Introducing Cloudbreaks, a documentary video series from Bigwidesky 

From his point-of-view in the kitchen, Frank McGinty saw the looks on peoples’ faces around the table. And from that moment on, he was hooked. 

What he saw was unadulterated joy and genuine conviviality. The simple food that he had concocted and made especially for the diners had been a catalyst for shaping a community and a meaningful experience. And this was something that he had intuited. Something that would never leave him to this day. 

Frank is now the director of sales and marketing for Kaldi’s coffee. And he has taken the fundamental experience that he saw from his days in the kitchen to a larger question of the role of a coffee brand in the lives of the humans that touch that brand. 

Frank’s brief story we captured here answers a fundamental question: How can a company that sells a commodity create a deep, meaningful connection to its audiences in a way that generate growth? 

And we are using Frank’s story, and stories like his, to uncover the ways in which organizations have the potential to place humans at the center of their design decisions. What would happen if what drove our efforts was a genuine desire to serve complex human needs?  

The answer to what is possible is in our series: Cloudbreaks. They are named as such because they can act as a kind of inspiration for leaders for whom off-the-shelf business solutions are no longer satisfying. They are for you if you are a person who is working every day to make your business, organization or community more human.  

If you know of leaders who are doing the work of making their businesses and organizations more human, we would love to feature them as a Cloudbreak, send them over to Erica.

Contact Erica

If the headline for this piece seemed of interest to you, then you have my deepest sympathies.

I mean that sincerely. It is likely that you are facing what feels like a big decision or something too complex. And what you would like right now is some certainty.

Another layer of my sympathy has to do with the fact that I do not have any certainty for you. And the even worse news is that attempts to create some future certainty won’t help you either. And the reason that I know this is that we have tried many times before.

Here is an example:

By the year 2050, over 40 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will reappear in human form. This finding comes from a recent Pew Research Center study. Surely 50 million Americans can’t be wrong. However, they are just the latest in our history of predicting this event.

Here are some of the previous attempts at certainty:

  • Hippolytus of Rome said it would be 500 AD. This was based on his interpretation of the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Perhaps not the right data set.
  • John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, predicted 1836 based on a passage in Revelation 12.
  • Edgar C Whisenant, a NASA engineer and Bible student predicted 1988. He even wrote a book. “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.” When his predicted date of the apocalypse passed, he wrote several more books about being on “borrowed time,” none of which sold many copies.

We do it anyway, though, because what we desire is some form of certainty. Our default setting compels us to create images of a future we would prefer. And those images are repeatedly not true.

But there is good news: There exist useful frameworks for getting to know the future and for taking back some of the agency on the shaping of the images you and your organization holds of the future.

It begins by dropping the need to predict a particular future and instead understanding that the future is alive in your present-day decision making. The future is not a place on the horizon at which we arrive. The future is alive inside of you and your organization at the level of (generally unconscious) images.

“The future cannot be predicted because the future does not exist.” — James Dator

To make those images more visible and to create alignment on taking agency and shaping futures is the work of foresight. And, it turns out, that organizations that can inspire and cultivate foresight as a mindset and practice are more capable of facing uncertainty.

  1. An introduction to what foresight can mean for you and your organization.
  2. A real-world example of using foresight to impact action plans.
  3. A Quickstart Guide for a foresight tool developed by Bigwidesky.

If you cannot make it to the webinar but would like to receive a recording and the guide, please email Erica at Bigwidesky.

Remember ten years ago when you had that one friend who was convinced the government was spying on him? Leaning into the cafe table, he would whisper that national security was listening to everyone’s phone conversations. “Crazy,” you thought. “Why would the government be interested in anything I’m up to?” You tried your best to comfort your obviously disillusioned friend. Perhaps you even suggested a professional to help him get in touch with reality.

The trouble is that he was not delusional at all. It turns out the National Security Agency is listening to your phone. That crazy idea? Not crazy. Reality these days has become a series of accepting the once fringe as mainstream. And while this is evident to a large extent in our national political and social discourse, it is true also in your business.

Amazon warehouse
Photo credit: portalgda on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

In 2007, Amazon was still understood as a book retailer. Fast forward to today and it is a retail, technology and logistics superpower that is likely going to somehow take over your industry. The entire business world, your company included, is knit into our accelerated culture. The diffusion of innovations is growing at an exponential rate. If you look back over the last ten years in your company, you can likely see that what once was only a distant trend is now an integral part of your daily life. It is enough to make you feel crazy.

Both the good news and the bad news is that you’re not crazy. Things are accelerating at a rate that we could not predict. And that has, in turn, increased the chances that seemingly unlikely realities are happening.

