When it comes to planning for the future, what you think you know can be more dangerous to your organization's competitiveness than what you don't know.
It was more than 20 years ago and the client, a large US consumer goods company whose separate IT unit was run as a profit centre, was having great difficulty recruiting quality IT people to help it transition to a new programming language.
The ace COBOL programmers it had painstakingly recruited from prestigious universities like MIT and Carnegie Mellon were struggling to make the switch, forcing the firm to use those relatively highly paid people in effect as file clerks, and it just could not seem to pull a trick when it came to replacing them with programmers with more up-to-date skills, in a market where young recruits were naming their own price.
So Arnold Brown, a principal of Weiner Edrich Brown, a US-based company whose mission is to help organizations look at change, came up with a novel solution.
"We suggested to them that they go to the Juilliard School of Music and hire people who were music majors, because music basically is a form of mathematics and the fact is that people who are good at music, or are good at composing music, are very good at mathematics - they have an aptitude for it. So you hire these people from the Juilliard School of Music at probably a third of what you would have to pay people from Carnegie Mellon, give them a little bit of training, and they can be your programmers and they are so adaptable, because they are not rigidly trained in one language.
"The client did take seriously the idea of breaking away from its traditional approach to look for programmers in other ways and places. I don't know at this time how well the experiment worked, although the last we knew they were hiring from places like Juilliard," Brown says.
In a time of accelerating and monumental change, where the social, economic, political and technological rules that bind society come into question every single day, and when businesses are morphing into "hyborgs" - hybrid organizations whose workings are pretty much unique - the old ways of working no longer apply. And that, says Brown, the co-author, along with Edie Weiner of FutureThink: How to Think Clearly in a Time of Change, applies to nowhere more than IT. In FutureThink, the two authors share the techniques they have used to help hundreds of leading enterprises - from the US Congress to Procter & Gamble, Target and Ernst & Young - anticipate the future and react in ways that give them a potent lead over their competition.
Brown says that in a world where every business is becoming unique, and the models taught in business schools are becoming ever more irrelevant, traditional ways of thinking about how to do IT just do not cut it. With case studies proving less and less helpful, following the trends and being right about the future is critical but insufficient. Instead, you not only must believe what you see, but respond to it quickly. The two futurists' answer is to outline a fundamentally new and better way of thinking, which has particular use and relevance to CIOs.
"The prevalence in business literature today of knee-jerk cliches and management fads has caused many people to overlook the basics of good thinking," they write. "After more than 35 years of studying constant and confusing change, we have learned that the future can be grasped only when you combine objective information about change with clear-eyed thinking."
The authors serve on a number of boards and advisory groups in both the public and private sectors. They have written numerous articles, and their work has been reported on in hundreds of periodicals, including The Wall Street Journal, Boardroom Reports, Fortune, USA Today, Best's Review and Planning Review.
Too Little Time, Too Much Baggage
The accelerating pace of change, Brown says, makes it difficult for people to understand trends and know how to harness them, largely because their minds are encumbered by all the baggage of past attitudes and thinking. That makes them more likely to see what they think is happening, or what they wish would happen, rather than what is actually happening.
Psychologists have conducted some extraordinary experiments to highlight such "situational blindness". For instance, in a now famous experiment reported in Scientific American in March 2004, subjects were told to focus on how many passes a basketball team made in a one-minute video. About halfway through the video a gorilla emerged and walked across the basketball court. Half the participants in the experiment did not even notice.
The moral? The more you focus on something, the less you are able to see unexpected or unanticipated happenings. Just as you need to use the rear- and side-view mirrors when you are driving, while still focusing on the road ahead, so must you make yourself aware, if only peripherally, of what may be coming alongside or behind you.
"The fact of the matter is, everybody's observations are coloured by their own perceptions and prejudices and preconceptions and wishful thinking that goes on all the time," Brown says. "I was being interviewed on a radio program a week or so ago, and before me was somebody who was calling in and talking about the fact that all of these catastrophes that we've seen recently are proof of the prophecies in the Bible about the end of days: the Rapture. Somebody else called in and said these things are proof of global warming. And a third person called in and said these are just natural phenomena that occur in cycles. So, three different people looking at exactly the same thing got three different messages. And this goes on all the time in business."
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