Luck, fiction, design: Thirty thoughts on future management that may surprise you
Which strategies will ensure I am also successful on the market in the future? A question that has never been more difficult to answer than in these times of constant change. Marketing expert Prof. Christian Blümelhuber outlines ways we can manage the future without knowing what it holds.
It’s all about the future
According to Siemens, the future “is coming”, while Opel maintains that “it belongs to us all”. Nike urges us to “write” the future, Innogy to “shape” it, Jeff Parker to “seek” it and German publicist Nobbi Blüm to “socialise” it – not to mention the many other calls for us to “invent” and “remember” it. There has never been so much future. There is no getting away from it – it is everywhere. This is prompting companies to work on their future viability and willingness to embrace the future. They are giving their all to avoid missing out on any future technology and to be primed for the markets of the future.
Every action and decision, every strategic manoeuvre or experiment relates in some way to the future. How great, how effective and efficient it would be to see into the future, to be able to consult an oracle to see what the following day has in store – or simply to be able to gauge future trends in order to minimise risks and increase the likelihood of success. After all, the value of compensatory certainties goes up especially when uncertainty takes hold, when the future appears increasingly blurred, unpredictable and precarious. Because of this, classic future management approaches attempt to process weak signals and other future indicators, to predict the future and to minimise the effect of surprises through stringent bureaucracy.
However, if our liquid times, as Zygmunt Bauman termed them, are subjected to increasingly fast and volatile changes, the long-term projections that still seemed to hold water in times of solid modernity prove to be nothing more than empty words. The hopelessly complex nature of the transitional, the flowing and the risky pushes tried-and-tested explanatory models and decision-making logic to their limits.
The severe testing of limits also applies to the trend scouts and futurologists who follow in the footsteps of biblical prophets, communicating a clear picture of what is to come and promising to lift the veil of the future for their customers. In my view, the core problem with trend research and future research is the false – or monumentally inflated – expectations associated with it. Or, to put it in stronger terms: that people take its findings as a face-value indication of what life will be like in the future. This is because even the most precise predictions – even when, and particularly when, past data are extrapolated using increasingly sensitive mathematical instruments – are still only… fictions.
Fictions are colourful and loud, infectious and provocative. You need only think of your favourite TV series or David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. Unlike this complex series, however, many future representations focus their attention on a single variable (or a small number of variables) and therefore appear (or are) somewhat lacking in complexity, even if the neat sequences of data points are certainly capable of carrying an appellative force. Needless to say, the future will not unfold as a data point, but rather as a kind of landscape that links technical with sociocultural and institutional factors that come about in complex interactions of preferences and resources, of formal and informal rules, norms and habits, of different signs, manners of speaking and systems of meaning. In order to be able to make decisions about the future (or about the strategies that produce it), it should therefore also be possible to experience the future as a multidimensional space, perhaps even a landscape, in which people trade/do business (stocking up) and make decisions. I recommend games as a suitable medium for this (see point 18, etc.).
Games are not just fun to play – more than that, they offer people the chance to shine. In games, you can prove yourself while shaping the future: in the form of strategies. Consequently, it is the strategists in companies who take it upon themselves to write the future and who beat new paths to an (unknown) future.
Marketing superstar Philip Kotler mapped out a path and gifted us APIC (Analysis, Planning, Implementation, Control), a management concept of near-mythical proportions. With, of course, particular emphasis on the “P”. Everything is done according to plan: communication, design, strategy, product, its exact usage. Nothing is left to chance, nothing at all.
With this idea, Kotler reminds us of a time of reliable routines, leisurely paced changes, calculable futures, relative longevity and sustainable competitive advantages. But, as we see with every passing day, this is very much a thing of the past.
In order to still remain viable for the future and able to take action, I suggest that companies need more luck! The lucky ones are those who have luck strategies and luck management.
Admittedly, trusting to chance is impertinent to say the least. It is beyond our (personal and organisational) control and can therefore be regarded as the dark side of strategy. It is also fair to say, however, that Post-its, Viagra and Ryanair – to name but a few – were all products of pure chance. That a fortunate turn of events – such as Prohibition in the case of Boeing, or the drunken bar fight the night before Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Mad Max – can pave the way for a success story. So it’s no wonder, then, that more and more company founders and general managers (quite unlike, it should be noted, middle management or lower management types), when asked to explain their success, simply reply: “We got lucky”. Of course, it’s not quite as easy as that – after all, you can and have to make your own luck: for instance, the Viking Manifesto advises strategists that “luck is a qualification”. Get your hands on this qualification and integrate chance management into your organisational future and strategy calculations – statistically speaking, it is child’s play to increase the probability of getting lucky: all you have to do is increase the number of opportunities in which this can arise.