The pain of this acceleration is felt acutely when you are trying to plan for your next year. Where will our biggest opportunities be? What kind of vision ought we set forward? How do we look forward together? These questions are exceedingly difficult when things feel uncertain and crazy.

Things have always been and will always be crazy. The future has never been certain. But you can find a fresh approach to looking forward with your team if you can incorporate ways to think like futurists.

Here is better news: Things have always been and will always be crazy. The future has never been certain. But you can find a fresh approach to looking forward with your team if you can incorporate ways to think like futurists. One way to begin:

  1. Decide on a timeline. Let’s say ten years in the future. It is 2028.
  2. Create a narrative about your company, your customers and your industry. This is generally where vision work stops. But we need to cultivate the crazy or unlikely scenarios as well.
  3. Share this narrative with your trusted advisors. Tell them to read your narrative and tell you three things: The worst thing that could happen next; the best thing that could happen next; what you are missing.
  4. Look for patterns in the responses. These patterns are what futurists call signals. They are localized ideas that could blow up into a trend.
  5. The frequency of the signal allows you to know its strength or likelihood.
  6. Use the present-day signals to create a more robust 2018 plan. They could influence your direction and give you a basis for decision-making.

This is not an attempt to predict the future. Don’t try that. Vision is less about predicting the future and more about your ability to articulate multiple futures. This allows your organization to have the flexibility to meet the new crazy realities.

Around this time of year, financial organizations will invite you to their economic forecasts. You pull up a chair with Styrofoam coffee in hand to the Powerpoint, and the presenter will click a series of bar graphs. There is a trend line, talk of contrarian economic indicators and thinly veiled attempts at not being politically partisan.

If you have been to one of these, you may have left feeling deflated.

With a five-year horizon, it seems there is little influence you can have on shaping our economy. However, according to some economic forecasts from around the world, there is one metric over which you can have influence, and it has a deep impact: our need for new ideas.

This need is made apparent in the analysis of what economists call productivity. That is simply the amount of inputs required to produce outcomes. Globally, productivity has been dropping for years. Currently, there is increased human capital and expenditures for small or incremental rewards.

It is likely you have experienced this trend within your business. We focus on implementing within the constraints we establish.

New ideas are not just cute or fun. The health of your business in the future is dependent upon creating an environment in which innovation can occur.

“I am a believer that, in general, people spend far too little time devoted to trying to come up with ideas and far too much time in executing on day-to-day things that could be transformed through the power of ideas,” Steve Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics.

New ideas are not just cute or fun. The health of your business in the future is dependent upon creating an environment in which innovation can occur. It is a mindset — a way to think that will shake loose creative notions about the future of your business.

The problem is: Just where do these new ideas come from?

They rarely come from thinking harder about the same circumstances. Often, they seem to materialize out of nowhere. We leave new ideas to chance. Or we believe that new ideas are the responsibility of visionaries. However, there are many frameworks for generating ideas.

You can try this one on and see what happens. It is a scaled back version of an exercise we do at Bigwidesky called Transpiration. Here is how it goes:

  1. Gather a group of stakeholders involved in setting the strategy.
  2. Create an unlikely scenario that takes place 20 years in the future. Example: It is 2038 and Amazon has relocated to St. Louis <not-so-subtle wink>.
  3. Answer the prompt: And then this would happen… Use sticky notes and line up at least four or five of them. These are called continuation visions.
  4. Follow the same procedure and answer the prompt: And then this would NOT happen… These are collapse visions.
  5. Lining up the continuation and collapse visions, you can begin to play more notes on the visions to build narratives (then this happens, then this happens). Spend 20 minutes asking questions and creating more detail as to what the future may hold.
  6. What you will begin to see are repeated ideas. Those are the signals that may blow up into trends. Spend 20 minutes looking for these patterns.
  7. Collect the signals and use them as the basis for creating new ideas for the company.

Do not be concerned with performing this perfectly.

Do not be concerned with performing this perfectly. The point is to develop the muscle memory for unlocking creative vision. By creating rituals like this, organizations can become more agile. They can also create visions of the future that have depth and weight.

It was likely at some innovation-y conference some years ago that I heard this piece of inventor folklore: Previous to the Wright Brothers’ experience at Kitty Hawk, a group approached the Santa Fe Railway with a proposal for investment. The group who represented Samuel Langley, a well-known inventor and physicist, told the executives about the fact that the next innovation in transportation would be through the air.

According to the fable, the railroad executives took little time to deliberate. “We are a railroad company. That is what we know how to do. Sorry. We don’t fly.” Their decision likely seemed prescient at the time. After all, there was “nothing broke.” The railroad was king at the end of the 19th century. So why would they change? Of course, none of us would be as myopic as the Santa Fe executives in this business fable. Of course not. All of us knew to invest in an internet-based decentralized form of currency in 2012 right? Well, maybe not. But, today, a single Bitcoin is valued at over 7500 US dollars.

