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By J. Daniel Beckham

This curve, according to Charles Handy in his book The Age of Paradox, "sums up the story of life itself. We start slowly, experimentally, and falteringly; we wax and then we wane. It is the story of the British Empire, and of the Soviet Empire, and of all empires always. It is the story of a product's lifecycle and of many a corporation's rise and fall. It even describes the course of love and relationships. The secret to constant growth is to start a new sigmoid curve before the first one peters out...to get the new curve through its initial explorations and flounderings before the first curve begins to dip downward."

The S-curve is, in my mind, another rock tossed from the present into the future. But with skill you can skip the rock. With the correct wrist, arm, and body motion, you can launch it on a path of multiple sigmoid curves by translating energy into a trajectory that glances off the surface of the water. Instead of sinking, the rock rises into the air and bounces off the water's surface again and again. The challenge is to leverage the dynamics of the future into sustained flight. But what must happen in the present to send the organization skipping into the future is overwhelmingly difficult.

When the S-curve is ascendant, all the feedback is positive, "We are heading up!" No one's much interested in changing now. It's not until they're riding the curve down that they become willing to consider shifting focus and strategy. At that point though, the momentum is heading down. Two views of the future are doing battle now. The one that propelled the old curve and the one necessary to propel the next one. That means old ideas, structures, and people must be challenged by new ideas, structures, and people.  Organizations start to doubt their leaders when the curve heads down. And once the organization is in full fall, leaders are often tossed out.

Handy describes what too often happens: "He had failed as a leader, not because he was wrong in sensing the need for a second curve but because he had not managed to get them to share his understanding. Those who can do that at point A and not at point B are the leaders we all need." The place to start a new curve is, of course, as close as possible to the peak of the old.

To use another metaphor, think of the S-curve as if it were a bullwhip, the kind the circus lion tamers still use. To move a new curve into the future takes a hard snap of the arm in the present. Do it right, get the timing and the force in synch, and the whip will crack like a gunshot. Your intentions will explode with impact in the future.

How can organizations best skip themselves into a desirable future? Here are ten things that I think can help:

Get out of the chair. The future needs to be imagined from different directions. On the ground, the smoke from soft coal in China looks like a local phenomenon, but get 300 miles up and you see that it's a national and international one.

You can't see the Badlands when you're approaching them on the Interstate because they exist below the general elevation of the surrounding landscape. When you're down in the Badlands, it's impossible to see the surrounding flatlands or the Black Hills rising in the distance. Fly above this varied terrain and you see the shaping created by wind and water, but you lose any sense of elevation. You see new things - important things - from every perspective, but you never see the whole picture.

To get the whole picture, you've got to look at the thing from several angles that consciously push the organization into new vantage points. Intentional wandering can get the organization out of its chair. See through the eyes of others. How do patients see things? Physicians? Competitors? Employees? Suppliers?

Go snake-eyed. In dealing with complexity, we often advise our clients to go snake-eyed - to squint in order to block out the nonessential and to see only the big macro flows. Snakes see only two things: things they can eat and things that can eat them. This snake-eyed perspective is very useful when trying to envision the future.

Contemplating the future requires focusing on the present and the past. And that requires some deliberate screening out of other "noise." As William James, the psychologist, once observed, "The art of becoming wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." What are the strongest currents flowing through the present and what are their potential for the future? What is the velocity, volume and energy of these currents?

Copyright © The Beckham Company             Future Scanning – Mar. 1997 (Prediction)


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