A brief digression: The wings of a peppered moth look like birch bark, a fact to which the Biston betularia owes its continued survival. When, in the 19th century, the air was filled with soot from factory chimneys, black peppered moths “suddenly” appeared on the scene. Rather than adapting at a slow evolutionary pace, the species did so overnight. In Darwinian terms this is an exaptation – a spontaneous, creative adjustment.
In the world of management, the feat accomplished by the black peppered moth can be recreated through strategic experiments. These sperm strategies do not put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, but rather invest in diversity and flexibility, pursuing several strategies at the same time. Which of the strategic options will ultimately prevail is not decided by a planning committee in a dimly lit politburo, but rather by the market (or, in the case of our peppered moth, by context). This recipe for success is followed by heavyweights like Google, Apple and Virgin, but also “Jute Bäckerei”, a gluten-free artisanal bakery around the corner from my house. They place bets on various future scenarios and accept that each strategic attempt is labelled “possible”, that every option is merely a “maybe” and that any hypothesis is a potential success but also a potential failure.
For this take on luck management, we formulate the imperative à la Eric Beinhocker: Manage parallel strategies and invest in a portfolio of experiments – put your weight behind the winners and cut yourself loose from the losers.
A second function of luck management is formulated by German singer Katja Ebstein and her lyricist Günter Loose. One of their songs, a cornerstone of German glam rock, encapsulates the concept of situation potential, which has its roots in ancient Chinese strategy. Two key lines translate as follows:
“There will always be miracles, they can happen today or tomorrow. There will always be miracles, but you have to recognise them when you see them.”
Opportunities that present themselves will be recognised and seized, above all by those who are prepared and who have stocked up by giving prior thought to such possibilities, by strategising and by taking action. In other words, by cultivating the core resource of future management.
Future memory. The term “future memory” refers to concrete perceptions of the future that are already taking root in our memories today, creating docking stations for future ideas, innovations and interpretations. This leads to prepared minds and a greater facility with particles of knowledge, innovations and coincidences which, appearing for the first time, have not yet been woven into mental networks and are therefore overlooked or remain untapped. Future memory prepares players for surprising, extrinsic or uncomfortable information and renders it possible and acceptable. If the players in question find themselves in a specific case situation and, for instance, recall a previously experienced future, this not only speeds up their reaction to new environmental parameters but also enhances the quality of this reaction.
Games (point 18, etc.) provide the contexts for creative adjustments (point 20) such as that of the black peppered moth (point 10). In games, it is possible to experience and shape the future. You do not have to (and should not) wait until the soot from your competitors’ factories has obscured your vision completely, putting you under pressure for real – in games, you can stock up on exaptations. If the future is uncertain, a future management approach cannot (only) hinge on practising reaction patterns. You need fictions that inspire you and challenge you to stock up on a whole host of possible strategies in advance.
Management by Fictions
Regardless of whether we resort to imagination, drawing or interpretation, to calculation, modelling or even extrapolation, we will never succeed in capturing future reality. Nonetheless, future instruments have an important function. They provide productive fictions (point 3).
Fictions are told (to other people): This is the lucrative vein of business mined by trend gurus, oracles and science fiction authors. Playing games with them is our business. The business of strategists. The business of future management. This is because game-playing spawns possibilities in the interface between mind-blowing ideas and real-life resources: possibilities that no fortune teller could ever know because they only come to light under very specific conditions – and therefore cannot be said to be mere stories but, instead, are very real possibilities for taking action and shaping the world that can already be implemented in the present day.
Playing games based on future scenarios is therefore less a kind of simulation than an open-ended, “what if?”-type experiment. We think ahead without trying to predict the future; rather than chasing prognoses we attempt to tease out from the game the resources that guarantee the future viability – or one might even say the strategic viability – of a company. Conceptually speaking, this proposal is rooted in the “resource-based view” of strategy theory, positioning the unique, difficult-to-imitate resources of a company with a view to securing (future) competitive advantages. In other words, we are looking for strategic resources that promise the company – or your company – future success even in uncertain times, regardless of the specific form that the future present takes (point 26).
To this end, we have developed a method – we call it gooling (see information right hand sight) – that combines two playing positions, paidia and ludus, in an experimental programme. On the one hand, a love of game-playing, creativity and even a bit of swagger – on the other, discipline through rules or the logic of advancement.