Having an openness to innovations is not about having the ability to predict the future or make the right investments. Not at all. It is about an openness or disposition to consider change.

The point is that most of us are like the railroad executives. We do not possess a cultural openness to innovations, the critical component for new growth.

Having an openness to innovations is not about having the ability to predict the future or make the right investments. Not at all. It is about an openness or disposition to consider change. And the edge of a new year is the best time to get the humans in your organization ready for change.

Today, with the rate of innovations and the fact that, one day, Amazon will own your industry (if it does not already), making openness to change a deep value is of critical importance. Disruption feels like the new normal. If you want to better create an attitude of openness in your organization, you can try something we do at Bigwidesky, a Force-Field Analysis.

The purpose of a Force-Field Analysis is to expose the systems that are at work around a proposed change. It makes transparent the forces that support and cripple change. And, most importantly, it creates a deep alignment among stakeholders.

forcefield analysis

The best time to use a tool like this is when you have been considering a change — a new department, business process, growth strategy. The detailed process for a Force- Field Analysis is well-outlined in Gamestorming, a most insightful book from Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. Generally, it works like this:

  1. Decide on the most pertinent change for the organization you would like to examine for 2018. On a whiteboard or large paper, draw the change in the middle of the board. On the left side of the change label the top, “For.” On the right, label the board, “Against.”
  2. Gather a group of your stakeholders, and grab some small sticky notes. Ask them to come up with the forces that would promote the change on one note color. Ask them for forces that would prevent the change on a different color of note.
  3. Gather all of the notes “For” on one surface. And, with the stakeholder group, you can begin to cluster them around themes. Repeat the same process for “Against” cards.
  4. Convert the clustered themes into forces. You can weigh that force on a scale of 1–5 based on how many notes were in that cluster.
  5. Put the forces on the corresponding “For” and “Against” sides of the change drawing.
  6. Quantify the totals “For” and “Against” columns. You should end up with a drawing and some quantifiable idea of what is at play.

You now have a basis for discussing change that is further removed from preconceived notions about change as a concept. The idea is to address the feasibility of innovation on a quantified basis. This framework also allows for you to determine strategies to overcome obstacles should you decide to go through with a change. Using this approach, you can make change feel transparent, natural and human instead of forced and mechanical.

“I want something just like this, but not this,” is one of the phrases most often heard by anyone seeking to design something new. That something could be as simple as a business card or website and as complex as a new city block or business strategy. The phrase is generally uttered by well-meaning people who are attempting to express some outcome that remains inarticulable with current tools.

The trouble is this: The future is a space that is nebulous and abstract. And creating a prototype for the expression of those ideas about the future is largely the job of business visionaries, design thinkers and organizational leaders. That task is, at best, tough.

Here is what we need: A useful way of interpreting and communicating visions of the future that can inspire creativity.

“Every human, by virtue of being human, is capable of vision. Playing a game like this can help you create a framework for articulating vision.”

“There are people we often call ‘visionaries’ who do this work intuitively,” said Jeremy Nulik, evangelist prime at Bigwidesky. “However, every human, by virtue of being human, is capable of vision. Playing a game like this can help you create a framework for articulating vision.”

St. Louis Design Week 2017
Would you like to play a game of futures?

To more involve the design-minded community in taking on widespread crises of vision, Bigwidesky hosted a special lunch and learn (How to Unlock Creative Vision: A workshop on applying design futures thinking to your biggest creative challenges during St. Louis Design Week. The week was an all-too-fitting time to have the conversation since it gathers the best minds in the design, communications, business and entrepreneurial communities.

St. Louis Design Week 2017
The St. Louis design community turned out for the creation of artifacts from the future.

It was standing room only as Jeremy Nulik facilitated a workshop with dozens of business leaders and design thinkers. He outlined why thinking like a futurist can help anyone to articulate vision. The attendees were then set in motion on playing The Thing from the Future — a game based upon the work of renowned futurist and friend of Bigwidesky, Stuart Candy.

St. Louis Design Week 2017
The Gryffindor shirt is not a political statement.

The game is played with four categories of cards:

  • Arc (the backdrop or category of future)
  • Terrain (the domain the artifact comes from)
  • Artifact (the actual thing)
  • Mood (the emotional response that present-day people would have to the artifact).

Participants then create an artifact to represent the scenario.

The goal of The Thing from the Future is to create the muscle memory for how to interpret visions of the future. And it serves as a way to expose the broad possibility space of multiple futures. During the lunch and learn, the attendees were divided into groups and given a scenario based on their four cards.

