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Fear Most? Not the Right Question

One of the better edited digests of information I read regularly is the Wall Street Journal’s “CIO Journal.” It’s a compilation of news items that affect businesses from the perspective of the increasingly integrated information and communications technology side of enterprises.

This morning a question was posed. “…which of the following Black Swan events you fear the most: natural disaster, cyber attack or hack, a loss of top talent, or that one of your strategic vendors gets acquired.” The column will compile the results.

A laudable effort. I will be interested. But as a practical matter it’s not enough to be looking only at the obvious future events that will affect your organization. If it had been me, I would have used a widely flung and well-informed network like CIO Journal has in its readers for even more useful purposes.

Subject matter experts who’ve arrived at their conclusions independently can be the best forecasters of the events ahead that are NOT on the radar screen yet. That was one of the central tenets of the fine James Surowiecki book
The Wisdom of Crowds.

Will we see a natural disaster that will affect companies? A major cyber attack or hack? Loss of top talent? Changes in the competitive landscape? Of course. They’re givens, not forecasts. And we need to be prepared for all of them, not rank ordering which we fear most.

For the last two years I’ve moderated the largest worldwide meeting of information security professionals. When I poll that group about the probability of a major cyber attack 75% agree it’s imminent. The other 25% respond that it happened already or is now occurring regularly.

The overlooked future events are the ones we’re not thinking about right now. They’re hidden around the corner or over the horizon.

That’s why I use techniques in strategy sessions to draw them out. Lay them in front of leadership. Examine their place in the spectrum of what’s ahead. Contemplate the after-effects and consequences of their occurrence. Develop a range of approaches to deal with them. Perhaps even compile contingency plans to address them.

Should you plan for the obvious? Of course. A mark of a truly robust organization, however, is one that looks for the unseen, the hidden, the events ahead that are not obvious.

A New View of Oil

Several entries in this blog have focused on oil prices. It’s an overarching driver of future factors that range from consumer behavior to geopolitical influences.

Lately I’ve studied oil prices more carefully and drilled into (forgive the inadvertent pun) the data that looks ahead. I’ve been a forecaster of a long-term rise in prices due to supply and demand pressures for a commodity with declining output.

I’m now adjusting my views in line with advice I give clients. A forecast is foresight that takes into account uncertainty and adjusts with time and new information. Time has passed since I began forecasting a rise and new information is available.

Frankly, the Bakken is making me a believer that more oil that will be available over the next two decades than we’d been able to forecast before. There’s been evidence of this in the past but now it’s being put into practice to a greater degree.

For many years I lived and worked throughout California’s Central Valley. The oil-producing fields to the west of Bakersfield were a constant source of amazement to me as someone who minored in geology in college. The estimates of the field and its productivity continued despite the forecasts of depletion. The Kern River Field was supposed to have fallen off in production in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and especially the 70’s and 80’s.

Today Kern River still forms a foundation of the strategic national reserves. Chevron began injecting steam underground in the 60’s and today the formation still yields about 80,000 barrels per day. It was a harbinger for what we see today as the unprecedented emergence of “tight oil” – petroleum that is brought to the surface through new technology both in new discovery fields and old fields that were thought to be defunct.

That’s what’s going on in the Bakken which I doubted was a significant or long-lived contributor to oil production. Today we know that it is and while so-called “cheap oil” – where you punch a hole and oil and gas flow to the surface – could be gone the creation of new reserves is going to be with us on an increasing basis.

Oil over $200 a barrel? Less probable if geopolitical events don’t cause problems in the Gulf. But I think the planet may have been blessed with some more time to use fossil fuel reserves while it makes the transition to sustainable sources of energy.

Vigilant Leadership

The single most valuable asset I see in an organization is a habit of foresight coupled with contemplation and tied directly to action.
If I rank the organizations I consult on their effectiveness, those that do all three of these do best overall. They generate more profits, have better looking balance sheets, attract investment, or serve their stakeholders the best.
I like to call it
vigilant leadership.”
What’s involved?
Vigilant leadership engages as many individuals as possible in an organization, and certainly all of the directors and senior management, in a discipline of looking ahead. That means staying abreast of events, being advised of emerging issues, recognizing “weak signals” of shifting environments, having depth of knowledge in areas specific to the organization’s strategy, and focusing particularly on long term thinking about what will affect the organization over a decade-or-longer time frame.
This is extraordinarily difficult for most organizations to achieve. Clients of mine have difficulty with it. I think it’s for several reasons.
One is the lack of a major
commitment to foresight. For example, with some of my financial service clients an environmental scanning piece developed by a national trade organization is distributed to the board in advance of the annual planning retreat. When I ask about what foresight process they’re using that’s the answer I get. A start, but not nearly enough.
Another difficulty is the governance structure and
expectations. I don’t believe organizations ask enough from their directors. Every organization’s director should be expected to be not only up to speed on the industry market as well as geographical or industry or product or service niches. They should be accountable for depth of knowledge in the much broader and higher impact developments in the economy, consumer behavior, emerging competition, and geopolitical forces.
A third barrier is the lack of discipline, time, and process for
contemplation. Retreats are for contemplation. Their very label presupposes getting away to do some thinking. They are for discussion certainly. But most of all they should be an immersion away from one’s typical environment in order to gain perspective and spend time in thought.
I find thought is rare in most retreat settings. There are many reasons. One is the assumption that because the retreat is being held in a nice location with recreation opportunities then one should focus on those. Another is the presence, in too many settings, of spouse and family. Nice, but counterproductive largely. Another is a tendency to crowd agenda. One presentation after another. A need to sign off on strategy. A board meeting with a consent agenda. A race to complete work in order to have fun, socialize, or get to a meal.
Most of all retreats feature way
too much opinion expression and much too little contemplation.
This doesn’t mean that directors and senior management should be shut up in monastic cells to think. But it does mean that there should be time to gather one’s thoughts, form opinion, discuss deeply, and only then to reach consensus on decisions.
Fourth is
stamina. Vigilant leadership is a process, a journey. There is no letup. There is no downtime.
I’m not suggesting that all of an individual’s time away from an organization should be spent in foresight. Nor am I espousing huge amounts of force-fed reading. But I’ve found through the years as I’ve taught anticipatory skills to management, installed foresight systems in organizations, and consulted on strategy that the really good work that makes a successful organization happens in between all the other daily responsibilities in my clients’ lives.
When directors and senior management are introduced to
foresight techniques, integrated into a system that pushes appropriate amounts of information to decision-makers, and encouraged to contemplate on one’s own time, good things happen.
Image: susanvg, via Flickr CC license

