New learning curve sends planners back to the future
Anticipatory Action Learning
Byline: Julie Macken
Australian Financial Review
January 1, 1999
The accepted strategies for forward planning have lost
credence, forcing corporations to rethink and re-arm
Typical. Just as corporate Australia is finally getting
into the swing of strategic planning, along come some of the country's
foremost futurists and declare that the reign of strategic planning is over .
The catchcry now is Anticipatory Action Learning (AAL), a transformative
approach to negotiating the future that incorporates then transcends strategic
Scenario and strategic planning grew in popularity after
the apparent success of the Dutch Shell Corporation in the early 1970s. Having
developed a number of future scenarios, Shell was able to utilise its forward
thinking when the OPEC crisis hit a few months later. The company turned the
emergency into an opportunity and went from seventh to second in the world of
oil production in the process.
But acording to futurist Sohail Inayatullah, who spent
the 1980s as the strategic planner for the Justice Department of Hawaii and is
now a senior research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology, the
same story also offers a perfect example of the limited nature of strategic
and scenario planning.
"Shell's planning helped them turn a crisis into an
opportunity," says Inayatullah. "But because it was so superficial,
it didn't prevent them from creating their own crisis in the 1980s in Nigeria
and then the Brent Spar debacle - both of which cost them dearly.
"Strategic planning is a useful tool in the
short-term, but any company that thinks it offers a way into the future is
Unfortunately - from the futurist's point of view - the
human response to a world that's spinning faster than ever before, with
financial and geo-political realities changing moment to moment, is to
contract and lock down the hatches. Just like the body does when it feels
pain. The fact that this contraction and resistance actually makes the pain
get worse is often overlooked.
Strategic planning, whatever its shortcomings, at least
offers the illusion of control and security. Sitting back and rehearsing
various scenarios and preparing alternate responses to them while planning the
next Great Leap Forward can be a momentarily galvanising experience.
But despite living and working in an increasingly global
market with its roots buried in a number of diverse cultures, most of these
strategies are devised by white, upper-middle class men unused to imagining
how the other half live.
"Shell's disaster in Nigeria would never have
happened if they had involved the local Nigerian community in the planning
stages," says Inayatullah.
"Likewise, if they had been talking to a range of
stakeholders like environmentalists, Brent Spar would never have happened. One
of the problems is that strategic planning forces you to use only one or two
sources of information and those sources invariably look a lot like the
dominant culture of the organisation. Closed systems like these rarely survive
During the '80s and early '90s the corporate sector,
particularly in North America and Europe, poured resources into strategic
planning. They worked on the theory that the more information they had about
the future, the more research they did on modelling, the better equipped they
would be in uncertain times.
Yet very few anticipated the ascendency of the hedge
funds, the Asian crisis or the current shift to deflation. And the bad news,
says Tony Stevenson, president of the World Futures Federation and director of
the Communication Centre at QUT, is that they're never going to be able to.
"If we've learnt anything over the last 12 months
it's that change comes out of left field and comes fast," he says.
"The reason these things caught corporations and countries off-guard is
because they were busy looking straight down the pipeline rather than around
In a global marketplace it's no longer safe to assume
the rest of the world shares the same value system, vision or priorities as
Australia's corporate sector. According to Stevenson, few Australian companies
are aware of the logic trap inherent in their future projections. He says:
"Even in their scenario planning they fail to acknowledge that their
vision is one that is culturally bound and informed by a male Judaic-Christian
"Nothing wrong with these traditions except that
they are very different from Confucian, Islamic, indigenous and Hindu world
views. And they often don't translate across cultures or genders for that
It's this presumption of sameness that brings many
companies undone. While strategists may argue that they cater for differences
by looking at four or five different scenarios, because they all operate from
the same flawed premise - that is that their world view is the dominant one -
they fail to keep an open mind.
Having experienced the failure and humiliation that
comes from taking such an arrogrant position, Dutch Shell had the willingness
of the drowning when it came to finding another way of operating in the world.
It turned to a system called Action Learning (AL), the
precursor to Anticipatory Action Learning. AL provided it with a way of
de-layering management levels, introducing self-managed teams with a focus on
empowerment, and removing formal lines of communication and hierarchy, relying
instead on individuals and teams to form the networks that help their work.
According to Robert Burke, CEO of Innovation Management
at the International Management Centre, the process of AL alters the usual
priorities from action to one where practioners can reflect and assess
strategies as they evolve.
"The process of AL is: plan, act, observe, reflect,
revise," he says. "It's a continuous cycle and because of that it
removes the idea that it's possible to make a plan, set your sights and just
power through without ever having to change course."
While most companies and senior management are
comfortable with the ideas of planning and action, observation, reflection and
revision are a little - or lot - more difficult. ln Burke's opinion, this is
where good leadership becomes critical.
He says: "A lot of companies fail because their
internal features generate inertia that seduces senior management to opt for
maintaining the status quo, favouring established directions that proved
successful in the past. Mainly because their activities embed them in business
communities that shield them from the wider community.
"It's clear that if an organisation is genuinely
interested in change and in becoming a learning organisation, then it's
imperative the CEO lead the way and allow all team members to become leaders
in their own right."
In Burke's opinion, the issue of empowerment has become
more critical as the speed of change accelerates. Like the human body,
corporations need more than a good brain. They also need every organ and
nervous system to be fluid, functioning and able to operate, even when the
brain is resting.
While acknowledging the short-term boost to productivity
that fear provides - particularly fear generated by out-sourcing and
down-sizing - Burke believes that as a long-term strategy it's guaranteed to
strip the workplace of meaning or care. And once that happens only the most
desperate will want to be there.
Anticipatory Action Learning brings together the tenets
of Action Learning and post-strategic work that when operating together create
fundamental principles of respect, open-mindedness and integrity that can
translate across crises and cultures, according to Inayatullah.
"Strategy is part of the problem because it only
uses the intellect and limits chaos and complexity," says Inayatullah.
"Therefore it also limits all the other ways in which we know and
understand the world - intuition, instincts and through relationships."
Stevenson and Inayatullah believe that while strategic
planning gives an organisation the feeling of having control over the events,
people and the future, AAL offers the opposite.
"AAL teaches people and corporations how to let go
and let things happen," says Stevenson. "With the winds of change
blowing so strong and erratically right now, survival means learning how to
bend with the wind. To do that you need flexibility and humility.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure corporate Australia yet recognises the value of
those two attributes."