How do you get your people to think about what the future could be, in a way that inspires them and starts to spark action, but also takes into account the simple fact that the future is unpredictable?
I was reminded of this challenge, yet again, last week.
We were working with a client on developing a session for a two day leadership conference focussing on bringing their strategy to life. As we were throwing round ideas on the types of things we could do, someone suggested an exercise that involved the participants spending time writing a magazine article about how things are for that organisation in 5 years time.
This triggered a recollection when we did a similar thing when I was working in the UK for the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). I was involved in planning and running a series of workshops for the management population of my division, working with American management guru Noel Tichy to bring his concept of ” cycle of leadership to life. These were 2 day courses, and we ended up running them for nearly 5000 leaders, over a two year period in 2006 and 2007.
On day two there was an exercise where everyone had to draft a magazine article, for the leading business magazine The Economist, with these instructions:
You are assigned to write a cover story for the Economist – dated September 21st, 2012. The story is about the dramatic transformation of RBS, and how through your leadership and outstanding execution, RBS is achieving unprecedented success. The article should be written as if it were 2012 and should discuss the challenges RBS has overcome, how that was done and what the business now looks like.
Now to understand the rest of this story you need to know that RBS during that time was one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. In 2005 it announced a profit of $A10.27bn, up 14% from the year before, and in
2006 the profit increased another 16% to $A13.69bn. By 2007 the profit stood at a very impressive A$15.33bn and the share price stood at $A8.94.
It was held up as a major success story in the UK corporate world, and its Chief Executive, Sir Fred Goodwin, who had been knighted in 2004, was a darling of Wall Street and the city in London. The feeling was that we could do no wrong, the business would just keep growing and growing, and become even more and more successful.
People spend an hour crafting these beautiful magazine articles talking about RBS and its success five years in the future. They then worked in three’s sharing each other stories, before three or four of the best ones were shared with the whole group. I remember they talked about things like how RBS now had 500,000 staff (up from its 120,000 at the time), that its market share has gone through the roof (i.e. its share of the credit card market was now 80%, up from 20%), that the world’s most innovative companies came to RBS to learn how to do it, and that its profit had just hit A$30bn a year.
At the time I thought the exercise was very useful. It created energy in the room, made people feel good about themselves and the organisation and all of what was mentioned seemed realistic and achievable.
On the 19 January 2009, RBS announced a loss of AS41.65bn, the biggest ever annual loss in UK corporate history. On that same day the British Government increased its holding in the bank to 70%, and the share price stood at less than 14 cents. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, businesses within the RBS Group were sold and Sir Fred resigned, he was vilified by the British press, and his house was even attacked by angry protestors.
There is no way in 2006 or 2007 that we could see this downfall happening. It was completely realistic to think of continued success and global domination. The exercise seemed to do exactly what Tichy had wanted it to do, and people were still talking about months after the events. But every single prediction that 5000 people made about the future proved to be wrong.
How do you get your people to think about the future, and what it could be, but which also takes into account its unpredictability? How do you manage and deal with that paradox? Was the exercise we did at RBS ‘wrong’, or did it achieve what it wanted, if its purpose was to get people excited about RBS’ future, and reinforced to them why they wanted to be there. Is it more of an engagement technique than a strategic visioning exercise?
I would really like to hear your views on exercises like this and your experiences of dealing with the challenge of trying to envisage a rapidly changing, unpredictable future and the value in doing so.
About Kevin Bishop