Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend
Leaping the Abyss:
Putting Group Genius to Work
Back at the Wharton event, it's late afternoon
on Wednesday, the first of the three days. It's been a very full day, but
there's one more exercise before breaking for the night: Metaphors. This
will also be the last exercise before turning attention and energy to the
organizational problem that has brought everyone here-so it had better be
What's the purpose of this episode in the
adventure ride of the DesignShop process? The Metaphor exercise has been
designed to load participants' heads with new concepts of complex systems,
use the night's sleep to assist integration of the knowledge, come back
in the morning, and begin using the difference in people's problem-solving
abilities. At that point, everyone needs to be operating at the very highest
level of performance that can be reached, both individually and as a team.
The problems that have brought everyone here
involve their organizations-each a system embedded in a larger external
system. Therefore, each problem is a systems problem. Almost by definition,
it is a complex systems problem. If it weren't complex, so many people and
so much time would not be needed to deal with it.
Complex systems problems are among the hardest
things that people ever think about. Just holding such a problem in its
entirety in your head is difficult. Add to this the challenges of seeing
how all the parts fit together and affect each other as well as how to make
a change in one part that will accomplish the goal without bringing down
the whole system.
Ironically, as hunters and gatherers, we evolved
by living within complex systems. Our brains can, with effort, address this
However, we have also acquired a strong tradition
of linear thinking which, for all its benefits, now stands in our way. Artistotle,
Descartes, many of the people providing the basis of our historical way
of working, liked to take things apart and understand the pieces in detail.
The Industrial Revolution, the rise of engineering practices, and the Saint
Simon Engineering School of France showed the tremendous power of linearity
applied to the final stages of the creative cycle: building in a controlled
and linear fashion. The assembly line is the golden grandchild.
Out of the success of building roads and bridges,
many disciplines, such as philosophy, economics, and political theory, became
carried away with over-inflated notions of what linear processes could and
should be used for. Many of the disasters of 20th century politics and history,
such as the rise of Communism-which had its roots in the Saint Simon school-stem
directly from this error.
American management owes its foundation to
two champions of linearity, a husband and wife team: (yes, it's ironic)
the Taylors. This first Taylor revolution produced "scientific management,"
which completely swept the country at the turn of the 20th century and produced
the first generations of young managers and technocrats. The approach dominated
industry, the military, government-the works. Most famous for its time-and-motion
studies, there was nothing that couldn't be Taylorized, and so everything
was. You could even Taylorize your home-and people did. Today, when a real
estate salesman or an architect points out how wonderfully few steps there
are between stove and sink and fridge, you are living the kitchen legacy
of the first generation of Taylorizing.
But how about linearity for designing and
tweaking complex systems comprised of employees, customers, suppliers, regulators,
and the physical systems that support all the related activity? Nope. Wrong
tool. It is insisting on using a hammer-a fine and noble tool for driving
nails and prying them out again-for absolutely everything else.
Even in the best of circumstances, with smart
people and lots of computers and tons of training and mental conditioning,
linearity is not going to solve your problem. (See the collapse of communism
in the late 20th century for a long-term experiment.) Linearity, from which
we have all reaped benefits, will only take you so far before the complexity
of reality stops you cold.
The most intelligent thing to do is to optimize
the circumstances to provide every possible advantage. This means allowing
our brains-evolved for dealing with complex patterns-to do what they do
best and work with complex systems metaphorically.
Matt explains that the purpose of this next
exercise is to provide "strategies that add value for us as we think
about complexity." Throughout the day everyone has been learning. This
involves looking at analogies, making new connections, picking up new factual
information we didn't have before, as well as continuing the ongoing task
of getting to know each participant's skills, strengths, and weaknesses.
For the next couple of hours, it is time to do some high-level, abstract
learning of new systems models in the Metaphor exercise.
