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    1999 Foresight Gathering Leaping the Abyss - Contents

Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend

Leaping the Abyss:

Putting Group Genius to Work

Chapter Nine

Inventing the Problem


The Scan phase emphasized divergence. Now it is time to shift from Scan into Focus and begin to concentrate on each organization and its problems.

Scan emphasized reaching out, learning, and exploring ideas far outside our usual range of expertise, outside the usual time horizons, above the usual level of complexity. The fact that it was a goal-driven divergence with all parts contributing value in ultimately solving a problem was masked. There was an explicit avoidance in drawing direct connections with the problem that brought the different organizations here.

Now the challenge is to carry forward the acquired attitudes, skills, and information into Focus. If the Scan has been effective, participants will be able to view their businesses and their problems from completely new perspectives.

The goal of Focus is to generate options, from no risk options to wacky ones, and to explore the ways to decide which is the right one. Instead of zeroing in on the problem right at hand, everyone will construct big-picture views. They are able to do different takes, and come at the problem a couple of different times. The problems may look completely different than they did 48 hours previously. Many new possible solutions should emerge and become grist for new cycles of design-and-test iteration until the strongest solution strategy emerges. There is a quote floating around about this: "If you do seven iterations of coming at a problem, looking at it, and redesigning it, the results will be a thousand times better."

As everyone separates into organization-based groups, the physical space has once again been reconfigured to accommodate the new task. Individual break-out areas are set up for each company-a large area for the large AEDC group, a small one for the three-person team from Carl's Jr. Each area includes an informal semicircle of chairs and is stocked with objects ranging from 3D modeling kits to extra writing space in the form of rolling portable whiteboards.

As the teams begin their work, we drifted in and out of hearing range, monitoring progress. Gayle taped her impressions:

Every group has at least one facilitator in full-time attendance. What the staffer is doing changes, adapting his or her function to the needs of the group in order to move them forward in their task. Bryan is acting as a coach one minute, then a scribe, then an artist, then into Socratic questioner-mode to help the group clarify a point. All the facilitators are working intimately with groups in the same fashion: challenging participant assumptions, drawing individuals out, really understanding and addressing the most critical business issues. You cannot tell the difference between a facilitator and any other member of the business team based on commitment, involvement, or understanding.

Despite the long hours of work they have been through, the participants are alert and refreshed. Physically, these folks look ten years younger. There is an intensity of concentration that can be seen.

Over at the Ernst & Young group, they have four guys standing up and working on the board at one time. These formerly uptight, sophisticated, and stressed-out guys are now bouncy, squirting each other with the bottle of board-cleaning solution, and they are bursting with ideas and insights. Michael, their knowledge worker, is scribing vigorously. He has converted a bunch of their comments, scrawlings, and illustrations into neat models where he has really brought things into perspective. The E&Y guys look at this and said, "This is great. You should be a staff consultant at E&Y."

E&Y has already come up with an idea on how to approach their business problem, and are ready to flesh it out into a real model. Michael asks them if they want to get into modeling their solution as a business per se, or as a presentation. Then he goes off to collect additional modeling tools to help them through designing. While he is gone, the E&Y team is revisiting solutions and cycling plans. They are iterating carefully between one and the other.

Meanwhile over at the Carl Jr.'s team, the three hamburger guys have sketched out a diagram stretching from the customer, through multiple levels of information, and flowing back to the CEO. One of the guys has circled the middle level and said, "Look: I think we could eliminate this whole level and go from here to there." Now they are really working on restructuring the units. Jon, facilitating for the group, is in there pointing out that certain functions still need to be handled.

At the F-15 jet fighter group, they have written up on their wall, "Downsizing is not a problem. It creates the opportunity." And "How do we make the F-15 needs match the taxpayer needs?" After working along for a while, this group is so pleased with their progress that they have asked for a tape recorder because they need to make sure everything is being recorded, not just what is written on the walls.

They have asked for some change models, and now models are coming in from Frances, their knowledge worker support. Frances has taken rough diagrams from the board and is creating second-generation models. There is a discussion of resources-designers, technical people, technology in hand, and new technologies needed.

