How to develop an actionable vision

actionable vision

This week I was in Tallin working with a bank to design new directions for their future. In the country that some spell as E-stonia, it was great to work with a digital version of our ‘Stories for Change’ tool for the first time. As one participant said: “I didn’t know it could be so simple to develop new thinking for our future that makes sense to all of us and that we now all can’t wait to get started with”. How do we accomplish that? How do we create an actionable vision?

“Dreams are the seeds of action”

I’ve always liked the above quote of Edmund Hillary, the famous mountain climber. It’s why we stimulate people to be bold, dream big and develop futures thinking. Even when the moonshots they come up with seem far-fetched the dreams that underpin those visions have great value. Indeed, because they contain the seeds of action.

But you can rest assured that a dream is not a goal that can be achieved easily. If that would be the case it wouldn’t be a vision, but rather an action plan. So, for a dream to lead to action it has to be strong enough so you and your team will have the perseverance and the drive to overcome all the challenges you will meet. In order for it to lead to action it needs to strike a chord. Within yourself, but especially if it concerns your dream (or vision) for an organization it needs to touch the people in your company. They have to be able to understand what your vision really is about and feel the motivation to work on turning it into reality. How do you do that?

Three ingredients for an actionable future vision

First of all: getting a vision across to a team shouldn’t be done as a bulleted presentation. I agree with what Jeff Bezos wrote in one of his annual letters: create a narrative instead of a PowerPoint. A narrative has a logical structure to it, but it is far from a rational argument. Instead, it has an emotional layer that allows for the listener to feel connected to what you are saying. That way they can start to believe in your story, and perhaps more importantly they can start to belief in you! The greatest dreams of history were delivered by individuals that people believed in: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, etc.

The three ingredients of a good narrative mentioned above are of course nothing new. Aristotle already described them as important modes of persuasion. Ethos is the credibility of the person speaking. Pathos is the emotional layer and logos is the logic structure of your story. At Minkowski we have developed the tool called ‘Stories for Change’ to help teams translate their dreams into such narratives and find the seeds of action within them. That was the tool we used this week in Tallin as well and that triggered the comment of one of the participants.

What is Applied Futures (Thinking)?

The approach we use in our work is called ‘applied futures’. The result of this approach is that organizations are able to act now upon what is possible for them in the future. But many of our clients ask us, what ‘applied futures’ actually is, as they can not find a lot about it on the web. And some even ask us if they can study it somewhere at a university. Who knows, one day we might be able to point you to the study of Applied Futures, but for now you’ll have to do with the following explanation of how we have developed this uncharted territory. And as promised, I’ll dive into many more aspects of it in posts to come…

From thinking to doing

First off, I put the word ‘thinking’ in the title of this post in brackets. Applying the future to your present does of course mean that you have to do something, rather than just thinking about it. Only when you are eventually acting upon the ideas and inspiration you got from the future, can you say you’ve actually applied the future in your practice today. I can’t stress often enough that this crucial last step in our process is one that our clients have to take responsibility for. We won’t step away from it at that time, but without a client’s full commitment to it, the future will never successfully be implemented (even when we put all the effort in trying to make it work). But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I just made this point to emphasize that applied futures is as much about doing as it is about thinking.

So, yes, there is a great deal of thinking involved as well. If you start implementing ideas without thinking about them carefully then the risk of stepping in directions that fall outside of your ‘cone of possibility‘ are as big as taking the right steps. Applied futures is an approach that enables organization to not gamble on a future direction, but rather to take deliberate action towards the direction they want to go in the future and that is possible for them to accomplish. This thinking process is preceded by other steps that are described in a bit more detail in this post.

The basic theories behind applied futures

Applied Futures Thinking is a construct of several theories and approaches that allow us to help organizations in making future perspectives actionable. Most notably, applied futures thinking is a form of futures studies: the study of possible, probable and preferable futures. When it comes to applied futures we always (only) focus on the possible and preferable future perspectives as the probable states also include non-preferable states and are therefore hardly ever translated in a plan for action (avoiding those scenarios then usually becomes the plan). Our approach to futures studies thus differs somewhat from regular approaches.