For this exercise, the facilitation team has
selected eight complex systems to serve as metaphors for human organizations,
one to be studied by each of eight participant teams: the ant colony, the
river, the rainforest, the ship, the beehive, the ocean, the human body,
and the garden. While these systems are different in important ways-there
is a mix of planned vs. unplanned, natural vs. manmade, single entity vs.
community vs. entire ecosystem-they are all complex systems with enough
depth to lead to insights about human organizations.
New teams are formed and each group receives
one of the complex systems as its object of investigation. This marks the
fourth new group formation today. By the end of this exercise, each participant
will have had the experience of meeting and working intimately with almost
half of the other participants.
Groups are asked to look at (1) the organizational
requirements for success in this metaphorical environment, and (2) what
would a 21st century organization based on this metaphor look like, in terms
of strategy and specifications. Each team needs to do quick learning to
extract the high level concepts and defining details about, for example,
ant colony organization, and then use that knowledge in thinking about the
future of organizations.
When each group goes to its own break-out
space, they find that the facilitators have already stocked each space with
a rich collection of the best books and other resources on the appropriate
topic. In addition, the facilitators are available to assist the group's
library research or in surfing the Internet, especially the World Wide Web.
Work continues on into the evening. Hunger
is not a problem as dinner is served and people return from the buffet to
their work areas, everything continuing in a seamless fashion. Empty plates
disappear as if by magic, unnoticed, as the teams concentrate on the task
As usual with the DesignShop activities, you
need not like it for it to fulfill its purpose, but this particular part
is enjoyed by almost everyone. Some people can get downright crabby, especially
first-time participants. Explains one veteran of many facilitation teams:
"The first-time participants have found the thinking to be very hard
work, they're exhausted, and by five or six o'clock when you come around
with one more thing to do, they can get downright hostile."
However, the experienced DesignShop participants
are loving it. Gail Taylor points out that the reason participants love
this accelerated learning task is that they so rarely get to immerse themselves
in a rich new topic, discover fascinating and sometimes bizarre new information,
and share it immediately with interested others.
This joyful exploration is playful yet intense.
One woman smiles and says, "I'm starting to float." This state
has been termed "flow"-it happens when people become so engrossed
with an activity, moving smoothly and almost effortlessly from task to task,
that they lose track of time.
The rainforest group gets blocked about 20
minutes into the session. The reason for their misfortune is instructive:
one member already knows quite a bit about the rainforest, so initially
they're relying on that resource instead of doing their own research, their
own learning, and firing up their brains in the process.
This problem is spotted by one of the support
staff and a facilitator steps in to redirect the team. Participant Dorothy
Zeviar from AEDC explains:
What impressed me in working with my team
is that when we had spent about 20 minutes, Matt came around and challenged
us to "push the limits of the box" in applying the metaphor to
our organization. We stayed until 8:30 PM going over the details, until
we reached a deeper level of insight and understanding.
The ant colony team is also doing something
odd: instead of working on .i.ts;ants, they're talking about themselves,
getting to know each other better. The staff notices this too, but in this
case, the facilitators don't intervene-it's a good development. In fact,
the team decides on their own to come in an hour early the next morning,
at 7 AM, to work on the main task.
Meanwhile, the team thinking about ships was
having a difficult time getting started. Participant Elsa Porter describes
Our instructions were to use the ship as
a metaphor of the 21st century and explore how the ship can be the metaphor
for organizations of the 21st century. We took it seriously and tried to
think of how ships run and work. We were putting up ideas and struggling.
Then John Poparad looked at me-he had been silent throughout this first
part. He was sitting there letting us do all the work. That was my first
impression. Then it became clear that he had an idea. He said, "I
think it's the wrong question. The real question is how can a ship survive
in the 21st century?" Then you have to think about the environment.
From then on, it was just wonderful. It was a very different assignment:
principles of how to survive in the future.
What the group was doing was struggling with
the problem, making it their own. From outside the group, this reformulation
may not seem like a major change, but it served to galvanize this group's
work. The group extracted a tremendous amount of learning from their session.