Here at the AEDC group, they are talking intensely, swapping back and forth, really listening to each other. Absolutely everybody is writing and scribing and modeling with rapt attention. Some senior AEDC members are sitting on the floor with their markers, pen, and papers, working intently. There is a steady energy, a charge of vibrancy here. The atmosphere is supercharged.

The goal for this stage of the process is being met-the teams are addressing fundamental issues in their businesses, using models to help them think about complex problems, and getting hard work done fast. They are rethinking the problem they thought they had, and designing systems solutions to address the new problem statement made possible by a new, broader perspective on the businesses and the surrounding world.

The very title of this stage of the process encourages taking a radically new look at the original challenge-this segment is called "Inventing the Problem." They are to re-create each problem in a new way, and not design a solution until the next day.

Somehow during the jam-packed event schedule, Bryan Coffman found a moment to sit down and recount his first encounter with the DesignShop process, coming from the client side. It's a classic story of how concentrating first on "Inventing the Problem," rather than trying immediately to solve the problem, enables a group to achieve surprising benefits that go far beyond what was initially envisioned as the desired outcome:

When I came into contact with MG Taylor, I was in the Army Corps of Engineer Captain Training Program. Our mission was to redesign the training for the captains. We worked with the University of Florida and designed a course with a huge flow chart, lasting 36 months.

The commanding officer said that was nice, but we had to trim it to under 18 months. The guy in charge of the program had heard about MG Taylor in Colorado. So we went out to Boulder and redesigned the program. We did that in four days. Then we came back and implemented it in less than 18 months and under budget.

From Bryan's description so far, it sounds like what they did was in fact solve the problem with which they had walked in the door: how to get the training program done in half the time. How did "Inventing the Problem" enter into it? Were there additional benefits besides the improvement in the schedule?

That wasn't the main achievement. The big advance was that we changed the way the material was taught. The way they had been doing it was that you would sit and listen, and guys would talk at you and show you flip charts. Then you would take a test. And if you passed, you passed, and if you failed, you failed. It was just that modality of learning-stuff it in and fetch it up.

As we went into the DesignShop session, we knew we needed more than that, but we really did not know what. The achievement of the DesignShop process was to add the experiential side of learning-real-world learning. Basically it was like training you would get in the field. There would be a simulated war environment. This allowed you to be put under the stress of the real situation, and see how you would apply what you know and what you don't. You got to work together as teams and play different roles.

Of course, there was still classroom work-usually due to budget limitations-but we put in quite a bit more simulated wartime. For example, we would call you up at four in the morning and you would report and go and simulate war for a while. So if you were learning to build an airfield during combat, the situation was more real. There were two types of simulation: there was the "big picture" scenario in which you are the senior command, and the narrower scenario in which you are troops.

Or let's say you get stuck in a command vehicle and your only contact with the world is radio. We had messengers coming in delivering stuff to you as if you are getting radio communications. We simulated as much of the real situation as we could. Best of all, because we changed over to simulation, we could more rapidly change the curriculum in response to an actively-evolving understanding of America's place in the world.

Using simulations may not sound like a big deal today, but remember, this was over ten years ago. It was a very innovative program at the time. We were the first to develop an approach to training of this sort in the Army. It was a model program for other branches of the Army to use for their company-grade officer training programs.

Designed in four days, implemented in 18 months, under budget. Yes, I'd say it was a success.

Coming from a Scan of the broad environment, and a newly-shared understanding of how to train leadership for the Army Corps of Engineers, the group "invented the problem": find the very best way to quickly, effectively train captains, given the range of real-life situations to which they will have to respond, and the rapidly changing environments in which they will have to perform. In the process, they pioneered a teaching method for leadership training throughout the entire Army. (The experience also led Bryan into a completely new career as a specialist in knowledge work support and DesignShop center management.)

Some of the innovations at this "Invent the Problem" stage of the process can be surprising, even shocking. "By now," says Gail Taylor, "people can often work comfortably at a high level of abstraction-the abstract thinking mode." They are able to put aside their emotions and look objectively at their organization-even to the point of considering the elimination of their own current positions. Jon Foley, who at various times has played the roles of sponsor, facilitator, and staffer, described an example.

