Discovering New Futures: Radical Experiments, not more Planning!

“For the first time in a long time, the future feels inventable, not inevitable.” – Aislinn Rose, The Theatre Centre, Toronto

When times are complex, the future is uncertain and unpredictable.  We can’t plan our way forward rationally or logically.  As individuals, we may enjoy these conditions (how many of us would really like it if every day turned out exactly as planned?).  Organizations, however, often get stuck in planning mindsets and technical routines – proxies for elusive certainties – that make it hard to clarify and seize the new opportunities out there.

The way to shake off this tendency is to be radical in your vision for the future, but to start with small actions.  Operating under the radar (with a hand-picked team of unusual suspects), this way you won’t scare anyone off.  You can then enroll others as these early probes lead on to useful learning and the invitation to take part in public prototypes

What are Small Experiments with Radical Intent?

They are minute probes to find out if possible innovative strategies in response to a complex challenge are even worth investing in at all.  You have developed an inspiring Radical New Vision for future success and generated a number of exciting, unexpected and divergent strategies that might make that vision a reality (very, very different from your past practice).  It makes no sense in this context to invest a lot of time and resources launching any of these strategies in a fully developed form.  You’ll almost certainly miss the mark, waste time and money, and confirm the view of those who say you should be relying on established best practices.

Here are five characteristics of Small Experiments with Radical Intent (SERIs):

  1. They are forms of early research into possibilities: Learning by doing. Getting rapidly to action is essential with complex challenges – pontificating too much in advance will sacrifice momentum and turn people off.
  2. They have radical intent. Not all small experiments are born the same.  What distinguishes SERIs is that they are a real departure from your previous practice and can be clearly seen to arise from a significant shift in your assumptions.
  3. They require some vulnerability or risk. Your organization has to be prepared to turn up looking different, open to influence in how you move forward in fresh ways.  But not on a major scale yet – you don’t need to fear reputational damage from SERIs!
  4. They should have rough and ready designs. Resist the unconscious push to spend time polishing each tidbit until it meets your “standards of excellence”!  This is not program delivery.  Focus on minimum specifications and lots of repeats to enrich your learning.
  5. You have the capacity in place to carry them out. If you reckon you have to hire an expert, spend $1,000, or contract with a project administrator, to carry out a SERI, you’re thinking way too large.  Go back upstream, to the first possible probe you might make, and do that.

 Here are some questions that you might ask as you design SERIs:

  1. What do we want to learn? (Ask this one first – before you get to what you’ll actually do.)
  2. What are we going to do to learn this? (Short-term planning questions)
    • What exactly will happen?
    • When and where?
    • Who will it involve?
    • What resources do we need?
  3. What data will we focus on capturing? How will we capture it?  (It likely won’t be the usual quantitative data you need – butts on seats are irrelevant to this initial probe.  Consider how you’ll capture the qualitative data that will help you learn – what did people think of the invitation?  How did they feel about the experience?  Would they do it again?  Would they tell friends?)
  4. What shall we call each SERI? (We’ve found this is really important.  Do it last.  If you can come up with a catchy title, it will help it stick, will build momentum, and it may become a meme in your organization that will build positive feedback.)

 Finally, here are some design principles that your SERIs might try to embody:

  • Construct and carry out multiple simultaneous experiments, not just one

In complexity, you can’t afford early on to back just one horse; probe and explore repeatedly in many and unexpected directions so that promising new strategies will emerge.

  • Approach your transformational vision obliquely

A direct attack on the complex challenge may seem the most effective, but the unpredictable context means it rarely pays off; being indirect, coming in at different angles to the problem, covers more territory and is more likely to yield results.

  • Make use of deliberate naïvete, translated expertise

Experts in the field have only limited usefulness in the journey to discover “next practices”; bring in expertise from different but related fields to jump start divergence.

  • Make the invisible visible

Metaphor and symbolism are fundamental to the medium of art, which is particularly good at embodying things that otherwise it’s hard to capture or feel; imaginative leaps can be powerful pre-echoes of a transformed state.

  • Require community interaction, not just observation

SERIs rarely have the power to help shape a strategy that’s emerging in complexity unless they test new kinds of participation (internally or externally).  Try to design imaginatively around possible forms of interaction right now.

 And remember:

“One reason the future cannot be predicted is because it can be influenced.” Adam Kahane

ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.