Friday, September 30, 2011

Looking backwards into an uncertain future

It's budget time in our business; time to look to an open future and dare to put some numbers up against it.

When it comes to prognosticating about tomorrow's joys or woes, our society's mainstream media seems to have an obsession with two social sciences: psychology and economics. It is the psychologists with their analysis of human behaviour, and the economists with their analysis of financial trends that become the prophets.

We seem to draw comfort from putting numbers on the future -- especially when faced with great uncertainty. Those numbers seem to have additional value to us if they are accompanied by either $ or %.

One of the ways that we do this is to look to the past. We examine past trends. And then we play with some 'But what if?' market scenarios, and offer our picture of the future.

A future that is bequeathed to us from analysis of the past fails dismally to serve us well. A public educator captured the heart of it when he said to me in an email last week: "It always amazes me ... that we turn to economists to help us determine what tomorrow's world will be like (if they really knew then why are they so wrong so often?)"

Analysis is most useful for telling us something about where we are, or have been. But looking backwards is a very limited tool for moving us forward. I'm not talking about being attuned to the ebb-and-flow of history -- even economic history -- but I am wrestling with the idea the economists aren't particularly good prophets, and that if their vision of the future becomes our vision of the future it is quite an impoverished (pun intended) picture to be carried forward by.

We started going through our numbers yesterday. You can see how stimulating it was for one team member who was already feeling a bit under the weather:

When you sit down to forecast budgets for the coming year, it is important to look back at past customers ('The best source of new business is old business') and buying trends. But there is a profound feeling of helplessness about casting numbers into the future.

It is one reason that it has been so good to be part of a business that has chosen to not reduce its picture of the future simply into a set of numbers. That would be crushing.

The future is more than a set of backwards-oriented numbers -- though they have a place in the dialogue (and so we have our budgets for 2012).

The conversation around budgets works smarter when we are having conversations about the possibilities for the future (and not simply about $$$), what our clients are aspiring to, and what sort of future they are imagining. Then we become engaged as 'authors', not simply as 'readers' of past numbers and trends.

We can speak to an open future with more intelligence (and hope) if we reframe our conversations around 'design' questions (complemented by a rich anthropology and some good, road-tested business sense). This then provides a context for good economic commentary, instead of having economics as the frame, and the supposed 'all-seeing eye'.

And before I sign off this morning: TB, we'll miss you. You have been a valued team player. DJ was right when he said last night that you have 'honed your craft'. You are a craftsman, mate. We cannot speak of the strengths of our business without talking about what you have given to it. We'll miss you. A lot. Go well, and with our blessing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Designing a future

When have you been part of designing a future?

We can't sit down together and design the past. It's spoken for. Our opportunity lies before us.

We could leave the future to analysts or dreamers.

We could leave it to haphazard use of tools like brainstorming or kinesthetic modelling or sketchboarding. (All useful tools, by the way.)

Or we could engage it as a design exercise ... we engage it as designers. We rise to the task of looking at and speaking to the future through the disciplined use of the tools of design.

When designers become slaves to their tools, we're in trouble.

When we end up in a storm of wonderful creative activity, but lack the discipline to harness it, sort it, test it, change it, use it, we run the very real risk of ending up disillusioned and even cynical.

But the future is too pregnant with possibility to give up on. Designers need hope. We need to know that out of the chaos can come order.

Occasionally, it happens serendipitously. For the most part it reflects intent and discipline. (And probably spends a fair measure of its time 'tacking' back-and-forward across those trajectories, constantly shifting and correcting, working with the wind and flow, working the tools.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

A home among the gum trees ...

On Mondays and Fridays (and occasionally other days) I work from our office in the Blue Mountains.

Lunchtimes provide the opportunity to get out for a walk, which I usually tend to do. My walk normally takes me through a short patch (several hundred metres) of fairly isolated bush track.

Walking through there the other week, I was enjoying the solitude, and the company, of the tall eucalypts and bunched up turpentines. I've walked this track many times, but as I trudged along this day, I noticed something about 30 metres downhill off the side of the track: the form of a tree house. I've got no idea how long it had been there.

The structure is fairly basic, and almost invisible, but there it is. Some people would decry this sort of construction, but I rejoice: a kid is learning to build, and he / she is doing that utilising natural forms.

Yes, the trees will suffer a bit. Some groundcovers or shrubs will probably be trampled to death, and an ant or two will likely die. And it will all look a bit messy. If kids are like other builders, there will probably be some detritis strewn around the site after the job is done.

But so much will be gained! Richard Louv offers a fairly exhaustive breakdown on pp. 80-83 of his book, Last Child in the Woods on what the exercise of tree-house building offers a child. And much of the learning is in trial-and-error.

This 'home among the gum trees', 6 metres up, is a piece of grounded learning. Once a place of noisy construction, it becomes a place of solace among the treetops. But it only becomes that through intent, thoughts about design, bent nails, pieces of wood cut too short, problem-solving, ant bites, and sweat (and probably some tears).

How sad that we see so few tree houses these days. What have we done to our kids?