We held a series of two DesignShop events for the same company-The Learning Organization-and at the end of these two activities, we had 45-50 participants acknowledge, accept, and embrace a concept in which they were going to give up their jobs. They had come together and decided that most of the structure that we currently had in the organization-most of the jobs-would not be useful to the organization the way we designed it.

They agreed that the work should be designed first. We should throw all of the jobs into a pool. Then, once the work was designed, we decided to have some sort of structure to support the work. Everyone in the room said, "Yes, I know I may not have a job, but this is the right thing to do." It was interesting to watch people recognize this fact-that they were designing themselves out of jobs. There would be an emotional burst when they would see they might be out of a job, but then they would decide it was the right thing to do. We were talkingI don't remember how many jobs. In essence, we agreed that five departments should be combined into two, and there would be only about half the number of people.

They came to understand that a job is not guaranteed, but the work is, and you structure to the work. Once they get that, they really get that.

Is this heartless-encouraging people to design themselves out of a job? It is just the opposite. Enabling individuals to take part in the redesign of their organization maximizes their chances of remaining employable, either there or elsewhere. Redesign will happen anyway-whether it is called "downsizing," "re-engineering," or "restructuring." The DesignShop process enables broader participation and a greater likelihood that whatever happens will at least make sense for the organization. That's more than can be said for many redesigns today.

DesignShop participants are much more likely to get a clear picture of what exactly it is that they bring to an organization, and to see how-and where-they can continue to contribute. As economists point out, one of the most valuable uses of our time is figuring out how we can make the best use of our talents-i.e., selecting a profession, looking for a job. A DesignShop experience is, among many other things, a crash course in giving participants the broader perspective they need to do this well.

But let's return to the recognition that these participants from The Learning Organization were willing to take-a profoundly radical perspective, which included the possibility that they would be left without a job in their organization. What we should pay attention to here-what is of significance-is that these people were now capable of thinking and acting in a way that would have been impossible two days previously.

It's only now, halfway through the Wharton DesignShop, that participants are ready to deal with the really tough issues, such as revisiting the official areas of concern that brought them together. Why wait so long to address the problem? "If they 'invent the problem' too soon," says Gail Taylor, "they'll be blocked." These are bright, talented people- people who have often spent more than a year trying to solve their organizations' complex, virtually intractable problems. Whatever methods they have used to date haven't produced a satisfactory answer. If their pathway to a solution has been blocked for a year, why should they now be able to generate an answer in the two days remaining in this DesignShop session? Why is there reason to hope they can now avoid the traps that have blocked them previously?

This delay in tackling the problems head-on does not seem to fit with the action-oriented approach we've all been trained in, and it makes everybody nervous. Uncomfortable. Antsy. On the first day it was easy to see the gnawing impatience of many managers here, straining to attack their problems by the jugular vein, showing with the body language of folded arms and frowns that "Time is Money," and that metaphors about rivers weren't bringing them any closer to solutions.

As Gail Taylor says, "You don't solve a problem, you dissolve it." For the last day-and-a-half, these managers, engineers, and analysts have been resolutely held in an expanded information pool, undergoing accelerated learning, scanning their environment for new knowledge about co-workers, systems theory, the past and the present, and speculations on the different kinds of futures their organizations may face. They've been unforming and reforming a wide variety of paradigms, metaphors, and systems concepts. They have put these new tools to work to solve the various problems posed in the DesignShop work sessions. They still have their old tools, but they now have added a broad range of new ones. And by working together with people from whom they are normally separated, each group has access to a lot more intelligence, knowledge, and experience than they had when they first walked through the door. The names are still the same, but these people now make up very different teams than they did at the start of this event.

Every person who has participated is now grounded in two important areas:

1. A commonly-constructed language of education, business, and process.They are now using the metaphors-high-level models from different disciplines-to think much more creatively about their own enterprises. They have been acquiring business insights in the course of learning about the rainforest, the garden, and so on-these complex, intricate biological models transfer directly to enterprise.