The future cannot be predicted in games either. However, the “what if?” aspect of fiction allows us to play with alternative realities (or, to put it another way, with fictive future landscapes, point 4), thus enabling us to place the company in various contexts (futures). In worlds governed by different rules than ours, where trends are taken to the extreme or familiar things are simply done away with. Imagination is given free rein here – we are travelling into a world of “Extreeemocracy”, atop “Robotinis” or to “Hypersense Siberia”.
The beauty of this game is that the specific fictions or futures do not determine how effective the game is. Whether they are more or less likely is not of central importance to the game. But you should make a point of distancing yourself from today’s assumptions and flag clear differences from the present situation so that the surprises and disruptions are enough to drag players out of their comfort zones during their (mental time) journey. This leads us to identify and test creative solutions that were not dependent on the probability of our prognoses but rather maximise the probability of getting lucky (point 8, etc.). And no, in spite of everything, gooling is not a game of chance! It deals with complex landscapes (point 4) that combine the analytical, strategic and creative aspects of future management.
In our culture, players and scouts, adventurers, pioneers and innovators are revered more than civil servants, traders, actuaries and middle managers. The need for hands-on creativity is rooted firmly in the logic underlying our lifestyles and complies with social expectations. The same goes for the compulsion to take action, for absolute flexibility and for the courage to make a decision right away (and to stand behind it) even if there is not enough information available to make a decision at that stage. Those who shut themselves off to creative and future imperatives, who have the stamina to wait as long as possible before arriving at their decision, look boring, old-fashioned, behind the times. However, institutions (companies and brands) are successful precisely because they promise continuity, have a high recognition value and are not swayed by every fleeting fad. Because they respond to our anxious times with compensatory stability and can therefore leave their mark on jittery, actionist and hyper-accelerated markets – a mark that is not so easy to wash off.
Accordingly, confronting the future openly and head on does not mean submitting to it; it does not mean that ever-shorter adaptation cycles are the only response to the constant pressure to be faster, to hysterical fashions and to dwindling time spans for savouring what the world has to offer. Confronting the future openly and head on means designing it. It means blazing a trail, which sometimes demands excruciating patience, rather than just following the herd.
Design means not only rendering the world more appealing to our eyes but also to our minds. Because of this, an organisational design starts at the conceptual level, which in our case means striking a balance between adaptation/change and stability/order. Every now and then, companies need to race off in all directions in order to prove to themselves that they have a future (point 11, etc.). At the same time, they need to take breaks to establish order among the chaos and to exploit the smart power of the familiar.
So organisations need a certain blandness (too). They need players who ensure that processes and projects are carried out on time and on budget. Players who are unfazed by constant calls for flexibility and agility and who are well versed in the fine art of waiting for good opportunities to seize (point 13). And organisations also need ideas and programmes that set premises that resist the next hype and stabilise the company as a base code for the future.
I describe these as the strategic foundation of a company. Unfortunately, experience shows that many companies are completely out of touch with their foundation. I recommend that you superimpose texts and data sets – such as those from future games (point 19) – not only to highlight change patterns but, above all, to highlight stabilisation patterns as well. This reveals the soul of the business. This is the strategic foundation, which consists of a small number of practices and resources that are (and will remain) vital to the company’s success, regardless of changing basic conditions and futures and that, as a stable core, will therefore define the organisational design of the company. The foundation must be maintained and cultivated. And it needs time to mature. In this connection, taking action can sometimes mean doing nothing. Resisting the temptations of technological and cultural change. Trusting that this solid basis will pave the way for resilient future management structures.
On the one hand, the glamour of fashions, hypes and future images; on the other, the productive blandness of a well-grounded, unruffled design strategy that sets great store by the principle of repetition. These poles not only determine the field in which strategists navigate towards the future, but also the arena in which stakeholders negotiate the legitimacy of the company. Some have a weakness for security, certainty and plain speaking. Others urge for the future question to be clarified, for major megatrends to be responded to and for the company to finally step up its agility.
Companies are increasingly finding themselves faced with paradoxical requirements like this. With the need to organise both creative chaos and order. To be flexible and stable at the same time. To improvise while following strict instructions. To meet the expectations of a changing environment but also the level of efficiency required by the organisation. The fine art of management is allowing both sides to take effect. And it is obvious that a small dose of productive hypocrisy is par for the course here.
However, one core function of future design is less obvious – the need to recapture temporality. This means not (only) thinking in terms of quarters or planning periods but in terms of fictions (point 16). Not subjecting oneself to the whims of time, but occasionally forcing temporality to take a back seat so that parts of the organisation can be programmed for stability – while still working to bring out the flexibility that allows miracles to happen (point 13).
