Chapter 3. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Organizational and Industry Evo Devo

Organizations and their industries also evolve and develop. In addition to the study of competition and change offered within Business Administration, the academic fields of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Organizational Studies, Organizational Behavior, Organization Development, Operations Research, and Management Science are good sources for both evo and devo perspectives on organizational change. There is also an Industry Studies Association, an academic community exploring unpredictable and predictable aspects of industrial change.

There are scores of good books in the management literature that take a balanced approach to the unpredictable and the predictable. Books like Adizes Managing Corporate Lifecycles (2014), Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (2014), Rogers Diffusion of Innovations (2003), Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (2011), Forrester’s Industrial Dynamics (1961) and many others mentioned in this Guide all help us anticipate as much as to experiment, in our organizations and their industries.

As the pace of change continues to accelerate in leading industries, we’re also seeing new evolutionary and developmental approaches to organization. We’ve mentioned agile and scrum management as recent innovations that seem likely to also be new developmental optima as well. See Sutherland, Scrum (2014) for a great intro.

Scrum rules like forming cross-functional teams of seven plus or minus two, engaging in one to three week sprints, followed by demos to and feedback from product stakeholders, having a product owner prioritize the backlog, and the team size the difficulty of items, are all likely to be optima for rapid and efficient work. The scrum approach is a very good example of the 95/5 rule, as it is a far more bottom-up and locally-determined approach to work than most organizations take.

So too there are likely a set of optimal ways of forming “teams of teams”, organizing your scrum teams within larger organizations. There are many examples of leaders successfully implementing more evo devo approaches to management, but finding them in highly bureaucratic and high-stakes organizations is particularly inspiring.

See Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s Team of Teams (2015) for a great account of the reorganization of the communication protocols in the Joint Special Operations Task Force under the Special Operations Command in the US Department of Defense in a far more bottom-up fashion, and the great benefits of that approach in Iraq in 2004 and later in Afghanistan, under his command. One of McCrystal’s critical innovations was to have one member of each relevant small team attend his daily online Operations & Intelligence briefing, which ran for up to two hours. That ended up being 7,000 individuals who were able to ask critical questions or report problems, and offer solutions to their colleagues offline after the briefing.

McCrystal’s changes, beginning with communication, helped him reshape the Task Force as not one massive team, but a “team of teams”. Prioritizing daily communication between existing small and very efficient teams, like the Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, and finding that one “connector” individual in all the departments and teams in the much more top-down organizations, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, CIA, NSA, and others, and getting them on the daily briefing really helped McCrystal push through a more scrum-like approach to problem solving and operations.

Bratton and Knobler’s excellent book Turnaround (1998) describes another scrum-like daily briefing process, which, when combined with new digital measurement and accountability platform called CompStat, was used to reform the New Jersey Transit Authority and the New York Police Department.

In my experience, books like Team of Teams and Turnaround can change people’s minds about what is possible when more bottom up and evo devo process is implemented on small teams, even when they exist within rigid bureaucracies. If enlightened leaders can make the US military and police departments more scrum-like, we can reshape any organization, beginning with our small teams.

Schwartz (1996) A classic in Org Foresight.

Schwartz (1996)
A classic in Org Foresight.

Fortunately, many of the world’s leading companies are already surprisingly evolutionary developmentalist in their strategy and planning. We can trace this shift back at least to Pierre Wack’s strategy group at Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1980s, as discussed in Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View (1996), a classic in business foresight. Wack realized that in order to do good scenario planning (exploring “what could happen”, and the best strategic responses to major uncertainties) one should first constrain the possibility space by understanding what is very likely to continue to happen in the larger environment.

Wack recommended starting with developmental foresight, finding the apparently “inevitable” macrotrends that he called TINA trends, which we saw in Chapter 2. TINA stands for “There Is No Alternative” to the trend. He cited increasing economic globalization and political liberalization, short of global pandemic or asteroid strike, as starter examples of such trends. Once we know the boundaries of the future indicated by such trends, we can then do evolutionary foresight (exploring alternative futures) within a set of testable TINA trends and constraints. That in turn will make our alternative futuring much more believable and accurate as a result.

Treating both evo and devo foresight perspectives seriously remains a key challenge for some strategy leaders. Those who practice strategic foresight are by definition prioritizing preference foresight, the Third P, but many strategists don’t try to balance evo and devo thinking on the way into setting their preferences, agendas, and plans.

A number of management and foresight consultancies are good at one, but not the other of these two fundamental perspectives, as it’s a lot easier to pick one perspective as your dominant framework than to have to continually figure out how to integrate two opposing processes. But picking one as your primary way of getting to preferences is a cognitive bias, from the evo devo perspective. Both perspectives are critical to evaluating strategies and managing change.

I’ve been doing technology foresight work for several years now, and follow the work of various consultancies. In my experience, all the most successful companies and consultancies realize there are many highly predictable aspects of our future. Collectively our business and government leaders bet trillions annually on those predictions. Some are using good foresight processes in making those bets, but many are still flying by the seat of their pants.

Finally, when we consider evo and devo processes as inputs to strategy, we should strive to start with certainty (development), as Daniel Burrus says, as that will simplify our possibility thinking. I am convinced that those companies and consultancies, large and small, new and old, that solicit internal and external predictions, forecasts, risk analyses, and other predictive foresight processes in advance of their imaginative, creative, uncertainty-defining, scenario, and option-seeking work, as inputs to strategy, planning, and execution are winning increasingly large advantages in their markets every year.

Even our most successful entrepreneurs, who are clearly more experimental in their outlook than typical corporate leaders, very often have a world view that begins with prediction, and ends with their current set of experiments.  I need to look at the literature to find good studies to back up these claims, but offer them as conjectures at present.

The executives leading our most successful companies today definitely do not see the world as a random accident, like an ultra-Darwinian evolutionist, or a naive postmodernist “cultural relativist” who lives off the exponentiating wealth and leisure of the science and technology that he argues are “not uniquely privileged perspectives” on the universe. That perspective is bunkum, and we must call it out when we see it. Let’s hope a growing proportion of our young scientists and foresight practitioners in coming years become as evolutionary developmentalist in their world views as many of our corporate leaders and even entrepreneurs are today.

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