The importance of this language is hard to overemphasize. Our brains, our culture, and our professional tools aren't set up to handle the complexity we are dealing with in our present world, and most of us have not had formal training in complex systems theory. The metaphors are vital tools.

2. A broader awareness of issues-more sophisticated perceptions of the world surrounding their enterprise and how it could change in the future.

When many participants first arrived, they were working with conventional, negative visions of the future: massive unemployment, exhausted natural resources, and so on-simplistic ideas from the mass media. Today we are seeing the same people displaying a broader perspective on a more complex world. They are also displaying another payoff from looking into the future-they are now able to think about their organizations and themselves in new ways.

Sparking this difference has been the Scan learning exercises. Many participants are drawing from parts of their intellectual tool kits which haven't been touched in twenty years. In other cases, participants are learning from outside sources. Recall that every participant received a large pack of ReadAhead material selected to provide missing tools and data of value. Each participant also read one specific book, usually selected for the important paradigms presented. The small-group work during the early exercises, such as the Backcasting scenarios tracing the trends of the "past" century, brought much of that information out into the open and let people really get their hands around it in a working context.


Iteration: Design and Test. Design and Test

By midafternoon on Thursday, each business team has taken a shot at inventing the problem facing their organization. Everyone now reconvenes in the larger group to hear and do a first critique of these initial results.

Design. Test. Redesign. Test. Redesign again. Test. This continued iteration, going from the drawing board, to stress-testing the solution, before heading back for another round of invention, is a key part of the design process. We first saw this iteration during Scan, when concepts of the future were designed, then critiqued, and then worked with again; these concepts of the future are being further refined as the groups continue to work on Reinventing the Problem. Now, the Problem is also entering the cycle of iterative design and testing.

The testing questions put out by other participants and facilitators are probing and razor sharp. Not surprisingly, the organizations at Wharton that are new to the process-such as Orlando Regional Hospital-are challenged with the most fundamental questions, and rightly so: "Are you sure this is your problem? Are you jumping too fast to your solution? Have you redone your mission statement?"

The newcomer groups share similar patterns of problems in their thinking: they have abandoned complexity, fled ambiguity and broad perspective, dropped down into an impoverished simplicity, limited their set of solutions, and set themselves up for difficulties. They tend to try to move directly to a solution; they haven't spent enough time in redefining the problem and searching the idea space. These were the people who during the Backcasting exercise had said, "Medicare goes bankrupt and so do we." Where is the redefinition of who they are and what they do that is going to let them survive the tsunami of change that they themselves described?

One group has quickly reverted to the definition of the problem which they brought with them from home. ("Of course we know what our problem is. That's why we're here!") In the process, they have identified one troubling symptom and want to insist that the symptom is the only problem. It's like a doctor noting that the patient has an elevated temperature and concentrating on making the reading go down by placing the patient in a bath of ice water, instead of doing a thorough evaluation and appropriate diagnosis of the medical problem. It's the newer groups that show this "thermometer fixation" instead of looking at the whole entity.

In this dogged insistence on holding on to their old problem definition, on defending this intellectual chunk of turf, something stands out clearly: the ego attachment to a particular agenda rather than the open, calm curiosity that marks other teams who have focused on working for the greater corporate good.

The group is questioning these folks because they are still trying to use the standard "jump to the bottom line," "cut to the chase" style of working. Previously, you would have called this "facing reality" or "business sense." Suddenly, these wanna-be business solutions sound glib, hollow. Although professionally delivered, the answers are unconvincing, a minor remodeling of conventional fixes. Clearly, the hospital team hasn't really dug into the complexities of their situation. The larger group is forcing a deeper exploration by asking the foundation questions of business, "Where are you delivering value? What are you building?"

Another newcomer group turns out to be unclear about who their customers are. One of them is stuck in the rut of focusing strictly on the short-term interests of their current stockholders. Here, the bottom line reigns to the point that breakthrough thinking is completely inhibited: "We have to show that this model is more profitable than the other model." Unless a fledgling idea can immediately show its numeric superiority, it is kicked out of the nest. By asking pointed questions, the larger group encourages them to break out of these mental ruts and dig deeper.