Instead of providing a summary, the last thought should naturally be left to you. How will you shape your future?
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Hamburger Edition, 2008
Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth, Harvard Business Review Press, 2007
Friedrich von Borries, To Project the World: Towards a Political Theory of Design, Suhrkamp 2016
Thomas Düllo et al. (ed.), Texturen Nr. 2: Spielen (Textures No. 2: Games), UdK Verlag 2015
Elena Esposito, Die Fiktion der wahrscheinlichen Realität (The Fiction of Probable Reality), Suhrkamp 2007
Gilles Lipovetsky, De la légèreté, Grasset & Fasquelle 2015
Franz Liebl & Thomas Düllo, Strategie als Kultivierung (Strategy as Cultivation), Logos 2015
Konrad Paul Liessmann, Zukunft kommt! (The Future Is Coming), Styria 2007
Ethan Mollick, People and Processes, Suites and Innovators, Strategic Management Journal, 33/2012
Steve Strid & Claes Andreasson, The Viking Manifesto, Cyan 2007
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2009
Examples of games:
Versicherung 2030 (© Daniela Kuka (Goolin Pre:experience Studio) & Christian Bluemelhuber)
Future Customer Journey (© Daniela Kuka (Goolin Pre:experience Studio) & Good School
Prof. Dr. Christian Blümelhuber
Professor of Strategic Organisational Communication at the Berlin University of the Arts
As a Professor of Strategic Organisational Communication, Christian Blümelhuber teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts. Before that he was an InBev-Baillet Latour Professor of Euromarketing and professor at the Solvay Business School of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He has researched and taught at universities in Europe (Munich, Brussels), Asia (Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul) and the USA (Virginia Tech) and founded the European Marketing and Sales Lab. His research work covers brand management, communication and luck strategies in management. Originally from Munich, he also develops brand and research tools and individual game formats. Christian supports both medium-sized companies and large corporations on the path to successful communication and marketing. The respected academic sees himself as a “mediator” between the two worlds of theory and practice, always presenting current and relevant research results in a lucid and dynamic way. But instead of resorting to the usual marketing toolkits, he develops his own concepts, in which he links acclaimed theories with his own research work. His goal: original ideas that are always well-founded and credible.
Rhetorically brilliant and highly inspiring – at the 2017 Best Brands College, Christian Blümelhuber impressed the audience with his presentation entitled “Future Management – You can’t plan the future, you can only play it!”
Gooling means thinking, interacting and performing strategically and creatively under uncertain conditions in order to manage business, social and communication challenges of the future, to cultivate innovations and shape new ideas.
A gool crosses two types of tools – logical and structuring (ludus) and explorative and spontaneous (paidia) – into a game that introduces new resources (luck, fiction and design) into future management without neglecting the underlying conditions prevailing in the organisation in question. Gools are extremely serious about future openness but without causing chaos!
Unlike (most) tools, gools are not geared towards making familiar things faster, better and more efficient, but rather towards identifying new approaches and possible solutions and rendering them usable in the present. And unlike (most) games, they do not involve worlds in which the structures, parameters and variables have been painstakingly defined by the designers, a world that the player alone does not understand and only comes to do so gradually using carefully designed rules and tasks. When it comes to the future, we are all ignorant. We and you must therefore become the co-authors of the game that is the future.
Needless to say, the game is not without rules or content. That is where we come in: our job is to gauge in which setting the specific preconditions of an organisation and fictional futures can be fused in unexpected ways that allow resources to be built up. In practice, this works in – you guessed it! – three steps:
First, an organisation is modelled as a game – a board game: the business model, the core resources, processes and practices, the products, brand values and touch points. This opens up the essence of an organisation and allows it to be observed from different angles.
The second step sees the future – or rather, futures – come into play. This is in the form of productive fictions that form new environments: provocative change contexts, series of different worlds, exaptation scenarios. What happens is something that does not normally happen in conventional games: the game of organisation (1) cannot continue in its familiar form. Adjustments are needed to some element or other – perhaps the business model, perhaps the core resources, processes or practices, perhaps the products, brand values or touch points. We achieve this through trial and error. New organisational realities manifest themselves here in the form of concrete experiences, stories, concepts and artefacts – not as abstract data clouds or future buzzwords.
In the third step, the results from various rounds (the episodes of one series) are superimposed upon one another. Potential for change becomes visible, but so does resistance. A wealth of surprising ideas and possibilities reveals itself. Incidentally, it has never been the case that everything had to be different – on the contrary: you will not only be surprised by the new cards you are dealt but by the aces that you already hold. The game now incites the players to take action and tell stories.