Blog

Foresight

The Analytics Payoffs

For a lot of years I’ve been sharing a conclusion from decades of observing small group activity. I believe that when 5 or more people work together effectively on a challenge they bring the intellect of at least a genius to the work. It doesn’t matter if the group members are smart or high in an organization or what we believe is well-educated. I watched it for years and then put a measure to it.

Back when we used to have more time during training or planning or decision-making settings I used to administer a short quiz fashioned after the preliminary entrance exams for membership in Mensa, the society of genius-level IQ holders. I would do it as an intellectual warm-up. In order to determine if you could gain entry to Mensa you would need to score at least 7 out of 10 correct answers.

Every group, whether made up of corporate executives or hospital maintenance workers, to which I gave the test scored 7 or higher. Around half would score perfectly.

Today, the use of analytic techniques is proving my point. At the Wharton People Analytics Conference an interview published on Knowledge@Wharton cited Google’s head of HR Laszlo Bock who is an evangelist for the use of analytics in the field. Teams, when put together correctly, are at least geniuses.

The Wharton interview is full of useful bits of information. Make sure an employee being “on-boarded” meets their management on the first day. A person’s success at a company depends heavily on who they work for. A team IQ is often greater than the sum of the parts. A mix of introverts and extroverts along with norms of behavior make the most productive teams. Moneyball got it right and is at least partly responsible for the upsurge in the people analytics.

Surprisingly, the best firm on hiring, according to Wharton experts, is Teach for America. A not-for-profit that has embraced analytics in order to get better teachers in front of kids. But the organization also knows that they don’t know enough yet. That’s a good lesson for those of us who are futurists. Go with the best information you have but always doubt it and find even better ways of making good decisions.

The biggest question about the use of analytics overall? Why more top leaders are not embracing it. Whether it’s a lack of hubris or a fear that it might replace jobs it’s a baffling question but the condition exists. I hope for a change.

320px-DARPA_Big_Data
In almost all of my busiest industry niches there’s buzz about “Big Data.” Mostly buzz. Not much there, there yet. But it’s coming in a big way and the harbinger may be people measurement, especially help in hiring. Another observation I’ve made over the years of managing my own businesses was that a bad key person hiring (manager, salesperson, technician, creative talent) would cost at least 3-4 times their annual compensation. People analytics is proving it now.

While there’s more buzz about marketing analytics than anything else in the media my bet is on human resources as the place where the first major inroads will be for analytics in organizations.


Prediction, Betting, & Forecasting

My scanning turned a media story recently about two presenters on the agriculture circuit who have been disagreeing about the future price of corn, making rival predictions, and backing up those predictions with a bet for $1000. I think this a microcosm of stupidity about the future. Yes, I’m invoking the s-word here.

One of these people will be right. One will be wrong. One will win. One will lose. And that’s exactly how NOT to look at the future. Too often I’ve seen organization leadership “make bets.” They roll the dice on what they believe will happen. When they’re wrong organizations collapse, people lose jobs, and assuredly investors lose money.

Prediction and betting are folly. No individual is prescient. It is the wrong example to set. Frankly, it smacks of the same arrogance that we saw in the last presidential campaign primaries when one candidate offered a $10,000 bet on a point of policy, labeling him as elitist and out of touch with mainstream America. It’s posturing, pointless, and doesn’t help the audiences they were in front of accomplish anything about understanding their future.

Over the last 5 years I’ve encountered one of the presenters, a “futurist.” After all, the only qualification to become a “futurist” in the US is to say you are one. That goes for me too. I’ve not been impressed with that fellow’s work. My respected colleagues in the futures field don’t predict. We forecast. We engage in useful foresight that changes with time and new information to help clients prepare and take action.

I can’t accurately predict commodity prices as to specific time and amounts. Neither can the two fellows who are making the bet. But what I can do is point up the key factors to observe, outline robust strategies to take, recommend a highly probably range in which a commodity might trade. Those pieces of information are much more useful to a listener than arguing over who’s going to win a bet.

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.

The Drought and Farmer Viewpoints

It’s been almost two decades since I first worked with a bunch of smart farmers who lead their state associations for the corn and soybean commodities. I’ve learned their business, watched them navigate a series of farm legislations, try to wean themselves away from government subsidies, and then prosper as prices came up dramatically over the past five years.

This year I returned to the same gathering for a fresh class of state association leaders. I didn’t know quite what to expect in a severe, brutal drought. I talked with some producers who were not going to harvest much of a crop. A very few lucky farmers located further north in the country or in the relatively moist East are going to do extremely well. But even the unlucky were optimistic as one can only be when you put almost everything in your business on the line every year and throw yourself on the mercy of nature.

If you want to see an example of resilience listen to these men and women as they talk about their ground, the crops, and their plans for the future. Certainly crop insurance plays into the situation. But they firm their jaws, speak frankly about the risks, and when asked about another drought “event” (that’s the term they use) they become gravely contemplative.
“That would take us back to zero,” one farmer told me. Another said, “We could deal with that but we’re probably going to sit back and see how the winter reestablishes our moisture before we even decide to plant next year.” The implications are serious for food supplies, energy prices, global trade.