The key word in Inventing the Problem is invent. Inventing and designing are often messy. The experienced groups dive in and work broadly, stretching the definition of what is included in the problem. Even groups like AEDC, secure in their identity, with a clear vision of where they are heading, and with strong motivation and intent to fufill that vision, constantly cycle back to the fundamentals of their identity, their vision, their intent, and other key factors when testing out a new problem design. In contrast to the deep exploration that the more experienced groups are producing, it is clear that "cutting to the chase" and trying to keep the problem neat and controlled is not providing useful results.


Testing Continues: Build a 3D Model

As the critiquing session wraps up in late afternoon, the participants split up into organization-based groups again, and are assigned the unusual task of building a three-dimensional model of the 21st century organization. They are to include features that deal with feedback, growth, and other characteristics we've been talking about in the past two days. Many of the groups have already been drawing 2D models on their work walls. But now they are told, "Make your model concrete, make it mechanical." Finally, everyone will see whether an organization based on this 3D model works to address the organizational problems defined in the previous session- a tricky and complex assignment.

Initial enthusiasm for this difficult task varies, with the organizations having the most DesignShop experience launching into it quickly, while some others are a bit intimidated by the 3D model kits-which look an awful lot like expensive, high-tech variations on Tinker ToysTM or LegoTM or MeccanoTM. Also, those old inhibitions have come bubbling back with thoughts of, "What does this have to do with real business? I've already done a 2D model. Besides, I don't know how to make 3D models. This is embarrassing."

But as usual, there is reason behind the task. This assignment is yet another cycle of design and test, and it gives a different insight into the solution than that of the last exercise. Then, the job was to design the problem in the abstract. Now, modeling with 3D parts gives the business problem or solution an actual physical shape and structure. Modeling in three dimensions suddenly gives people access to ideas from physics, architecture, chemistry, and mechanical engineering to generate solutions.

What do you use to represent the marketing department in your model: a wooden block? A Miss Piggy doll? A pair of giant spectacles? The inherent message in your choice of materials is quite different.

Modeling also serves as a physical test of the proposed solution: are there dangling strings? How does this part communicate with that part? The nature of the proposed solution becomes quite visible....and so do its gaps and errors. Eventually, with some support staff assistance, all of the groups were able to embody their ideas in a physical model of some kind.

The modeling exercise makes plenty of sense: in order to come up with a new system, we must build and communicate some kind of model, either in our heads, on paper or wallboard (2D), or using a modeling kit (3D). Building the new system model only in our heads makes it hard to communicate, and 2D models have their limits as well for complex systems. In the following example, participants at a previous DesignShop built their model in two-dimensions, when the complexity of their system could have benefited from a 3D model.


National Car Rental

Matt Taylor tells the story of National Car Rental's experience with the DesignShop process:

As you probably know, rental car companies return most of their cars to the manufacturer for resale after they're through with them. When we started working with National in 1990, domestic car sales were very slow, and the manufacturers, like General Motors and Ford, were having trouble selling these used rental cars. There was some concern on the part of the rental companies that the manufacturers could even start resisting taking these cars back-it had happened before, somewhere around 1970. And although the rental companies had their own used car sales lots, they weren't positioned to effectively market the vast volume of automobiles that would be created by this change in their basic business. To put this in perspective, at that time a company like National would have in effect been the biggest car dealer in the world, because the number of cars that they buy, operate, and then sell in a year is enormous. So to be suddenly forced into this new, high-volume sales role was a potentially big problem for National.

Also, the rental car business was then-and still is-extremely competitive. The companies were racing to introduce new technology, new procedures for getting the car to the customer quickly, expensive new computers and reservation systems, and very competitive bids for big corporate accounts. This was not the environment for them to take on this new problem of how to dispose of the fleet.

