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2011's Challenges

Agriculture, manufacturing, high tech, executive education, and deep client consulting. 2011 is off to a start of challenging work with my clientele.

Some of the watchwords for the work include volatility, the unexpected, and hopeful improvement. Energy and the economy are two of the most crucial forecasting areas as almost every client looks ahead for the next 2-5 years.

In another few months we’ll see politics ramp up even higher as the foray’s into the Iowa caucus begin. My government clients, especially in the Federal arena, are wondering if they’ll have funding for their education projects and hiring.

In agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing eyes are on the Middle East’s unprecedented developments. The tragedy and ripple effects of a Libyan civil war dominate current thinking but the possibility of Saudi unrest is the real trump card. Some of the work being done in strategy and decision-making meetings by my clients is not just interesting - it’s engrossing and both fundamentally disturbing and profoundly philosophical.

It’s an interesting time to consult as a futurist.

Busy isn't the word

Beginning in August of this year work was frantic.

During the five month stretch that closed out the year I racked up over 50,000 miles traveling between projects and assignments in the U.S. It was gratifying but exhausting.

My executive education work with the Social Security Administration turned into working sessions with their top leadership as they move toward developing a new strategic plan. As you can imagine, the agency faces some obvious and daunting issues as the Baby Boom generation becomes customers beginning... right now!

Agriculture was prominent in the schedule. Not only did I conduct a half-dozen leadership education sessions in the grain and oilseed sectors but I continued work with the cooperative movement in ag.

One of my most interesting projects is development of a set of scenarios for a grain sector that is encountering declining acreage. Their crop is uniquely suited to their geography and I believe they are just “one breakthrough away” from a robust recovery as I put it in an address to their annual meeting. The scenario work is one of the fun aspects to the futurist field. I get to tell stories of the future and make them both entertaining and compelling. Their very good professional staff developed the kernels of the issues and I’m providing finished product.

A lot of work crowded into the schedule at the last minute. Some took me to wonderful spots to work with interesting groups. I’d done a significant number of advisory sessions with some of America’s wealthiest families over the past decade. I was called back to deliver a short session for a group in a philanthropic setting made up of multi-millionaire families. It’s fascinating to hear their perspectives given the economic and political currents flowing in our country currently.
2011 is shaping up as a challenging year. Not only will I work with my continuously growing clientele of strategic planning clients but I’ll revisit a long-time alliance with the Institute for Management Studies which is doing some of the best work I’ve observed on “leveraged learning” for executives.

Pace Picking Up

Late summer is normally a fairly quiet time. Not this year.

I’m scrambling to cover the bases before heading out into the sultry weather of the South for a ten day road trip working with a number of projects.

I’ll work for the 16th straight year as faculty for one of the most prestigious leadership education programs in agriculture. Attendees are state leaders for associations and check-off programs for America’s biggest cash crops. I’ve enjoyed the long association and am always flattered to be asked back.

A stressed industry is next: telecommunications. The flood of competition is stressing long term successful companies in the field. Strong price competition. Uneven application of government funding. Critical culture changes from a formerly regulated environment to hyper-competition are all causing massive pain. My client is in the middle of it. Two days of strategy discussion and advising.

Finally a long drive to deliver the Vigilant Leadership seminar to the top officials at one of our government’s largest agencies. I’m looking forward to adding another client in this sector where I’ve been working more lately.

Project Lineup

The work continues. Several projects on the desk now:
  • Development of an extended learning experience for management and board chairs in the agriculture commodity field. This is a highly interesting and complex field with not only market drivers but a number of practical infrastructure and management decisions. The umbrella organization is a long term client but they’ve recently become more active.
  • I’m working on outlines for recording a number of video segments for AthenaOnline. I’ve participated with them since their founding. They provide short learning segments for Fortune 500 clients in international settings. My work focuses on anticipatory habits, forecasting for mid and top management, and how to avoid being surprised by unexpected developments.
  • Two strategy retreats for financial service organizations. Both are being impacted by a shifting regulatory environment, the economic recovery, and changing governance.
  • Regional economic forecasts. One is particularly challenging since it will involve the potential impacts of a wildcard development. (See my recent post on wildcards here.) The Gulf oil spill.
  • I’ve been asked to develop a set of scenarios as a foundation for strategy and contingency planning for a major industry group. The intent is to broaden the scope of forward vision and have alternative plans in place if a number of potential developments shift in their field. This is an extraordinarily fore-sighted approach that I wish would be adopted by more fields.
  • Plus the usual range of conference appearances and hands-on work with clients on implementation of plans.

