The art of envisioning, trade secrets and ideas to make it work

I can imagine the advert now … with the soft soothing voice over the gently fading corporate images …

“Worried about all this new technology?

Wondering how social media and enterprise mobility can help your business?

Want to understand how to use the iPad to reinvent your business?

Then what you need is someone to make sense of all of this, 

someone to help you understand the ‘Art of the Possible’

What you need is an Envisioning Workshop.”

Available from all good design/technology/service companies NOW. 

And so the sale continues.

Yes, the sale. It is all about the sale. Not the art of the possible or anything like it, but the sale.

The harsh reality is that most envisioning workshops are thinly disguised sales tools, delivered by someone whose view of the future only extends as far as their next bonus (that will come from selling you loads of hardware or software you probably don’t need) and will probably not deploy even if you buy it.

At first it may be hard to spot, as the facilitator, envisioneer, or futurologist (if they use that last term, throw them out) focuses on identifying relevant industry and technology trends, but before you realise this you will be focusing on solutions … and guess where these come from?

Yes! The people delivering the envisioning session. It is their technology which provides the answers and solutions to these trends.

You think they understand your company … they are using a tried and tested process to reel you in. Most of what you are being told will be told to every customer, regardless of industry. And those trends that they talk about?

It is their technology that helps you benefit from these.

What a lost opportunity though. What a missed chance to actually spend some time thinking about how to really improve your business. I am not saying that Envisioning Workshops have no value. In fact I am a big fan of them – when done properly – but not when used as a sales tool to simply sell more technology regardless of whether it is really needed or not. When done like this, it is little more than a tech-bandaid to a bleeding organisation.

Perhaps the problem is with the name … Envisioning Workshops.

Maybe they should be renamed to be more accurate of what they are:

  • Workshop to better understand how our technology can help your business, but only if you buy our products
     
  • Workshop to look at how your business environment is being affected by changing technology trends that we can help you solve if you buy our products
  • Workshop to talk about cool new stuff and scare you into thinking everyone else is using this and you are being left behind, so you buy our products

Do you see the common thread???  … technology, and the technology from the supplier who did the workshop

The underlying assumption behind most envisioning workshops is that new technology is the answer before you even start. This risk with this is that it becomes limited by what we know technology can do today, ideas become framed within what we know is achievable (and for technology companies what is predictably deliverable and available). You cannot sell what doesn’t exist, so you sell what you have and promise what you don’t. Whilst this may be more advanced than the company has today, it may not be the best option or strategy. More importantly though, it is likely to exclude non-technology changes.

Cisco tells you the answer is Cisco

Oracle tells you the answer is Oracle

Microsoft tells you the answer is Microsoft (although unlike the other two, Microsoft does have the technology breadth to actually delivery on their visions).

… and so on.

What did you expect though … Microsoft to tell you that iPads are the answer? Oracle to recommend SAP?

So, if technology is not the correct focus what should be?

Simple answer: People.

Instead of focusing on technology problems and technology opportunities, focus on people.

Look to the problems and opportunities facing people (that may, or may not include their interfaces with technology), but is never about the technology on its own devoid of a human problem.

Examples:

  • The reasons that people cannot do what they want
  • The processes and practices that stop people doing what they want
  • The things that customer want to do, but cannot do today
  • The pain that people experience using technology
  • The fear that people have with new technology
  • The things that users, customers or sales people would love to do, but cannot today
  • The things that people dream of doing

When you do this, you will quickly see that there are plenty of problems and opportunities with existing processes and services that we could address. We don’t need to look to the future because we have enough now. We don’t need to guess what is coming next to be successful, because if we fix these issues we will be well placed to embrace the future rather than fear it. Whilst technology may be a part of the solution, it also may not – in fact the best answer may be to eliminate technology that isn’t working, or to simplify overly complex technology. This approach – human centric envisioning – is in stark contrast to the technology dominated norms that we have today.

So how does human centric envisioning differ?

human centric envisioning …

  • focuses on people, their interactions and human values
  • emphasises the value of collaboration and shared understanding and working
  • looks to holistic understanding of problems, seeing them as they impact people, not as abstract concepts
  • sees the role of technology as enabling people
  • recognises that elimination or simplification is preferable to increasing complexity
  • knows that low tech can be more effective as high tech
  • embraces service design tools and design thinking to understand processes from a human viewpoint
  • recognises that the future is a progression of what we have today, anchored in human values not an abstract concept or utopia
  • understands that technology can be a major enabler to people, but recognises that it brings risks and that there are downsides too
  • sees human values (the value of personal relationships, importance of family, importance of trust etc) being broadly constant over time
  • doesn’t care who makes the technology, so long as it does what it needs to do
  • embraces privacy and respects the rights of individuals

This list could go on, but you hopefully get the idea.

The purpose of human centric envisioning is not to develop a roadmap for technology (that will undoubtedly be wrong – they are always too optimistic and assume everything works first time), but an understanding of how we want to evolve and improve how we work and potential areas that technology may be able to play a role – both now and the future. Because it is founded upon human values not technology releases, it has greater longevity and can be used to not just plan our future, but rethink our today.

The outcome is not a business case for shiny new things, but a shared understanding of what we need to address, why this matters, and who cares.

A manifesto of what we want to be and how we want to work, a definition of our aspirations and goals.

Technology may play a part in this understanding and the solution, but it equally may not.

The outcome may be a set of actions that do not involve technology, that eliminate broken processes, simplify inefficient tasks or introduce more people into an organisation.

Helping people work better, reducing problems, improving collaboration and ultimately making life better … that is something worth spending time on. That should be the goal for your envisioning workshops. Not to mention that many actions will not involve a big technology price tag.

So the next time you are invited to an envisioning workshop, before you attend – ask what the workshop is trying to achieve and what the measure of success is. If it is clearly a thinly veiled technology sales process, decide whether you want to support this, or politely decline and spend your time helping your organisation and your colleagues, not those hoping to generate revenue from it.

If you do attend, challenge technology determinism when you see it. Challenge assumptions. Stay true to what you know from your experiences today, and keep the discussion grounded in the real world. A good facilitator will embrace this and use your energy to keep the discussion valuable to your company. A thinly veiled sales guy will wish you would be quiet and want the day to end as quickly as possible, and wish he hadn’t promised something he couldn’t deliver.

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