Although, as we found out later, it was not at all the interpretation that
the designers of this exercise intended. Value was created through merging
the designer's direction and the participants' interest.
At 8 PM it's time to break for the night,
but despite the long day, some groups and individuals are in the flow of
their work and choose to keep going...and do. This break has been deliberately
timed so that participants have twelve hours off and a night's sleep to
integrate their new knowledge before making their teams' reports to the
Long after the participants reluctantly left
for bed, the staff is still going full tilt, capturing the work of each
team from the breakout room walls, getting this latest round of discussions
into the computer, and printing it out for the team break-out books which
will be awaiting the participants when they reassemble at 8 AM the next
The Second Day Begins
By 7 AM-an hour before things are supposed
to start-participants start showing up. The support team, of course, is
already there working on today's events. Some participants are there to
peruse library shelves or other information that intrigued them yesterday.
Other participants grab some breakfast and then head off to their work group.
The ant colony group, says Colonel Bill as he heads off to join them, is
fulfilling its 7 AM meeting time to complete the assignment postponed from
By 8 AM all participants and staff have finished
breakfast and are gathered as a large group for the Metaphor team reports.
Matt greets everyone with an overview of the structure for the day, and
a comment from yesterday:
The best remark yesterday was when someone
came up here around ten or eleven and he said he was more confused than
he had been before. That is the true test of scanning. If you do not go
out far enough in the design process to get upset, confused, and lost,
you have not gone into new territory.
The theme of today is "forming the problem."
The question is to form the right problem. If you form the wrong problem,
then you solve the wrong problem. In our society we are good at solving
the problem. We solve problems which are really conditions, and we get
a result we did not want.
First, we are going to put together the processes,
tools, and environments for the future we want. We are not going to put
ourselves in a system we do not want. We are going to report-out the metaphors.
We'll look at the strategies nature produces, and the kinds of specifications
that add value as we think about complexity. There is nothing wrong with
the organizations we have today except they cannot handle the environments-internal
or external. We will harvest what you did yesterday and then go into organization
The ants are up first, and their report contains
an astounding quality and quantity of work, replete with provocative insights.
They have clearly done both real research on biology and real thinking about
business. There is much more content than one would have expected. Even
more amazing is that they've done the work-the ant-specific work, that is-in
just one hour this morning.
Their comparison of an ant colony with a 21st
century organization covered an amazing number of similarities and contrasts,
Variation in sources of supply, adaptability,
resistance to attack, robustness, division of labor, sacrificial activity
(benefitting the group at the expense of the individual), balance, variety
of internal communication methods, leadership and its succession, dedication
level of team members, organizational size issues, life cycle issues, the
problem of inbreeding, managing the social environment, learning strategies,
teamwork, need for face-to-face contact compared to virtual contact.
Next, the ant colony group drew lessons for
the 21st century organization based on these insights about similarities
between human organizations and a complex, evolved system which has been
successful for millions of years.
Robert Taylor, best known as the author of
How to Select and Use An Executive Search Firm and with decades of experience
as a senior executive for companies such as Mobil Oil and ITT in Europe,
South America and the U.S. as well as the founding of a global executive
search firm that became a worldwide success, looked back at the work done
by his fellow ant colony team members with pleasant surprise:
I would have expected that especially the
hard-noses would, at least initially, have ridiculed the idea of spending
serious, valuable time learning and thinking about ants. However, the prior
five modules in this Scan phase of the DesignShop process had initiated
a shift of minds that were already open to quite different ways of thinking.
This enabled the group to achieve the purpose of the exercise-expanding
thinking and stimulating creativity.
It was a virtuoso performance, presenting
business-relevant insights of the highest quality, the kind of insights
one expects to pay a high-priced consultant to get. Watching this process,
the first thought that occurs is-"These were bright people before,
but now they're top-notch. How did they get so much smarter overnight?"