Additions to Reading

We’ve posted some new reading recommendations in our Resources section of the website. Not only some new categories but where you can buy them that’s both an online and classic bookstore.
We maintain “bookshelves” at Powell’s Books, a Northwest institution in Portland. This is one of the great bookstores of the world and worthy of support. Not that I’ve got anything against the A-store (and I used to be one of their affiliates) but I found they started acting like a corporate bully the longer I was with them.
I never miss a trip to Powell’s when I’m in Portland. The store occupies an entire city block and a few hours of my time if I’ve got it.
We’ve got reading recommendations on:


  • Classics on the future. Thought leaders and seminal works. As we put it in the Association of Professional Futurists: Most Important Future Works
  • What’s New or Noteworthy. These are not always books about future methods but pieces that provoke thought, trigger implication thinking, or have some bearing on a future we’ve not yet experienced.
  • What We’re Reading Now. Just that. I’ll try to keep you up to speed on not just my reading on the future but a fairly broad, eclectic reading regimen.
  • Fiction for the Future. Why not be entertained? Here’s some reading to carry with you or set on the nightstand to provoke thought about what’s coming.
  • Background, Support, Of Interest. Not specifically about the future but broadening reading. All well-written. History, philosophy, compelling ideas.

Institute for Management Studies

I’m headed back to the annual planning session for the Institute for Management Studies in a couple of months. I’ll be doing a presentation and participating in the planning of courses along with representatives of member companies. I get a look at the topics most in demand at companies in North America and the EU which is always an interesting indicator of business concerns and directions.
I deliver full day seminars on anticipatory skills for mid to top level management for the Institute.
The
Institute for Management Studies is one of our longest term clients. The Institute is a uniquely structured organization with representatives and programs in North America and Europe.
IMS member companies include the vast majority of the Fortune 100 and most of the 500. They send their management to full day seminars staged by the organization focused on leadership, strategy, and higher performance. Faculty colleagues have included David Allen, Peter Senge, Ram Charan, and Russell Ackoff.

Projects we’re working on right now:

  • Coordination of agendas, preparation, advanced reading, issue selection with three large financial institutions for strategy retreats. Preparatory presentations to focus on regional issues, the future of financial services, how regulatory changes will evolve, succession planning.
  • Forecast for a highly stressed US industry: construction. Narrowed scenarios for economic recovery, regional recoveries, segments that will do well, best strategies in extended downturns.
  • Consulting on issue management, development of persuasion materials, forming alliances for one of my top industry segments: agriculture.
  • Preparation of curriculum for a full-day education session for cooperative leadership. Focus: anticipatory skillsets applied to governance, strategy, and implementation.

Upcoming engagements

Upcoming trips to work with clients in Denver, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Central Illinois.
Let us know if you want to schedule time for consultation, executive sessions, or work with your board or organization.

Youth work

As I age I come to enjoy my work with young professionals more and more. I seek out the work as much as possible.
Over the past three years I’ve worked with several conferences and gatherings of young professionals in a number of fields. Typically I’m asked to do a futurist speaker presentation but I’ve also done more and more hands-on work with young people to pass along what I call “anticipatory skills.”
One of the exercises I often use is to take them through an analysis of implications - the results, consequences, or after-effects of an event, trend, probability, or possibility.
I notice several things about this kind of work with them:
  1. They’re open to new approaches and techniques. Not a big surprise here but the difference between this age group and the supposed “older and wiser” is profound. I can introduce a technique to young professionals, demonstrate how it’s used, and they’re off and running. Older people in the same meeting or similar lines of endeavor balk, hesitate, or flat refuse to participate.
  2. The observations about the future from young people are open, fresh, and complex. They “get” complexity and don’t shy away from it. They find it fascinating. They point out nuance. Their minds twist away at situations as if they’re manipulating a Rubik’s cube to find a solution.
  3. They see things that I don’t in the future. I’ve never completed an exercise like I describe without coming away with an “aha!” that arose from a young person’s observation.
I’m hoping to do much more work with this group in the future.

Fall

Late summer and fall were extraordinarily busy for us. Primarily due to the uncertain economic situation and high demand from some of our primary segments, especially agriculture.
I spent an especially interesting time with the Ag Industry Council of the National Corn Growers Association. Not only was the Mackinac Island location one of the more beautiful destinations but the discussions were fascinating. I don’t know of many associations who do a better job of integrating with their industry partners. This is one of America’s best-run associations with major perception issues.
Their industry council covers the range of agribusiness companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow as well as big players like John Deere, BNSF, and CHS. They have many mutual interests and issues to discuss. The presentations ranged from foresight to social media to discussions of major issues. There was a fascinating side meeting on a future development that I hope to be able to write about some day.
I tire of the talking points from some quarters who keep referring to “millionaire corn farmers.” In order to even be in the agriculture sector today an operator has to have substantial financial resources and very high credit access. There are millionaire retail owners, millionaire dry cleaners, millionaire grocery store owners, even a lot of millionaire consultants around.
But none of the “millionaires” in other sectors roll the entire enterprise out on the line every year like a corn farmer does. This last year was an example. Weather caused most operators to have to replant their crop in the spring due to too much moisture, massively spiking their overhead. Then, when it came time to harvest their crop, they ran into the same situation and couldn’t get equipment into the cornfields to get the crop.
The risks are huge in this industry. The producers are families. The economics force them to operate on large acreages. But these are not what the image of millionaire evokes. They are modest, practical, middle-class families who love the land and the life they live.