One of the fundamental methodologies that underpin applied futures thinking is scenario planning. We use abductive reasoning (also see design thinking further down) to construct future alternatives by starting from a future ‘observation’ and then reasoning how that future might come to be. We do this using a backcasting tool called the ‘Wheel of Reasoning’. The additional ‘s’ in applied futureS is there on purpose, because we don’t believe you can predict the future (hence forecasting is not our preferred planning method). Instead there are multiple possible positions and paths to the future for any organization. The future observations that are mentioned here are made in various ways. We very often collaborate with domain specific experts to do this, but other inputs can be used as well.

For the application part of applied futures we build on Otto Scharmer’s work on Theory U and use design thinking methodologies to enable organizations to design solutions and paths to the future. There are many different kinds of tools that we use for this roughly following a process called E.D.I.T. (stemming from Stanford d.School’s approach) to help organizations edit the future.

I’ll leave it here for now and will dive into elements of the above mentioned methodologies in future posts to explain how we have appropriated them to fit our approach of applied futures (thinking/doing).

Get in touch with us if you want to make history by changing the future using the applied futures approach.

Discover your space for disruption

Ever since I founded Minkowski a couple of years ago, people have been asking me about that name: who is it and why have you named your company after him? The reason is because he (unknowingly) has created our blueprint for the way we look at the future and transformation. Transformation is not about disruptively changing course midstream, but rather about exploring possibilities for the future and taking steps towards it that align with what your organization is capable of.

Who is Minkowski?

The first time I came in touch with Minkowski was years ago when I briefly collaborated with Joe Pine during the time of his book on authenticity. The name disappeared to the back of my mind until 2017. Hermann Minkowski was a German mathematician and one of Albert Einstein’s teachers. He showed that Einstein’s theory of special relativity could best be understood as a theory of four-dimensional space-time. This understanding is known as Minkowski spacetime. Minkowski illustrated that there is only a cone of possible positions a particle can move to in the future. Namely it can not move faster than light and cannot go back in time. The position of the particle in the future is therefor determined by where it is now and where it is coming from.

How do you apply this to business?

When you apply this to business it means that your future is in fact determined by your past. Where you can transform to in the future as an organization is determined by your heritage and the capacities and capabilities you have as an organization today. The possible positions in the future that this can lead to Minkowski calls a ‘cone of possibility’. In our work with clients we explore this cone of possibilities in their future and design paths that match their past and present. This way you increase the chance of actually being able to take the necessary steps for change and transformation, rather than being blinded and overwhelmed with what is possible. Disruption is only possible when you want and are able to transform.

What is an example?

Let’s take a big supermarket chain as a hypothetical example. Inspired by all the technologies of the future it could think that autonomous vehicles is THE thing for the future. Then theoretically they could fire all their employees, hire a bunch of engineers and start developing such a car. When they succeed nobody will probably like to drive a supermarket branded car, so they have to re-brand it. Technically they’ve then become a different company. So, what this supermarket chain can do with autonomous technology is determined by who they are and what they are capable of. Yes, there are possibilities for autonomous technology to be used by this company, but how and what is limited by their own ‘cone of possibility’.

Why Minkowski?

But that is not the only reason why we are calling ourselves Minkowski. Minkowski was also a teacher. He merely was one of the people that helped Einstein become Einstein. That is our ambition: we are not looking to be in the limelight, we rather help others reach their future. The art of facilitating such a process is embedded deep in our DNA. Nobody knows Minkowski, but everyone knows Einstein. It is thus our ambition to enable a million Einsteins to change and transform  the world.

Making change last

This summer, taking a break from Minkowski, I went on a family holiday to Croatia. It’s a beautiful country with great nature and we planned for a whole lot of activities to do outdoor. One of those activities was rock climbing and it had a great lesson about change in it that is applicable to all businesses that want to make change in their organizations last.