The Buffett Letter

I read Warren Buffett’s letter to me as a shareholder this morning. Direct, analytical, balanced as usual. I like this passage a lot:
“Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding. Just because Charlie and I can clearly see dramatic growth ahead for an industry does not mean we can judge what its profit margins and returns on capital will be as a host of competitors battle for supremacy.”
The chairman’s contention that obvious upside growth is no guarantee of success is one that many leaders miss. I see it in industries challenged by bright but unclear futures.
Agriculture is an example. It’s obvious that increasing world population is going to demand food and a growing middle class will increase demand for animal protein in diets.
OK. Barring a major disease outbreak or a comet hit, this is an obvious outcome.
Many in agriculture assume that North America will be the big winner. That the world will beat a path to their production. That other nations, other producers will not be able to keep pace or match their products. Here the Buffett interpretation is missed.
Predictions from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich to recent forecasts of peak oil after-effects have breathlessly proclaimed danger. I watched Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in 1995 do a predictive presentation on
Who Will Feed China. He’d written a book with that title.
The answer to Brown’s question? China itself. While importing substantial quantities of soybeans and vegetable oil it is quite adept at meeting its own food needs and exporting very large quantities of foodstuffs and value-added products to the world.
Where is Buffet’s “host of competitors” battling for supremacy? Everywhere.
I can cite examples of basic crop rotation and sound agronomy’s ability to triple and quadruple the productivity of land in Asia and Africa.
Then there’s wonderful technology
not involving genetic modification but making use of plant genomes to bolster Mendel’s techniques in developing even better crops and nutritious food. Mega-competitors like Brazil, Argentina, and huge multi-national corporations that have bought land in the poorest nations will crank out food, feed, and fiber in the next 3 decades.
Errors in judgment like looking at autos in 1910 or TV sets in 1950 or hand-held converged devices today with rose-colored myopia abound. There’s no argument that strong demand is ahead but there are no clear, dominant, easy winners.
Heck, one of my clients, Motorola, is spinning off its well-known handset business and retrenching to the predictable, profitable platform that has been there for decades: two-way radios and similar technology. Personally I think it’s a solid, overdue strategic move.
Question the too-easy and too-optimistic assumptions. Widen your view. Look ahead. Identify the potential competition before it surprises you. And then adjust your strategy to compete in the good, but challenging times ahead.

Patent Harbinger: Where is Distributed Energy Headed?

I advise clients to watch certain metrics for emerging direction. A good example popped up recently in all the hype over the Bloom fuel cell announcements.
Bloom is a startup that has built fuel cell “servers” supplying electricity to a number of Silicon Valley firms. If you’ve missed the hype there’s a healthy helping
here. The servers at those big SV firms run a cool $750,000. Not pocket change to us consumers.
The Bloom technology is interesting because of a several factors. 1) It
might scale down. The company’s statement that they could be producing home-sized units for a $3000 price point in a few years causes ripples in the energy sector. 2) It shows off a technology that’s taken a back seat in the media, fuel cells. 3) It demonstrates early hype for a technology. I encourage skepticism when something gets too much media attention.
But what caught my eye as my scanning system picked this up is the longer term pattern of patents in “clean energy.”
My favorite weekly scanning source, The Economist, showed this chart at left.
When you think “alternative energy” or hear it in a politician’s speech you probably think solar, wind, electric vehicle, or maybe biofuel. You don’t think of fuel cells. But a patent rate three times the other technologies causes me to point to it as a trend to watch carefully.
The Economist hypothesizes it’s due to corporate R&D stimulated by government subsidies. Probably the major driver. When you start delving into the practicalities of the Bloom style of cell you see problems. Very, very high operating temperatures. 24 hour a day operation which gets to be a problem if you can’t sell your electricity back to the grid especially at night when demand is low. A reliable source (read that as natural gas).
My forecast: true renewables like solar and wind look like the best bets. But keep an eye on fuel cells for the long term.