Mapping the future versus flying blind

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for The Antioch Review. (You can find the entire essay under the title Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century in Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2016, 324-332.)

We are all confronted by organizations that are “flying blind.” Ten years ago, this condition was a confession of managerial incompetence. Well run organizations were supposed to be sentient, well formed, well managed and, usually, beautifully articulated to the tasks of creating value and avoiding risk. The universe was orderly. Management was rational. Only bad organizations were “flying blind.”

But these days “flying blind” is, for most organizations, an ordinary fact of life. It’shard to know what the future holds now that, as Harris Collingwood puts it, “idiosyncratic volatility is the signature of our economic age.” Strategists say that the world is more inscrutable, that planning is more difficult, that “disruption,” and “creative destruction” are the order of the day. 

Bryan makes a nagging doubt explicit.

[S]uppose we no longer believe that the future is foreseeable. What if defining and achieving an enduring competitive advantage is really just a conceit that must be abandoned? What if the outstanding fact of business, as John Maynard Keynes once described it, is the “extreme precariousness of the basis of knowledge”? […] In fact, this is the confusing, complex, and uncertain environment that corporate leaders now face. […] The variables that can profoundly influence success and failure are too numerous to count. That makes it impossible to predict, with any confidence, which markets a company will be serving or how its industry will be structured—even a few years hence. [Bryan, Lowell. 2002. “Just-in-Strategy for a Turbulent World.” McKinsey Quarterly June.

Responses to an inscrutable world are diverse. Some organizations have given up strategy altogether and have fallen into a mode that’s purely reactive. Once planning in cycles of a year or more, these organizations are now largely improvisational. They respond to the moment. 

Others have outfitted themselves with brave ideas. We are told that the corporation must “pivot,” be “nimble,” and “iterate.” This is better than absolute improv. But it’s not much more than a better “firehouse,” to use Andy Grove’s cautionary metaphor. The firehouse model says you can’t anticipate where the fires will break out. You just hope to get to there sooner. 

This is not a promising strategy. After all, there is an absolute limit to how much faster and more nimble an organization can become. And there’s no reason to suppose that the world will cease speeding up. Eventually, it must exceed even our new capabilities. The firehouse model is therefore flawed. It forsakes early warning, contemplation, and choice, and must eventually take us back to blind reaction.

I wonder if this isn’t a Hakluytian moment. Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, private secretary, and deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there. By our standards, Elizabethan explorers could be spectacularly casual about what they felt they needed to know to pilot a wooden ship across a forbidding sea in pursuit of landfall, contact, riches and glory. While his contemporaries were risking everything on scant knowledge, Hakluyt was gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. In the place of scant knowledge, rough ideas and blind reaction, Hakluyt was building a system of knowledge. 

So should we all.

It’s a lot to ask for. The new disorder means that the organization has to work harder just to stay abreast of day-to-day objectives. Taking up a Hakluytian function demands a different kind of problem solving and a different frame of mind. Some say it’s wrong to ask an organization to manage the present world and future ones. A couple of years ago, I proposed a new model with a “second corporation” wrapped around the first. The interior organization would devote itself to the conduct of ordinary business. The exterior organization would look out at possible futures and imagine new configurations for the organization. 

It will be a long time before the organization solves this problem on its own. We are asking one creature to invent its opposite. So few do. Every organization needs a Hakluytian function but virtually none is inclined to make one. (I leave this problem for future discussion: that something in capitalism refuses the adaptations required to survive the world it is creating.)  

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity. 

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.  

I think of the window as a large visual array, something like a weather map or less benignly a big screen at NORAD. (I am a Canadian and a baby boomer. My images are predictable. I apologize.) On this map, we would post “events” we think are in the works or, to use the aviation metaphor, “on approach.” Some are imminent. Others are ten years “out.” Each event is tied to a body of assumptions and bodies of qualitative and quantitative data. The array is driven by metrics. (In an era of “big data,” we are on the verge of measuring everything and therefore increasingly in possession of useful indicators of an event’s speed and maturity.)

We could have used a screen like this to identify and track the artisanal trend, nascent in the 1960s, suddenly clearer when Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in 1971, clearer still when a diaspora of chefs left Chez Panisse for other restaurants, and finally unmistakable when Michelle Obama installed a vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House in 2009. I have a client in the food business who not very long ago was still asking me to “take me through the whole artisanal thing again.” A Hakluytian center could have given her decades of advance notice and managerial clarity. She might still be in business.  

Event prediction is performed by the center’s skeleton crew and sabbaticants as they monitor the data and work and rework predictions. There will be heated debate, ongoing controversy, minority opinions but not we hope the kind of enmity and rancor that attends some academic discussion. This is a rough calculation, much more than it is a fine art. “Generally plausible” will always trump “precisely right.” To use that aviation metaphor again, this is less a problem than an air space. Many kinds of data, many kinds of opinion, many different and opposing surmises are welcome. 

Every innovation in the museum world is challenged by a chronic shortage of funds. The good news is that a Hakluytian center doesn’t need a faculty, just that skeleton crew. Much of the intellectual work will be performed by sabbaticants, people from some professional world who come for a day or a weekend. They will pay a fee to participate and this could be very handsome indeed. After all, visiting the Hakluytian center is the difference between flying blind and “having a clue.” (Clues are always better.)

There is a more narrow quid pro quo: between what the sabbaticant gives and what she gets. What she gives is the data and perspective that preoccupies her professional life as a University president, the director of an addiction recovery institute, the CEO of a large consumer packaged goods company, or a senior manager of a professional association. This will be the sabbaticant’s “parting gift,” the intellectual resources she leaves behind. What she gets is a new sense of clarity about what the future holds and how she might hope to navigate it to best effect. 

I would hope that the Hakluytian center would be very profitable, not just self-funding but a net contributor to the museum of which it is a part. The ROM makes do with around $60 million a year, a sum Victor Rabinovitch properly calls “totally insufficient.” A mature Hakluytian center could reasonably hope to increase this amount by 5%.

I can hear someone complain, “Someone else could do this. Surely, someone else is doing this.” Well, no. There is lots of strategy work in the private sector but it remains proprietary and under wraps. Academics remain silo-ed and in general they are disinclined to collaborate in the ways that a project of this kind demands. (I know this because it took a thorough reeducation before I could collaborate.) To my knowledge, no one has created a public window on the future. And I believe this much is clear: it is impossible to satisfy the tremendous intellectual demands of a project like this unless it is “under glass,” open source and the work of many minds.

Let’s close with the Richard Hakluyt given us by Peter Mancall in his wonderful book Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America. This book satisfies an anthropological objective: it helps us see into the mind and the experience of this extraordinary man as a nation wrestles with fateful decisions about whether and how to colonize the new world. Mancall demonstrates how much of Hakluyt’s “knowledge” was partial, unreliable, fanciful, in some cases positively mythological and absolutely wrong. Working from the resources available to someone living in Elizabethan England, even someone as intellectually acquisitive as Hakluyt, the new world was very hard to see. It’s easy to be smug about this now. Virtually everything obscure to him is clear to us. But it would be wrong. We have challenges of our own. 

Published by Grant McCracken

I am an anthropologist who studies American culture. Some of my books: Dark Value, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer and Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. I've taught at Harvard Business School and MIT. I am a self funding anthropologist. I spent half the year writing and half the year consulting.

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