Image: geishaboy500 (Flickr)

In an earlier post I described how Ernie and Mr. Hoots, of Sesame Street fame, reminded me of an important strategy principle. Ernie is having trouble playing the sax while holding onto his rubber duckie, and Mr. Hoots tells him (in a wonderful musical number), “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.” In other words, you need to focus on just one thing at a time. That’s a key principle of strategy as well as saxophone playing, one that my Foresight Alliance colleague Terry Grim stresses when she teaches strategy.

But it seems to me that there is more to be learned from Ernie’s duckie vs. saxophone quandary. Why is it so hard for him to put down the duckie? Well, it’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s reliable. Ernie probably can’t remember or imagine life without his favorite duckie. Many organizations have their own rubber duckies—product or service offerings, business models, or commonly accepted beliefs about the way their industry works (Gary Hamel calls these “orthodoxies”) that have served them well for many years. When it comes to a strategic choice between the rubber duckie and something new, it’s hard to imagine putting down the duckie.

Of course the saxophone—the new business strategy—is also very attractive. The saxophone is shiny and new, fashionable and sophisticated, and offers a myriad of possibilities for improvisation and invention. At the same time it’s unfamiliar, and it has a tendency to squeak at inconvenient moments. Learning to play the saxophone takes a lot of practice and hard work, just like developing a new product, adopting a new business model, or overturning a closely held orthodoxy.

Saxophone or duckie? It’s a tough choice. The bittersweet subtext of Ernie’s encounter with Mr. Hoots is that shifting from the duckie to the saxophone is part of growing up. Likewise, if you want your organization to grow, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.”

Image: BestofWDW, Flickr

I recently had the opportunity to be futurist in the “ask a futurist booth” at the American Association of Museums conference. The intent of the booth was to pose alternative scenarios that would encourage museum folks to think about different possible future environments and what changes they might suggest for the museum experience.

The theme of this year’s conference was The Museum of Tomorrow. In looking toward the future, participants were trying to understand technologies and visitor needs that are changing and what these changes mean to them. Museums do a wonderful job of preserving our heritage and are now working to become social spaces for communities. It’s important to understand where we have been, and both how and why we ended up where we are today. But museums are looking into a rearview mirror.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a Museum of Tomorrows? This museum would present multiple plausible scenarios for the future. Each person that entered could experience different futures and gain more awareness of the possible options. Perhaps we should call our museum, a muesum? Imagine how much more creative and constructive our decision processes would be if we could imagine ourselves in lots of varied environments? We would be driving by looking forward and be able to see many of the possible roads on our journey.

GE created the Carousel of Progress at Disney World in 1967 and it has been updated five times. The attraction created an enduring and shared vision of what technologies and even social changes are possible (remember in the last scene, Mother is the one working). But it was only one, very technology heavy view of our future. So let us imagine what a Muesum of Tomorrows might look like and maybe together we can gain some traction to build one! In the meantime, futurists can continue to help by creating stories and scenarios of many possible futures.

Image: Andrew Bossi, Flickr

I’m finishing up Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant journey of a book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, looking for (and finding!) implications for futures studies and foresight. (I have a forthcoming article exploring the “I” of the beholder in relation to our discipline).  But more on that later.

What I wanted to share here is that at one point the author reminded me of the now-famous experiment on selective attention in which a group of people are asked to observe a basketball game between two teams, one wearing black T-shirts and other white. The assignment is to track how many times the players in white pass the ball amongst each other. (Watch the video here – and unless you do right now, I’ve ruined it for you!)

The diligent respondents, fixated on their task, pay such enormous attention to the back and forth between the players that they fail to see how a new figure enters the terrain – a person dressed as a gorilla – who not only walks nonchalantly across the scene but also comes to the fore, raises a fist, beats his chest, does a little jiggle, and exits. Few students from the study noticed the gorilla! (Simons & Chabris, http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/)

As you can imagine, the implications of this research are quite profound no matter the field. But from my perspective in terms of the work we do, I think there are two fundamental insights:

1)      Much of the real economic value in the world today is created by people who make things happen by sharpening their attention to what’s at hand – today’s work requires intensity of focus and clarity of purpose for creating tangible results. However, our best intentions are often dampened by the unexpected. As futurists, our value is to complement clients (decision-makers, innovators, strategists, entrepreneurs, policymakers) do their jobs even better by helping them navigate terrains fraught with gorillas – not only in the foreground of attention, but especially at the background, the fringe. This is why it is imperative that we engage in a co-creative process that brings out the best of both worlds. Futurists are there to help you explore the unforeseen, without denying or minimizing your expert knowledge. Your focus and expertise are essential when teamed up with the breadth, depth and temporal dimension of futurists (who are not trying to replace focused expert knowledge in your domain). It is the process by which you get both the score right (in the fictitious basketball game, and in the world of results), and also see the gorillas (benevolent or otherwise).

2)      My second insight is closer to home – why is this study important for futurists. We need to resist the siren call for content specialization. Our particular economic value doesn’t stem in replicating our clients’ expertise – we have to remain distanced enough (not too much, not too little – just enough) to be able to notice gorillas. Of course we all have our preferences in topic domains but we ought to stay true to our calling of ‘generalists’ – pattern finders, masters of ‘betweenness’, of relationship amongst things. This is why we get trained in ‘liking’ sources we normally wouldn’t read or watch (and yes, that’s often insurmountable entirely as individuals but also the reason why we offer ourselves in teams – and be sure that hell breaks loose when we don’t agree –thankfully, our clients don’t witness our internal processes); embracing otherness and the unknown, staying with them long enough to acknowledge and understand a different point of view; carry lenses that don’t necessarily feel comfortable or welcome. It is how it should be for value’s sake. Full detachment is neither possible nor encouraged – it wouldn’t serve anyone well, neither clients nor us – all we can hope for is to develop a tad of empathy for otherness, aka alterity. Finding and acknowledging what is beyond. It’s why I’m proud to call myself a futurist.

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