Imagine an organisation where anything is possible – and then make it so

Cecilia Thirlway, head of innovation practice at Solverboard, boldly goes into the future

Fans of science fiction will know that in the future almost anything is possible. Whether it’s neural laces for human-to-computer communication, phasers set to stun or kill, sentient spaceships, depressed androids or interplanetary travel at beyond the speed of light, sci-fi novels and films display incredible creativity about what the future might look like.

What if you could harness similar levels of creativity in your organisation to create ambitious visions of its future? We all know how hard it is to emerge from day-to-day business and imagine how things might be different, and better, but for an organisation to be agile enough to keep up with today’s changing times, it’s essential for survival.

At Solverboard, we believe that the future belongs to organisations that can leverage the full potential of all their people, generating creative ideas and turning them into actionable strategies. So perhaps the likes of Ian M. Banks, Asimov and Douglas Adams could teach us a thing or two about building agile, future-proof organisations. We spoke to futurist Nick Price from Of Things Immaterial to find out more.

“Essentially what science fiction writers are doing is creating scenarios of the future. Since the mid-20th century, organisations have also done this, albeit with structured and collaborative methods,” he says.

“What makes science fiction far more interesting is that these scenarios are expressed through human stories, which engage people in a different way and allow them to be more creative and provocative. When we use scenario planning techniques, we also often ask people to tell the story of a person living in the scenario they’ve envisaged – for example, who they are, how they get up, how they go to work, what they eat – which frees the participants to be more creative and understand the implications of change in a way that facts and figures just don’t.”

In a world where technology is changing almost faster than writers can imagine it, flexibility and resilience can be a powerful asset for any organisation

This freer mode of thought or divergent thinking lies at the heart of creativity. Creating space to play, in this case with stories, can be a great way of promoting divergent thinking and helping people come up with radical or groundbreaking ideas.

We also love using stories in scenario planning because it’s something anyone in the organisation can do. As the popularity of design thinking increases, more and more people are comfortable engaging in group creativity, creating and telling stories of the future, and putting actionable future planning into the hands of the whole organisation. Not only that, thinking of the possible future also improves how teams perform today.

As Nick says: “It’s not just about what might be possible in the future and then working towards that. Scenario planning creates stronger teams in the present by promoting flexibility of mind and giving people a sense of agency, which helps them deal with unexpected change and act in the face of uncertainty.”

In a world where technology is changing almost faster than writers can imagine it, this flexibility and resilience can be a powerful asset for any organisation.

Finally, stories are unique in promoting an emotional connection that other types of information simply don’t. They provide the emotional context by which individuals evaluate what’s going on in their world, make sense of it, and build up a set of beliefs about the present and the future. And imagining the future together makes people much more committed to the task of bringing it to life. This emotional commitment is vital to creating agile, successful firms.

London Business School’s Professor Julian Birkinshaw and Swedish business thinker Jonas Ridderstrale put forward the suggestion in their recent book Fast/Forward that instead of the current meritocracy based on skills and knowledge, the model organisations should be adopting is the “adhocracy in which… an individual’s action is what matters, particularly when this is backed by emotional conviction.”

They propose that it’s not just what an organisation knows – skills, data, knowledge – that matters, but how fast and flexibly it can act on its information, and that this requires emotional commitment. Stories help to achieve this by inviting wider contributions and building a sense of shared ownership.

At Solverboard, we are seeing more and more organisations looking for ways of engaging each and every one of their people in a shared vision of the future to build an agile, creative enterprise. A good place to start might be to ask them to start telling stories about what that future would be like to experience.

Cecilia Thirlway, head of innovation practice at Solverboard:

Nick Price, futurist and consultant at Of Things Immaterial:

Fast/Forward by Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstrale is published by Stanford Business Books

Solverboard helps organisations turn imagination into innovation by unleashing employee creativity