Archive for October, 2010

Strategy Offering Turbo-Charged with Advanced Scenario Planning

Nicole-Anne BoyerAt a recent strategy update retreat with one of our clients, we introduced scenario planning as a front-end to their strategy process. The improvement was dramatic! One of the partners even queried us if we had been actively using scenario planning at the time we’d done their original strategy session. (We assured him that we hadn’t, that it was a new offering, and we had NOT been holding out on him!) He thought it added tremendous value and insight, and maintained that it should be part of their strategy process from here on out.

Much credit for the tremendous improvement between the two sessions goes to our associate, Nicole-Anne Boyer, founder of Adaptive Edge LLC. Since 2009, Ann, Charles and I have had the pleasure of collaborating with Nicole. From the start of our association, our strategic planning offering has been turbo-charged with the addition of robust scenario planning, strategic foresight and futures thinking. While I had thought I knew something of scenario planning before, I have been learning at a furious pace to come up-to-speed on the state of the art in scenario planning.

Scenario planning has been around for a very long time, but took significant strides forward, notably in the planning department at Royal Dutch Shell, and at the Global Business Network. It is now used widely in planning processes in business.

“According to Bain & Company’s annual survey of management tools, fewer than 40% of companies used scenario planning in 1999. But by 2006 its usage had risen to 70%.”
– The Economist, September 1st, 2008

I have been learning that there are as many forms and methods of scenario planning as there are practitioners, but there has been a clear evolution in the purpose and motive for scenario planning.

  • Inform Planning: Use the output of a scenario planning exercise to inform a conventional “out-think the future” strategy session.
  • Adapt to Future: Scenario planning becomes part of 1) a way of thought for leadership, and 2) an early warning system to help a company to adapt to future changes. One of the funders of modern scenario planning framed it so:

“The test of a good scenario is not whether it portrays the future accurately but whether it enables an organization to learn and adapt.”
– Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View

  • Shape the Future: The scenario planning process might be taken beyond the walls of the organization and involve the wider system we are trying to influence. The scenario planning process is then a catalyst in a broader, generative effort to shape our desired future. Put another way:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
– Alan Kay, Scientist and Apple Fellow

In our work at Ralston Consulting Inc., we have always focused on helping our clients develop the orientation and capacity for generative change to create their desired future. Our collaboration with Nicole has given our mission a tremendous boost!

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 Article Archive, Business Insights, Main Page, Scenario Planning Comments Off on Strategy Offering Turbo-Charged with Advanced Scenario Planning

“The Girl Effect” Impacts Clinton Global Initiative

Here’s a systems-thinking puzzle: If you wanted to improve the global economy, slow population growth, reduce HIV-related deaths, break dependency on international aid shipments, and encourage peace, could you accomplish all that in one focused move?

Watch The Girl Effect:

Check out the widespread, high-profile response:

Now visit and see how you might help…

Our thanks to colleague, Charles Holmes, for bringing this vital campaign to our attention!

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 Article Archive, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Sustainability Comments Off on “The Girl Effect” Impacts Clinton Global Initiative

Scenario Planning Helps Profit From Uncertainty

In Profiting from Uncertainty: Strategies for Succeeding No Matter What the Future Brings, authors Paul J. H. Schoemaker and Robert E. Gunther make a point about the discrepancy between the forces shaping a sector’s future, and where management tends to focus. Their claim is that about half the forces shaping the future value of a business – developments in the industry, and in the larger global environment –  are not monitored by management, and thus, “left to fate”.

Instead, management is compiling backward-looking internal and industry trend data to forecast future conditions. This is backed up by informal surveys by Gary Hamel & C. K. Prahalad, suggesting that senior management devote less than 3 % of their time and energy to building a collective vision of the future. (Competing for the Future, Harvard Business Press, April 1, 1996, p 4)

We need a working understanding of our external environment and the many possible futures that may emerge, as making plans based on a single notion of the future can increase risk even as, paradoxically, it reduces our sense of conflict about an unknown future. The world is simply too uncertain and complex for such single-point predictions; and they give a false, sometimes dangerous, confidence that we are in control more than we really are. At the other extreme, we cannot become paralyzed by what we perceive as too much uncertainty, as we become obsessed with avoiding risk. We must plot a course between prediction and paralysis, thinking about the future in terms of multiple possibilities in order to better create our desired future.

Action Plan: Make a practice of ‘learning from the future’. To kick off your 2011 strategic planning cycle, take your leadership team through a facilitated scenario-planning process. In the course of co-exploring 3-4 possible futures, defining a ‘desired future’ and gleaning strategic insights, your team will develop a much deeper capacity to mine profit in areas of high uncertainty – an area your competitor is likely spending 3% of their focus on!

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 Article Archive, Business Insights, Main Page, Scenario Planning Comments Off on Scenario Planning Helps Profit From Uncertainty

Students, Soccer-Bots and the Future of Workteams

Dublin, OH Robotics Team 1014 tweaks their robot...

Credit: Dublin, OH Robotics Team 1014

It’s a hot summer Saturday in the middle of June.  Most kids are on summer vacation, but today, 200 students from around Ohio are in a school gym, competing in the CORI Connect a Million Minds 2010 Robotics Invitational, sponsored by Time Warner Cable.  It’s about robots PLAYING SOCCER and high school students created the robots!