The answer is that they didn't; these are the same people, it's just that
they have absorbed a great deal of useful information, and have run though
a process that boosts them into a higher state of performance. There has
been no real change in IQ, presumably-though it would be fascinating to
test this-it is their effective IQ and an ability to apply what they know
that has increased, at least short term.
The same observation of enhanced performance
also held true for all the other groups. Not only their minds seem different.
Physically, they have all dropped years. This can be seen in their postures,
the way they are sitting or standing, the way they are talking and listening
so intensely. The environment is being modified, furniture being moved around,
lots of laughter is heard. There's more energy: some people choose to stand
instead of needing to rest in a chair. They are paying rapt attention to
the insights presented by the other groups. Someone starts to unconsciously
play with a toy while intently listening about how a ship and a company
each use and misuse a network of sensors to sense, measure, and process
responses to its ever-changing environment. The ant colony group had mentioned
the parallels between ants' succession plans and those for leaders in the
21st century organization; now the beehive group touches on how radically
different bee succession planning is as well as their organizational vision
and style. The metaphors, the analogies, the connections, parallels, contrasts,
and implications are being drawn thickly, richly-productively.
What is telling about the richness of these
metaphors, though, is how a very small change can make a huge difference.
Change the participants working with a metaphor and different results emerge.
Change the question you put regarding a metaphor and different results emerge.
Change your understanding of what you mean by a "ship" and different
The group working on the ship metaphor had
made an unintentional change in how they worked their exercise. The design
and writing team that had formulated this exercise had intended that "ship"
refer to a masted sailing ship, a wind-driven ship. Maybe because of the
presence of military folks in the group working the problem, the participants
had thought of "ship" as one of the Navy's floating cities, bristling
with radar and satellite dishes, tied in to weather satellites and international
communication systems. What they extracted from this model was very useful...and
very different from what they would have extracted from the metaphor of
a sailing ship.
What richness had the DesignShop team intended
to have the group draw from the sailing ship metaphor?
In a sailing ship that is tacking, the wind
is pulling the sails, not pushing them the way most people think. Minor
corrections at the beginning of a sea journey made such a big difference
at the end: a trim tab, just a small part of the rudder, controls the direction
of the entire ship. You tack to make progress, you don't always sail directly
toward your goal.
Now, how is your business like a sailing ship?
How It Works: Increase Complexity
Since the DesignShop session began, the activities
assigned to the participants have asked them to handle more and more complexity.
This is in preparation for the next stage, in which-for the first time-participants
will split into groups based on their organizational affiliation and grapple
with the specific business challenges facing that organization.
Usually when an organization faces a difficult
decision or needs to make an important plan, a decision-maker drives a push
for simplicity, wanting to identify the dominating factor or short list
of main factors to consider. There is a lot of truth to the cliché
of the manager who refuses to look at a proposal until it's boiled down
to one piece of paper: "If you can't do that, you haven't thought it
through." Requiring one person to do this eliminates the group input
that would make it a much better proposal.
Bringing in more people takes time, because
it adds complexity, as does bringing in more information. But the answer
isn't to artificially screen out the real complexity of the situation. Instead,
accept it and use it. Matt Taylor explains:
The general principle is if you have trouble
solving a problem, take it up an order of magnitude in complexity. Instead,
people try to take it down to something simpler and somehow are supposed
to aggregate that up. Wrong. If you are having trouble solving a design
problem, it means that you do not have enough variety in the problem the
way you posed it. It means that there is no material in the problem from
which to get an answer. Instead, you add more to the problem, bring more
content into the problem. You bring more content in and have complexity.