A DesignShop session was held to deal with this problem, but what we ended up addressing was how to manage the asset of the automobile as a total system, from manufacturing the car right through to when it's a piece of junk. Traditionally, the rental companies tried to extract all the revenue possible from a car in the first 25,000 miles of its life-actually a small part of the useful life of an automobile. And they had no economic model of what it meant to get into the business of dealing with the car through other parts of its life cycle after those first 25,000 miles. Could you lease the car out long term? What else? No one had ever systematically thought their way through that: what it meant to deal with the asset from start to end.

We had people here from sales, from marketing, from operations, from corporate headquarters, we had people here that ran the lots. So we had a cross-section of people that probably, in their total experience, knew the total post-production car industry from one end to the other.

Usually, in a normal decision process or the day-to-day life of a business, all that information is competing against itself: someone says we ought to sell the cars afterwards, others say no, we ought to lease them, or no, we ought to send them back. Instead, we put everyone into an environment where all of these ideas were respected, honored, and needed to be brought up. We asked, "What can we do that we never thought of, or that we thought was impossible? How can we engineer a total systems response to our situation?"

I remember at one point we asked the team to go out and do a wiring diagram of the complete life cycle of an automobile, from beginning to end. And this thing came back that looked like spaghetti. We have the drawings to this day. It looked like a drawing of spaghetti. There were boxes with all these lines running back and forth between them, curving around and jumping over one another, and it was just a big spaghetti mess. This was a classic case of needing a 3D model.

In looking at the natural economic life cycle of a car, it turned out there were two places where the car was immensely profitable-once when it was brand new and then later when it had 75,000-80,000 miles on it but was still in extremely good shape. We then thought about what do the users want? What do the customers want? What does ownership really mean to them? And we developed a matrix in which there were multiple levels of utilization and service, so the user could say, for example, "I want a car, and I want you to wash it every week. I want you to change the oil. I want you to give me full service." In other words, the kind of service that they would get if they were renting the car short-term from a rental company-this would take advantage of National's immense installed capacity to take care of these fleets. Or the customer could say, "No, I want you to do only an annual check of the car." So there could be minimal levels of service, and in-between gradations of levels, affecting the cost of the car to the user.

We imagined that cars could come out of the fleet and be sold with the idea that after the owners drove the car for two or three years, they would sell it back and get a newer model. Meanwhile, the first car might go into another kind of rental, termed "replacement." There is a whole market where you rent cars to body shops that make them available to people when their car is being repaired. And then the car might come out of that fleet and get sold or leased again, and so on.

We then started looking at the cars themselves and what people really wanted. The net result of the concept is that the buyer or the user could come into these quasi-boutique sales offices and shopping centers, where there might be one or two cars on the floor, several display kiosks, and one or two people to help. They could go up to the kiosks and start looking through-using, say, a CD-ROM-pictures and descriptions of the various cars in the fleet that are going to be available. They could put in their own profile: their profile of what they wanted to pay, what kind of car they wanted, the color, and what level of service they wanted, and this package could be priced right there. And then the automobiles that fit into that price range, and overall profile, could be shown on the screen with a timetable and delivery schedule to meet customer requirements.

So what you have is the ability to totally customize to the buyers' preferences and offer the maximum number of alternatives that would be imaginable for them-in a relaxed, non-competitive, non-sales-focused environment.

From this, we developed a huge, comprehensive flowchart showing all the different ways to utilize and ultimately dispose of the car. This model changed the rental business from a business of just dealing with over-the-counter sales to the management of an entire asset-the fleet. It was immensely exciting stuff, very innovative-it would massively affect not only the car rental companies, but the manufacturers, dealerships, and the whole way people think about buying, managing, and maintaining the asset that is an automobile. In the experience of the participants-and there was a lot of experience in that room, with many people having worked for multiple rental companies-this was the most integrated, comprehensive, and totally optimized system to manage the value and leverage car rental assets.