Why are these students so engaged? Why are so many volunteers and sponsors across the nation, from education, business and communities, so deeply involved in FIRST robotics programs for students? What is the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative (CORI), and why is Ralston Consulting, in collaboration with others, so active in bringing CORI to life?

This type of event, one that captures the hearts, minds and excitement of the students, is the FUTURE. It is the future of how students learn, interlacing theory with hands-on innovation, mentorship and collaboration with competition, and technology with human character, ethics and spirit.  It is having a real-world impact increasing the likelihood that high school students will choose careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics-related fields (STEM), so critical to the future of our economy.

It is also the future of how workers will collaborate, and the future of how businesses will be managed. In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled: The End of Management, author Alan Murray underscores the crises organizations face as a result of the ineffective bureaucracies contributing to today’s corporate inertia. Organizations and their managers are not agile enough to deal with today’s rate of change.  It is, in point of fact, easier and more comfortable to not change.

Mr. Murray lists attributes of the ‘new science of management’:

  • mass collaboration;
  • a marketplace mentality of resource procurement and allocation; and
  • “structures that drive innovation, creativity and a spirit more akin to an entrepreneur.”

If this is the future of management, it is here, now, in the FIRST Robotics Competitions.

FIRST Scoring Criteria

Credit: FIRST Robotics

Rewind to the start of each year’s robotics competition: It’s 9:00am on a Saturday morning in early January, and bleary-eyed students come alive as they participate in a nationwide simulcast unveiling the game for the year. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and the first insulin pump, and the mastermind behind FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), shares the closely guarded game and specifications bounding each year’s competition. (3D game animation from 2010 on the NASA site, here)

Over the next 6 weeks, the students voluntarily work after school and on weekends to design and build these robots for regional competitions.  The limited design/build window demands rapid prototyping, rapid decision-making, and levels-up students’ critical thinking skills.  Failures are part of the design process, and students master the ability to evaluate, learn adjust their designs, as they build, test, and rebuild their robots.

What drives these kids? They see it as fun – fun AND relevant. They create deep friendships with their teammates and mentors. They get to try on a career before going to college. They believe they have an advantage over their peers in the classroom, being more experienced in critical thinking skills and in the creative process as an outcome of their experience. Many of the students refocus their orientation toward school in order to master knowledge needed for their team to create a competitive robot.

The students apply their limited resources across the project, breaking down the robot into different elements, coming together to integrate work and breaking back up to small groups to accomplish additional tasks of presentations, video and web production, marketing and fundraising. Students with the most experience or knowledge mentor new/younger students, first, to get the job done, and second, to make sure that the next years team will have the talent pool adequate for future success.

In addition to their peers, student teams are matched with mentors (often college-age engineering students, and many, themselves, former FIRST team members) and advisors, who serve as facilitators, thinking partners and role models.

By design, Mr. Kamen intertwined collaboration as a fundamental value throughout the culture of FIRST.  Competition is structured with alliances of 3 teams, competing against another 3 team alliances. The alliances change every round.  Your determined competitor this round will likely be a vital ally in a future round. This fosters a spirit of Gracious Professionalism™“a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.” Gracious professionalism can be seen as experienced teams support rookie teams, or as equipment and parts are shared with ‘opponents’ to bring the level of competition up for all. The grace and professionalism exhibited by these student competitors could serve as an ethical model for many of today’s business leaders.

Newly founded, the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative (CORI) amplifies FIRST’s national structure and intent by developing a regional (and therefore, more affordable) competitive robotics event for Central Ohio. The group is a collaborative of parents, students, business owners, professors and teachers who have come together to help launch new teams, recruit advisors, and host these events for the betterment of the students and of the region.

What can business – your business – learn from these students?

  • Get over failure. It’s part of learning what works and what doesn’t.
  • Use rapid prototyping to accelerate learning and innovation.
  • Intentionally pair new people (or people new to their role) with mentors holding the needed content expertise.
  • Structure for collaboration.
  • Plan your firm’s capacity-building in the short-term in a way that positions it for long-term success. FIRST teams have a simultaneous focus on success both this year and next year, driving the teachers, mentors and experienced students to bring along the newer, less experienced / knowledgeable team members to prepare them for the following season.
  • Be conscious of the impact of culture on your initiative. In FIRST, students increase mastery in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in part because an environment has been created where geek – to be freaking smart – is cool. What would make your initiative the ‘cool’ place to be?

It’s not just the future, it’s our future. These students are the future of our country. I have great faith that these students will master the science and technology needed for their careers, but they will also be wonderful managers, leaders and innovators. Ralston Consulting is delighted to be a part of creating CORI, and welcomes all new teams, mentors and sponsors gearing up for the 2011 FIRST season!

You and your firm are invited to help shape the future! Learn more about supporting robotics for students nationally at and in Central Ohio at

(c) 2010 Ralston Consulting Inc.

About the Author: Ann is president of Ralston Consulting Inc. and a founding member of the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative.

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 Article Archive, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Process Improvement Comments Off on Students, Soccer-Bots and the Future of Workteams

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