Complexity leads to spontaneous order. It gives you more substance to deal
This increase in complexity requires that
those participating all agree to reach for divergence, to tolerate ambiguity,
in the ultimate quest to reach a goal. Matt gives an example from architecture:
A master designer will pursue an idea in
the first parts of a design without consideration of whether he knows how
to do every part. He would say, for example, "The solution would be
to cantilever this building 50 feet out over to the right." I might
object: "No one has done that before." He replies, "That
is irrelevant, and I will solve it tomorrow. If I can cantilever this out,
that enables me to have all of this freedom up here. Then I have this roofing
problem, and I have to deal with this roof. Gee, what if I come down here
with this and suspend the roof. That is interesting. What if I suspend
the floor? Then I have the solution to the first problem that I ignored.
But I did not solve the problem that I ignored early on, instead I solved
Recall the earlier example of this kind of
thinking back at AEDC when Matt kept saying, "What if it weren't illegal?
What if it weren't the law?" This formed a perfect example of ignoring
a problem and thereby giving yourself room to come up with a brilliant solution.
It highlights another aspect of the analogy
we made back in the beginning to Gulliver tied down by a multitude of little
threads. Each condition is a thread that limits your freedom of motion.
If you are designing while tied down by one thread, you've still got a lot
of flexibility. But imagine you are trying to move when you're tied by two
ropesor threeor four. It's not long before you're virtually immobilized.
Getting rid of the constraints and increasing the complexity of possibilities
actually gives you the freedom to go discover the solution that might be
hiding behind and beyond the constraint. Matt:
Through Scan, the divergent part of a DesignShop
activity, there is actually more control over the process than later on.
The reason we exercise control at this time is to drive divergence into
greater complexity, because most people would not go for divergence. They
try to force a decision too quickly.
Some people come into a DesignShop session
saying that their problem is so complex that the only way they can get
done is to consider just one or two alternatives. We say no, the problem
is so complex that the only way to get it done is to consider hundreds
Part of the strategy is an awareness of when
to give in to the problem, when to let it take you where it wants. We start
off each DesignShop event with an extremely well-worked design of the event.
There is a certain point where that slips, where you let it work on its
own dynamic. You have to know where to let that go. We go through all of
this DesignShop planning as if we know what the outcome should be. But
we don't. So we design it as if we know what the outcome will be, but at
some point the actual outcome reveals itself. Then you follow the outcome,
not the original plan. It's the same in any design process.
One counterintuitive aspect of the divergence
stage is that error is tolerated. Most of us have experienced this in traditional
brainstorming sessions, when we're told that the goal is to generate ideas,
not critique them. Mindy Bokser, a Director of R&D who has pulled off
a string of technical breakthroughs in the field of optical character recognition,
comments: "In brainstorming sessions, what appears at first as a bad
idea, might in fact be good. It is just not fleshed out in the speaker's
mind, or it's not understood by the listener. But later, you find that it
has provided the tip of an important thread."
We had seen plenty of errors going up on the
walls at this DesignShop session, but no one called a halt to the process
to correct them. Over time, the quantity and severity of the errors had
just seemed to magically diminish. Matt elaborates:
The work had errors in it, but it was still
useful. Most people would say that you have to straighten out all these
false assumptions. But designers do not care. They are in the creative
process. They observe reality. They build a model. Then they try building
the real thing and they test it. Error is filtered out during that process.
You do not have to argue about it. Erroneous things do not fly. You learn
from them and repeat the process.
Meanwhile, you document errors, improve your
understanding of the principles, and add to the knowledge base, which makes
future iterations quicker until your solution gets so good it actually
works. But being systematically ignorant-pursuing ideas that are prima
facie false-is an excellent technique for a designer. Designers manipulate
information and ideas-they don't care about accuracy when designing. Is
the idea interesting? Does it cause me to do something that I otherwise
would not do-and as a result is useful? I am a designer and that is the
way I use information when designing. When I report information, I try
to be extremely accurate. But I use it, internally, in ways that many may
view as criminal activity.