We literally dissolved the original problem because, coming out of the DesignShop session, it didn't matter whether General Motors and the other manufacturers wanted to buy the rental cars back or not. Obviously, there would have been work to do to get ready to actually install a system to take on the volume of this kind of work, but the beautiful thing about it is that our solution was modular. In other words, to install a sales outlet in a shopping mall with this kiosk would be a relatively modest financial commitment. It could be tested on the level of one or two or three units. These kiosk sales outlets could be put right in the rental car companies' environments, they could be put in shopping centers, they could be put in hotels, they could be put in airports, they could be put in anywhere it makes sense to put one. You could grow the business by doing a series of modular enterprises. And you could stop at any point that made sense, or you could continue doing it until you were even taking over other car rental companies' used fleets.

This DesignShop experience showed us that answers emerge when people can share their ideas and develop a synergistic combination of their ideas, and when they start by looking at a problem from the necessary perspective, as a system. Then their individual experiences and perspectives are no longer in conflict, because they are not trying to persuade each other in the context of a limited set of options, where one idea has to prevail over the other. They are in effect, as a unit, creating something new.

Before this plan could be implemented, National was bought out by General Motors, and the plan has never been implemented as a total system by a single company. But the plan has proved to be an accurate projection of the needs and direction of the industry. In 1994, Ford began leasing used cars through its Hertz subsidiary. In Japan, through a U.S./Japanese collaboration, you can order new and used cars by computer. In 1996, new independent businesses like Autonation, being described as "innovative," were beginning to adopt the restructured approach to selling used cars described in the DesignShop session: a low key, non-bartering atmosphere where consumers can select the year, model, and service level of a used car.

As Matt pointed out, National's 2D model was good, but would have been better in 3D. Modeling in 3D is a strong form of testing for errors, oversights, and contradictions. It is applying the knowledge latent in mechanical objects to an intangible, to an idea. How do you connect two parts of your company-with a rubber band? with a steel rod? Whatever material you choose will have implications regarding communication, flexibility, and solidity of the attachment. When you look at what has been assembled and say "no, we need to do it differently," your discovery of the error is pushing you along on the path to the true solution.


Testing Continues: Authors

Back at the Wharton DesignShop session, it's late on Thursday and time for the final stage of testing each organization's problem concept: the Authors exercise. So far, participants have tested in a variety of ways-in their small groups, in presentations to the large group, by bumping up again physical reality with a 3D model. Now they are going to test their concepts against people who are specialists in a range of disciplines.

Weeks before the event, readings were assigned to all participants. From the Taylor library of five or six thousand books, the staff selected the subset most relevant to the current session's topic. Each participant was then sent one particular book to read before the start of the event.

The books were assigned to specific readers with the goal of providing each individual with the knowledge that might be the most personally useful. It was not by chance that one of the Carl's Jr. restaurant participants, with a strong finance background, was assigned the 1960 anthropology classics of Edward T. Hall on the cultural impact of space. Anthropology and architecture are not part of the standard reading for finance and business students, so this is the opportunity to provide valuable information to someone whose daily business now involves building and operating "stores."

If the DesignShop team has learned that your reading habits are usually limited to the major media such as Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, they'll give you more off-beat materials. They call this Weak Signal Research-instead of wallowing in the same mainstream data that the mass media dish up for the general public, you get to direct your antenna to the newest, faintest hints of change. Or if the team suspects that your company may be preoccupied with the latest fads, you may be assigned a classic book, directing your attention to the unchanging verities of, for instance, what makes us human.

Here at the DesignShop event, each participant is asked to present the views in the book, speaking as the author. Matt explains that each author is to present a summary of the book. "Then we will ask our authors to give us feedback on our work so far in this DesignShop experience. They will comment on the works' viability. Is it going in the right direction? What can be done to make it more viable?"

What at first looks like a cute gimmick -- having the participants pretend to be the author-actually forces them to build a mental model of the author's point of view. One value of this is discussed by Jon Foley in his story of how the Authors exercise was used at his company, Agency Group:

We sent out the books ahead of time. For the Authors exercise, the participants would take off their name tags, and behind those tags would be tags with the names of the authors of the books. Then we would say, "As you put on this new name tag, assume the character. From the author's perspective, tell us why you wrote the book, what could be learned from it, and what our company could learn from it."