Practice makes perfect

My son Merlijn is 14 years old and back home you can find him twice a week in an indoor climbing venue. Here he gets trained on different ascends with varying degrees of difficulty. He’s been doing it for almost two years now. It was one of the reasons why we wanted to go climbing in Croatia so he could have the experience of climbing in nature.

I don’t climb at all, but during our summer holiday I made an effort to follow in my sons footsteps. As did my 6 year old daughter and my wife. We went out with a guide and climbed a few routes that were all easy to do. But then at the end of our time she took us to one that would challenge Merlijn, as she could see it was all too easy for him (for those of you who do climb rocks this was a route with difficulty 5b).

We both climbed the route, first Merlijn and then me. When I got down, proud that I had managed to make it at all, our guide told us that even though I reached the top the difference between me and my son was huge. I was climbing on strength, she said, and Merlijn was climbing with technique. I was a witness to this myself as well. As I was watching him move up the rock, it all looked so light and easy. When you watch good climbers it is almost as if you are watching ballet. The grace with which they are able to move their body against a wall is amazing. Because it looked so easy when Merlijn did it, I made an attempt as well.


Change doesn’t happen overnight

My climb probably had a chance of failure of 50% (I’m making this up here) whereas Merlijn’s attempt most likely had a chance of failure of only 5%. In other words: I could have been seriously hurt, although there was not a risk at all for my son. Reflecting back on this experience I thought: there is an analogy with change here.

If you feel that you want to change, or that your organization should, you could move full force ahead. Many CEO’s do this when they launch the new change initiative and no matter what, they keep on pushing forward. Or you could do it gracefully. Meaning: designing a path for change that originates from experience, that is well thought through and in which every step of the process is done with care. I think the latter has a lower risk of having negative side effects than the other. Moreover, a change that is executed gracefully will have a better chance of lasting, as each step will be internalized by the organization never to be forgotten again. My good friend Pip Coburn of Coburn Ventures has a great formula for this. It reads:

change = intention x exertion x know-how.

The know-how in this case are the steps of Merlijn that his body just automatically remembers to execute. The exertion is his practice and his intention is to reach the top. That is what makes change last. It might take some time, but when you take that time you will get far; when you try to go fast without practice and know-how you will exhaust yourself (and your organization) and crash sooner or later…

This article was also published on the Community For Change blog which is a version of philanthropy and making lasting change of Coburn Ventures for whom I am a Change Fellow.

Strategy design: Strategy is a design process

strategy is design

An important element in our approach to help organizations map their possibilities in the future, is the process of designing a strategy. We facilitate this process of strategy design as part of a step to accelerate towards the present (see this previous post about the 4 steps to apply the future). It is not a process of logic reasoning (as is custom in many strategic planning approaches). It’s a design process in itself. We approach strategy from a different perspective, so that new paths to the future present themselves to the organization. Paths that would never have been discovered in a rational process. This is how it works.


You start form the future

Although we think it is obvious, many organizations don’t approach their strategic planning with the end in mind. They analyze their current situation, map what they are good at (and what not) and then figure out a way to grow. We start from the future and try to find a horizon that is broad enough so that it opens your cone of possibilities. But, at the same time is narrow enough that it stays realistic and doesn’t end up in science fiction. The trick then is to formulate a strategic goal (or a moonshot) based on:

  1.  what you want to accomplish in your future (that what you believe in)
  2.  what you are capable of with what you’ve got today (the limits of your belief).

More and how to do that in another post, for now it suffices to say that when you’ve got such a goal it is crucial to keep your process reflecting back from the future (as is depicted in the image accompanying this post at step 3).


From top down, to bottom up

It is very tempting to reason logically as soon as you have found your strategic goal. However, then your top down reasoning will blind you from the things that really will make impact in your future. We therefor apply some principles of design thinking to the process of strategic planning. This means that you formulate all the questions that need to be answered to accomplish your goals and ambitions. Translating those questions to design questions then sets you up for a (strategic) design sprint. This will generate numerous (possible) tactics (read: potential answers to your questions). These answers work bottom up to form clusters of strategic doing. These clusters can then finally be translated into strategic steps of your strategy outline (we use Hoshin Kanri as the template for this).