So-- the design process is messy. When you
present the final product formally, you don't present the messy process
that gave you the result. Instead, you explain it in a clean, formal way
that makes sense. This is unfortunate, in a way, because it confuses people
about how the creative design process actually works. Then, when they try
to do it themselves, they get into trouble. When they get into messes and
don't realize that this is a natural stage of the successful process, they
get scared or frustrated.
The NASA Example:
Add Complexity to Reach a Solution
NASA Aeronautics headquarters held a DesignShop
event when that organization was under intense pressure to downsize, and
had been for some time. Morale was down. There was even reason for a certain
amount of panic. Their response was to simplify. Matt Taylor sets the stage:
They had to come up with a whole new organizational
design for Aeronautics. They wanted to study only one white paper with
the goal of implementing this white paper. The white paper was a "roles-and-missions"
statement for the existing NASA Aeronautics centers.
We said that the answer did not lie in the
white paper. We talked to the sponsors about this for two-and-a-half days,
and they finally agreed to widen the possibilities being considered. What
emerged was an entirely new model.
What they came up with in the DesignShop
session was-no center, roles driven by projects, a cluster organization,
and an aerospace alliance-the opposite of the earlier plan. Before the
DesignShop experience, the complexity that had been brought into the design
process was not in proportion to the complexity the system actually faces.
We were able to fix that. It is so basic. It is very simple.
They solved their problem by moving to a
higher level of complexity. You can increase complexity in a number of
different ways. You can become more abstract, thinking in conceptual terms.
You can dive to depth and become more detailed on some aspect. You can
add complexity horizontally, by including more aspects of the environment
or more vantage points. Narrowing complexity has the same kind of logic
as that of the drunk searching for his car keys under the lamp post "because
that's where the light is." You need to broaden the search zone if
the answer to a complex problem lies beyond the beam cast by the street
lamp. Often, in the process, the original problem dissolves into the larger
structure and is "solved" even though it is never specifically
The lesson is: add complexity, bathe in it,
revel in it, and try to hold back the urge to narrow options and reach a
decision. This is difficult to do for Type A people, but the exercises at
the Wharton event seem to be working at broadening everyone's thinking.
In Metaphors, they've been provided with complex paradigms from other aspects
and artifacts of life. They've spent some time working to understand what
those paradigms are and then carried them over to their present situations.
As a result, they ended up transforming their insights into business theory.
The usual attitude in business is "make
it simple so I can do something." But for complex problems, this is
counterproductive. From the moment this DesignShop session began through
now, just before the participants regroup with others from their own organizations,
everyone has been immersed in sophisticated, evolutionary systems thinking.
The report-out on the Metaphors exercise has
shown a clear and rapid transition from simple, linear thinking to complex,
evolutionary systems thinking. You could take the insights from these Metaphor
reports, polish them up, and make a book from them. You could then sell
yourself as a management consultant on this material alone.
As people assemble to tackle their organizational
problems, there are probably a few people who still think that only now
are they beginning the "real work." But "real work"
is a misleading term-everyone has been working hard since they got here.
People are not just warmed-up, they are close to overheating. It's time
to aim this mental energy at the key problems that brought each organization
here, and start harvesting the value created since yesterday morning.
1. Take a trip to the library and pick up
a dozen books on one of these complex living systems with which you are
- ocean and shoreline ecosystems and environments
- rain forests
- hive insects, such as bees
- ants and ant colonies
- the human body
The books can range from children's picture books to highly technical
scientific textbooks. Get some of both: the pictures will simplify things
and the textbooks will challenge your understanding.
2. Immerse yourself in the books and compose
several diagrams which illustrate the philosophies, policies, and strategies
that the system uses to work as a whole system; to evolve, grow, and maintain
itself. Do a thorough job: work until the degree of complexity pushes your
ability to handle the ideas and connections. Then sleep on it, or do something
else, and come back to it with fresh energy.
3. Now, how do those philosophies, policies,
and strategies apply to your company or your department, or your life over
the next three or four years?
4. Expect the unexpected.