This changed the dynamics of the report. Rather than saying they liked or did not like the book, they had to speak from the author's perspective. If they did not like the book, this would help them realize the value of it. Other participants would ask them to elaborate, perhaps on points with which they disagreed, forcing them to think it through again. It was very normal and natural at the end for people to be trading books.

At least half the time, people would realize that most of the books were about the same thing. You might have books like Unbounding the Future, Paradigm Shift, The Fifth Discipline, and The Art of War. Participants would recognize that they were all talking about learning, systems, and change.

Critiquing the work done so far in the DesignShop session by analyzing it from the author's perspective is yet another reality test in the iterative cycle of design, test, and design. What would Tom Peters say about your proposed problem design? Peter Drucker? Lao Tzu? Marvin Minsky? You already know what the experts in your field have to say, so if you want a new perspective, doesn't that mean that you should look at new areas of knowledge?

At the Wharton DesignShop event, there wasn't enough time to have the "authors" critique each groups' work thoroughly. But two authors of a featured book, Unbounding the Future, happened to be present-us, Gayle and Chris. We were invited into one of the groups to explain our book's topic-nanotechnology-and work with them on their picture of the future. In the course of our Authors' conversation, we saw how profoundly a book could serve to help test and evolve ideas in solving a business problem.

The group that called us in was made up of members from many different organizations-these were people attending Wharton as their company's sole representative. Discussing the state of technology and the nature of the 21st century organization had served to bring out the group's conflicting opinions more clearly. This was a positive development.

They fired off questions about nanotechnology, issues of technical development, timetables, shifts or accelerations in national and international trends, questions about which objects will increase or decrease in value, become more or less cumbersome. Their design of a future organization was based on their perception of what that future would be like. They used their discussion with us as a test session to critique their design. They used questions and the answers to design and redesign as the conversation went along.

You'd think that after two twelve-hour days, everyone would be exhausted. Not so. The intensity and the novelty of the whole series of modules and learning exercises, now followed by the complexity of trying to absorb dozens of authors' viewpoints, is more stimulating than draining. Despite the group's high average intellectual level, hardly any of the individuals have the time to devote to books that they would like. One of the benefits of the Authors module is that it provides a crash course on the most important new ideas of the last decade and review of classic ideas from across disciplines.

The Authors exercise concluded the second day of the event. By now, everyone had tested their problem statements from many angles, including from the viewpoints of many smart people who aren't even here. Tomorrow marks the move from Focus to Act, and formulating specific plans of action to take back to the individual enterprises.



1. Record your impressions and questions as you've been practicing in previous chapters.

2. You have a choice here between two challenges:

a. Head back to the library or bookstore and find a book you have not read yet in a subject that you may not be very familiar with. It can be philosophy (Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman), a new angle on science (try The Counterrevolution of Science by Friedrich Hayek, Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky, Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins), architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright, Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs), history (Daniel Boorstin, Barbara Tuchman), or any of a number of other categories. Look for a book whose author has something of consequence to say beyond the merely technical: something philosophical, cultural, political, strategic, and tactical. Read the book and then look at your work so far through the eyes of the author; let the author critique and add to your design. Be prepared to be surprised at what you learn from this critique: Bryan Coffman once facilitated a session where the sponsors insisted that their business strategy be so clear that a fourteen-year-old could understand it. Bryan surprised them by obliging their wishes on the third day of the DesignShop: the fourteen-year-old's critique added some things that the business people had neglected.

b. Head to the closet of some young person in your family and ask to borrow a set of Legos, clay, Tinkertoys, or some other form of modeling material. Or head to the toy store, craft store, hardware store, or your garage and collect a diverse set of building materials. Make sure you have some means of assembling the items. Then use your kit to assemble a model of your organization, life, or whatever your focus has been in these assignments. Show how things are connected, how they influence each other. Make things spin, roll, move up and down in response to other parts of the model. Label, describe, and document (photograph) your work. Explain your model to your kids, or someone else's kids.

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Leaping the Abyss - Table of Contents


1999 Foresight Gathering

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