When you approach strategy design this way, in our experience, the strategic steps become much more engaging and are a much clearer translation of the future you want to create. Moreover it facilitates the strategic process to become a continuous dialogue with the entire organization as I wrote about before here.

Do you want to know more about this? I’d love to get on the phone and discuss how this approach could be of value to you as well. Get in touch with us to learn more.

Backwards into the future, or forwards to the present?

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to launch a few (writing) projects (I’ve tried this before with various degrees of perseverance by the way). One of them is about the Lesserathe other is to share more of the methods we use at Minkowski to apply the future to the present, such as with the Cone of Possibilities. Some of you have told me to write that up in a book, but I’m parking that idea for the moment as I think a book is a little too static of a medium for the work I’m doing at the moment. Instead, I’ll share what we do in this short post. Let me know if that works for you.


A cone of possibilities

We are named after the German mathematician and professor Hermann Minkowski. In his work he stated that the future possible positions in time and space of any particle lie within a so called ‘cone of possibility’. In our work for clients we use this as a metaphor to map the possibilities of an organization in the future and help them apply it to their business today.

Four steps

To develop a plan of action based on this it is essential to understand what the future will bring and identify what is and what is not possible for your organization. Those choices and decisions define what your ‘cone of possibility’ is and determine what the best course of action is. In our work we do this in four steps:

  1. Awakening to the future: in this step we explore the future and help you see it through four different lenses. These 4 perspectives on the future come from the four ways people are able to make sense of the world and reason what is possible. These are the only ways humans have ever done this. When you consciously use them to explore the future you will wake up to new futures. For this step we collaborate with many different experts, scientists, scholars, futurists and innovators. The four perspectives are:
    1. using their brains to think rationally about it;
    2. using their senses to experience it;
    3. using their intuition and gut instinct to feel what is possible;
    4. or their desires to sketch out what they want the future to be.
  2. Assessing your limiting beliefs: from that giant leap into the future you have to assess what is possible for your organization. Some possibilities simply don’t make any sense for your organization compared to your company’s DNA or identity. Your heritage is an important element here, but this step is also about being confronted with your own tunnel vision. What you believe you are and what you ought to do or not very often limits organizations in identifying new possibilities. In this step you identify what you want your company in the future to be and how to get there. We spend time in developing so called ‘moonshots‘ with organizations using various methodologies such as ‘stories for change‘.
  3. Accelerating towards the present: now that you have defined the width of your cone of possibilty for the far future, you can start to think differently about what is possible today. This step reverses the approach to the future. You no longer have to walk backwards into the future, instead you walk forwards to your present. One essential ingredient in this step is to identify the most relevant questions for the future so you can start to engage with your organization around these questions for innovation.
  4. Activating the future: that process then gets you back to the present where you start to work on activating the future in your organization. You don’t do this by jumping to the future. You do this by taking a first step on your identified road towards the future. You act in accordance with where you want to go and with an understanding of what is possible for you today.


Applied futures approach

We sometimes depict this process also as a circle as we see it as an ongoing journey. The future is always changing and nobody can predict the future. Each step you take alters your current position in Minkowski’s cone of possibility. As a result what is possible for you is then altered as well. For us is these 4 basic steps are a way of being and acting in the world.

Every program design we make is based on these four steps. Nevertheless it doesn’t mean you have to start with step one. Many of our clients have done extensive research in what is relevant for them in the future. Then we skip the first step. Some of them have already assessed what they want and what’s possible. Then we start later on in the process. Others only want the wake-up call and assess themselves what it could mean, etc. It becomes trickier when you want to skip steps or work in reverse order. In our work we’ve come across organizations that do this. When you are very action oriented for instance, but forget to look at where you are going, you can loose a sense of direction. Then your entire organization can get burned out.

If you want to map the possibilities of your organization and use applied futures as an approach get in touch with us. We customize every client engagement to best fit your goals.

Solutions for the lessera: less is more?

