; social; technical (a PEST analysis) now has to be added environmental.  And, since the seventies, turbulence in every one of these has become the norm.

Partly, there is a slowly growing recognition of which COP 21 is a reminder, that writing compelling scenarios is not enough.  Having them discussed at conferences is not enough.  Getting them endorsed by the right people or organizations is not enough. Cat Tully writes:

“A successful strategy process has the participants internalise and come collectively to a common set of policies and actions. This often means the process becomes invisible and, by the end, its conclusions are seen as ‘inevitable’ and ‘common-sense’.”

Lao Tzu knew it millennia ago.  We need to relearn: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”  And that’s a lot of work.

It’s the invisible processes that are beginning to get more attention.  If you want to check on their invisibility read the description of COP 21 in Wikipedia.  There is no mention of the inputs, like “indabas”, like Laurent Fabius, the architect of the event, studying climate science intensely for two years beforehand. There’s only a factual account of the outputs.  Such an account is obviously needed, one just hopes it doesn’t encourage the next organiser to underinvest in the processes, particularly the intangible and sometimes odd stuff.

Adam Kahane was the facilitator of the legendary Mont Fleur Scenarios in South Africa just after Mandela’s release.  He has continued to help people ‘solve tough problems’.  Pictures of events he has subsequently managed look like a bunch of adults playing in kindergarden.  And so they should.  People, particularly people in suits and in high places, need lots of handholding and help to speak from the heart and to listen to other doing the same.  And often they need to be ‘tricked’ into dropping their facades.

Techniques for helping this abound: Open Space Technology; World Café; Metaperceptions and the entire output of the National Training Laboratories.  Plus anything you care to invent that will push people into being their best selves.  For COP 21 the proximity in time and space of the terrorist attacks on Paris had a silver lining.  Barack Obama hailed the conference as “an act of defiance” in the face of terrorism.  There’s nothing like the emergence of an external enemy for getting people to pull together.

Every year, at the School of International Futures (SOIF) Cat Tully and her colleagues bring together people involved in strategy to experience Strategic Foresight.  Over three days at a location that relaxes you all by itself, a group of 25 listen to input from experts with global reputations.  They then hear from a senior figure in a country or organization that is facing the challenge of major change.  (In 2015 it was Iran – approaching possible détente with the West.)  Being faced with delivering advice that will actually be used focuses minds and, in small sub-groups they flesh out possible futures and the moves that will be need to be made to survive or thrive in them.

That’s the spine of the event but, just like COP 21, magic is being woven into the mix using and inventing techniques that have participants say things like:

Since my participation in the Mont Fleur scenarios more than 20 years ago I rarely witnessed a more impressive learning experience.

The learning of participants through intense experience is one thing but an unusual addition to their learning at SOIF is how to pass it on.  How to integrate Strategic Foresight techniques back in the office and get them built into policy and planning.  If we are to see more of the responsiveness and resilience shown by the airline industry (still the safest, despite the media’s love of disaster) and less of the dismal reaction to the flooding of New Orleans, it’s this piece of learning that needs to be embedded in institutions around the globe.  And, at SOIF, it’s getting the attention it deserves.

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