The Thing from the Future card game
Angela Ortmann provided a tweet fromPOTUS Eminem in 2038 regarding a collapse scenario of the ag industry. The mood produced in the present day should be happiness. Did it work? #makenapagreatagain

If you want to download the cards used during the lunch and learn, you can print and play them from here. Also, you can use the ones developed by Stuart Candy here.

Here’s how the cards can be used to gamify thinking like a futurist:

  1. The number of rounds, players and judges are determined.
  2. The judge draws one card from each category — Arc, Terrain, Artifact, Mood.
  3. The players use a predetermined time to think through their artifact given the constraints. This can be in the form of narrative or visualizations or both.
  4. Artifacts are shared between players and the judge.
  5. The judge declares the most compelling vision and that player is awarded the cards.
  6. One of the players becomes a judge for the next round and play continues.
  7. The player with the most cards at the end of predetermined rounds is declared the best winner.

If you play using Bigwidesky cards, you are encouraged to post your artifacts to Twitter or Instagram and tag them with #bigwidesky.

PRO TIP: Do not be concerned with playing the game perfectly. The point of the game is to develop the muscle memory for evaluating the possibility space of the future and for unlocking creative vision. By creating rituals or games that seek to “play futures,” organizations and individuals can become more agile and intelligent thinkers. They can also create visions of the future that have depth and weight — two ingredients that increase the likelihood that others will align with the vision. (If you think your organization would benefit from playing the game, send an email to Angela.)

Many decades ago, an artist and deep-pocketed co-conspirators thought it wise to erect an homage to some of their characters in the middle of a Florida swamp. The stated motivation for this effort was to create a place where anyone could find inspiration. Visitors unlock imagination and have a great time.

Today, the Walt Disney Corporation is in the business of making family fun (and a great deal of profits via a diversified portfolio).

I took my first-ever trip to Walt Disney World just a few months ago. Their creative investment in making fun is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. However, not every visitor to “The Most Magical Place on Earth” feels the same.

Upon entering the Magic Kingdom, we were slowly moseying through a makeshift Main Street America. Costumed Imagineers roamed among filigreed buildings. The kettle corn and stuffed animals rounded out a county fair feel. In the distance, the minarets of Cinderella’s Castle became visible. Instantly, I was transported into a state of childhood wonder.

“All right you two, smile! This is supposed to be the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ C’mon. This is for Facebook,” said the phone-wielding woman backing away from her two boys. I had not seen her reverse approach toward me. She had stepped on my feet, and I nearly fell. Her boys had clearly been crying. It was the beginning of the day, and it seemed to me they had already had all the fun they were going to have.

This scene was a microcosm of something I had witnessed repeatedly in the park. Despite the investment in manufactured fun, there are lots of slow-moving people and strollers in tight areas. There is the Florida heat. This setting exposes the nerves of 20 years worth of backlogged family drama. And it is played out for every Mickey-painted face to witness.

This is how well deep investment performs at making happy. And how many times do we try to create Disney-like fun experiences in our companies? And how fair is it to expect we will be more successful sans deep-pocketed investors?

If you think about the most meaningful moments in your life, they were rarely characterized by just happiness. They were full of fear, sadness, anticipation and challenge.

Workplace experts have clogged conference schedules with happiness seminars. While the intentions are righteous, there is little evidence to support manufactured happiness is effective for increasing productivity. Recent studies cited in the Harvard Business Review have found that happiness doesn’t increase productivity. It can be exhausting and damage your relationships with your team. It can even make you appear selfish.

The reasons for the focus on workplace happiness — despite this evidence — are largely aesthetic. No conscientious leader wants to create an unhappy environment. So, in reaction, most companies will do their utmost to make happy. These efforts fall flat. Why? If you think about the most meaningful moments in your life, they were rarely characterized by just happiness. They were full of fear, sadness, anticipation and challenge. Requiring that people be happy is essentially asking them to not be humans.

Here is what you can do instead: Focus on fulfillment.

Amazing customer experience and an aligned workforce have been shown to create more productivity and profits. If those sound appealing, then offer your people the chance to be challenged and to grow. It is likely this will not make everyone happy. That’s okay. If you put the focus on accomplishing something great together, you unlock the potential for spontaneous joy and fulfillment. You allow people to be more human.

Try this: Gather your team, and share your vision for where you want your business to be in 20 years (Note: That means you have to craft a vision first). Allow them to create personal challenges that will allow them to make a difference in your team to get there. And then provide them the needed resources for them to accomplish their challenges.

In this, the first episode of the first season of More Human — the podcast of the Be Human Project — host Jeremy Nulik interviews Dutch author and business leader, Jurgen Appelo, about his book, ‘Managing For Happiness.’

Let’s have a conversation.

We help companies navigate change and address challenges around growth, communications, culture and systems. We’d love to help you explore the unknowns in your organization.

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