Somebody responded to my previous post asking me whether doing less was not automatically leading to doing more of something else? Eating less meat, means you eat more vegetables. Driving less in a car, means you bike more. Less days of education for your kids, means you get to spend more time with your kids. Even though this is of course true, I think the lessera is more than just replacing the ‘bad’ with something else: it’s also a cultural change or a change in mindset for the individual.


Changing mindset: being satisfied with less

If we would rephrase the mindset of less into doing more of something else then we are not really changing the way we live and think about the world. Then we still believe there is no limit to progress and that we can still get more. That mindset is still a material mindset.

What I am in fact arguing is that we’ve reached the limits of growth and that we have to learn how to adjust to that mentally and materially. This is a cultural and mental shift for the whole of society and a shift in ourselves. Perhaps we could say that it requires us to be more aware of the world around us and how we are impacting that world with our desires for more material wealth. Even though this might start with the individual, it is a systemic change that will ripple through every layer of our society (most likely starting at the ‘top’).

I’m personally leading a life at the top of Maslov’s pyramid, but still I strive for more and better. But why? Why can’t I be satisfied with what I have right now? Isn’t enough enough? Can I learn how to be satisfied with less? I think one start of a solution for the lessera lies within that mental shift. It’s easier said than done. How are you changing your own mindset from ‘less is more’ to ‘less is enough’?

2020: The lessera – start of the era of less

It’s the end of the year: a time of reflection. We are about to enter the year 2020. A year that has been a future horizon in many strategic sessions I’ve hosted over the past 15 years. And now we are there…close to a future once imagined. Something has been in the back of my mind for quite a while now: are we nearing the end of progress as we’ve seen it until now? Especially in the Netherlands, the country I live in, with the density of the population and infrastructure, the economic value that is generated here and the spur of innovation that is taking place, the question becomes: how far can we keep on pushing the boundaries? My feeling is we can’t anymore… We are entering the Lessera.


Entering the lessera

The signs around me all point to a new mindset and a new reality that has been slowly taking root. At the brink of 2020 we are entering the era of less. For lack of a better word I’ll call it the lessera.

We have to start living in a world that is emitting less CO2; we have to reduce the amount of nitrogen emissions; will we see less agriculture as a result of that, will we build less? We are going to drive slower; we have to eat less meat; my daughter will soon get fewer days of education during the week; and the list can go on and on. This is all taking place right now, at this moment. The Netherlands, because of its limited size, might very well be one of the first countries in the world that is running into the limits of progress. And the question is: can we avoid a collision that stops us dead in our tracks?


Doing more with less?

Our societies are wired for ‘more’. We want to make more money; live in better houses; have more space; make more profit; get better education; be more innovative; etc. And for decades we’ve brainwashed ourselves that this was possible. We could rebuild an entire continent after a war and make life better for everyone. Technological advancements created opportunities for everyone to create the life you wanted…whatever you wanted.

But that is no longer true for everyone. We have to learn how to do more with less. That sounds like a lame thing to say, an open door maybe, but I think that we really have to start to figure that out with each other. How might we really do more with less? The generation growing up right now will be the first generation that will be less wealthy than their parents. What world will they live in? Am I really willing to keep on pursuing my own dreams of a more successful life while my kids can no longer receive the education they need to make a living in the future, or live in a house that they can afford?


The pursuit

I don’t have the answer to this wicked problem or any of the underlying questions for that matter. But figuring some of them out in 2020 will be an important pursuit. And this post is a shoutout to all of you that feel this too. If you are willing to join us and help design solutions for the lessera please let us know! We are looking for collaborators to build a road towards a more sustainable future, and figure out how to do this. If you know of someone we should talk to, let us know.

Something to contemplate over during the holidays maybe. Best of whishes for 2020 to all of you. I’m looking forward to new horizons for the decades to come…

Yesterday’s tomorrow

The future is ever changing and it can feel daunting to think about what might happen next or how to adapt as a person or organization to the changes that will occur. What can you do to identify patterns for the future? One thing is to make things smaller and start training a futures mindset so you become more awake to change. Change happens yes, but it’s not always disruptive. Just spot the little differences that are less dramatic and realize that the future is only yesterday’s tomorrow.