If the breadbasket of America was to see anything similar to the conditions that have ravaged Texas for almost a decade we might look at food security suddenly becoming a strategic concern. The executive branch might need to step into the farm situation instead of allowing Congress to continue to argue over food stamps for the poor instead of providing a safety net for the people who feed the country.

Energy Prices: Why Have They Moderated?

It’s seldom that I work with a client not affected in some way by energy prices. Whether it’s the shipping costs of manufacturing, input costs of agriculture, or even the impact of higher transportation expenses on business to consumer organizations this question about the future often plays into strategy and preparation for the future.

Everyone wants to know the future price of a barrel of oil or of a kilowatt of electricity. Like most forecasts the calculation is complex and the range is wide depending on the timeline. OPEC policy, supply, demand, new discoveries, emerging technology, consumption behaviors, geopolitical events can all have a bearing or effect on energy price.

For several years I’ve been tying the price forecasts to global economic performance. This has been especially true as the globe goes through the most dramatic economic cycles since early in the last century. In fact, I’ve been forecasting a semi-permanent rise above a $100/barrel price floor sometime between 2011 and 2015. I still hold to it.

Many will ask what’s driving down short term spot prices in oil. Good question. Typically these short term fluctuations are driven by buildup in supply and the hidden effect of economic downturn and consumer behavior. That’s what’s been going on lately. I believe it also has to do with the discoveries of fairly large but very expensive sources of oil in the Western Hemisphere. Bakken oil (or “tight oil”), Alberta tarsands, and offshore Brazilian potential are all examples.

These “tight” and “dirty” sources have put off the depletion of other sources in the recent past. Eventually, however, the inexpensive oil sources are going to wane further and the price is going up. I believe to a fluctuating, often volatile range from $100 to $150/barrel.

Whether I’m right or wrong about the forecast is less important than preparation. I’m fond of the statement denial is not a strategy. That’s why I’m bemused, surprised, or sometimes frustrated by organizations that find reasons to deny any possibility of what would be painful developments. Those that believe the relatively inexpensive energy we enjoy today is going to be with us for the foreseeable future are in that denial.

Tracking, January 2011

A new year and new blips on the radar screen in our practice. I post items here from time to time that we’re watching because of our scanning, clients, or upcoming engagements.

Food Prices - for well over two years we’ve tracked a steady uptick in worldwide food prices. One visual element in our briefings and conference presentations is the UN’s index of world prices which shows a steady climb that now has exceeded the “trigger point” of 2007-08.

What do we mean by “trigger point?” When riots occur in less developed nations over food. Large portions of the population in these countries spend 50% or more of their incomes on food. This is a ticking time bomb that has been known to overthrow governments and even cause wars.

The
“North Atlantic Recession” - come on, it is no longer a global recession or even the “Great Recession” when you view it from Brazil, India, or China. It’s the recession that still either cripples or impedes the US and the EU. Even Canada is out and expanding.

The
“Employment Follies” - how badly can a government manipulate statistics? Just look at the jobless in America. OK, every governing administration wants to make the news better but creating 65,000 jobs in a month when it’s going to take over a quarter million new jobs every 30 days to get back to something like 5% unemployment is not good news. Especially when most of the jobs are in hotels, restaurant kitchens, or temporary services. Employment is a key trend for America’s return to economic health. We should be realistic about it.

The Oil Forecast

For the last three years, ever since it became obvious that the world was slipping into a recession and commodity prices would come down, I’ve forecasted an inevitable return to rising oil prices.

My logic: the recession reduces demand but only temporarily. Recovery from recessions is uneven globally. Some regions recover months, perhaps even years before others. A robust economy in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America will create demand that will drive prices up despite a slight fall in use in the U.S. and the EU.

Speculation or unexpected geopolitical events – “triggers” – will create volatility. Speculators will enter the market on supply shortages. No regulating body can keep them away from the opportunity to make money.

My forecast from mid-2008 forward: 75 to 85% confidence that an oil price spike and permanent plateau above $100/barrel will come sometime in the 2011-2014 time frame.

It’s been of interest to clients in, well, almost every field. Because as one CEO said to me on being asked what energy prices affect, “Everything!”

As the economic recovery has forged ahead strongly almost everywhere except the North Atlantic the price of a barrel of oil has risen back through the $50, $70, then $90 levels. Now the unprecedented events in the Middle East have taken Brent futures over $111. West Texas will follow.

Will it stay there? Of course it depends on a complex array of factors. Economic effects, how high the price spikes, volatility, whether the Saudi’s can really make up most of the shortfalls, refining bottlenecks, and more. In the weeks ahead I’ll place more information here on the implications of this important trend.

In the meantime I’m getting a lot of queries from clients who quickly remember my forecasts and are running through their Plan B strategies to react to the development or are confident because they planned for the high probability of this years ago.

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.