Change blindness

Change blindness is a phenomenon to illustrate our inability to identify visual changes. Even when such changes are dramatic we sometimes fail to notice them. This is simply because we are focused on something else or because the change is too gradual. There are many examples online where you can test how good you are in seeing things change.

When you take this phenomenon to business it becomes evident why it is that we often fail to see ‘the next big thing’ or when we miss out on something that seems so obvious years later. People often ask me how they can become better at noticing these changes. One thing that works is to change your perspective often. Talk to people from a different industry, talk to your customers, talk to your recent hires and ask them what they see. This is a great way to avoid some of the change blindness that otherwise might occur (as soon as somebody tells you there was a gorilla running through the crowd in one of the examples above you can never not see it anymore). But you also have to accept that you can never see it all.


Do it yourself

However, I also think that you can train yourself to become better at noticing changes. One way that I am experimenting with this is to make myself more aware of change by logging the differences in my observations. Lately I have begun to do this by seeing today as a metaphor for the future of yesterday. This helps me experiment with more awareness for the changes that then occur. What I do is I keep a ‘journal’ and each day. I write down the answers to 3 questions (that I limit to a business perspective for now):

  1. what do I think is going to happen tomorrow;
  2. what signal do I see for this;
  3. what do I sense will change from today?

Then the next day (the future) I look back on these notes to see what actually happened and how far off I was. By simply writing my ‘predictions’ down and reflecting on how those differ from what happened, makes me more aware of the changes.

Interestingly, at the start I was always completely off. The things that I had written down were way too big and dramatic. After a while, when I started to make it smaller and took my calendar as a guide, I became better at it. I made myself aware of the small perceptual changes. In a way it is training some type of ‘hyper awareness for change’, which is one ingredient that can help organizations become better at reacting to change with agility. Try it out and see what it does for you.

Strategy = dialogue

It’s the time of year when people start making plans for the time to come. At Minkowski we see this first hand as the questions for help in developing strategic plans increases at the end of each year leading into the next year (maybe it’s just a coincidence that this coincides with making New Year’s resolutions). However, a strategy is never set in stone. You never make a strategic plan to lock it up in a drawer never to look at again (although I expect this happens a lot). For us strategy is dialogue: a multi-dimensional, dynamic and context-dependent process of creating meaning for an organization. It is something that should be ongoing as the context of any business is always changing.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast

It’s an often quoted phrase of Peter Drucker, illustrating that even though your plans can be great, if you don’t pay attention to the company culture, any plan will fail. It reminds me of another great quote of Mark Twain: “in theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is”.

Why do I mention these two quotes: because it illustrates that ‘a plan’ should be something fluid. Your strategy never sits in a vacuum (unless it really disappeared in that drawer). It should always be adapted to the culture of the company on an ongoing basis. It should always be adapted to the practice it runs into. That’s why we see strategic planning more as a process of creating meaning: it tells everyone in the organization what it is that they’re working towards. A good strategy is rather a conversation starter than it is the conclusion of a long planning process. If it is the latter, then by the time everyone is in the know, it is already old again. Meaning that it should be adapted again.


Facilitating an ongoing process: turning ‘strategy’ into a verb

So, ‘strategy’ is an ongoing process. We should begin to see the word ‘strategy’ as a verb as you should always be working it. The strategic consultant is then someone who facilitates the dialogue about the direction the company is taking. We believe that this is something that anyone can do or can learn to do (and preferably inside your company). We apply principles of design thinking to strategy, so that you are able to use your strategy as a framework for making decisions, having conversations, continuously adapting and iterating it. If you approach strategy like this, it becomes an effective tool for change and transformation from within and not a nice document that is lying around somewhere.

Perhaps you might even succeed in rephrasing Drucker’s quote to “strategy = culture (and vice versa)”.

Reach out to us if you want to train strategy facilitators in your organization and use strategy design as a new approach to your strategic planning practices.