May 4, 2016

If You Want to Generate Strategies for Future Success, Start with Narratives and Metaphors

Terms like metaphor, myth, story  and narrative are not necessarily the first that come to mind when considering how to develop a future-facing national strategy.  But they should be.  This point was made in brilliant ways by the participants at the Atlantic Council’s second annual Global Strategy Forum in Washington DC earlier this week.

Metaphors Shape how We Understand Reality

Our collective understanding of reality is shaped in profound ways by metaphors. A metaphor is a statement suggesting that something with which we are unfamiliar is like something with which we are familiar.  New technologies often produce new metaphors for how we understand society writ large. The idea of the “networked organization,” for example, grows out of a comparison with computer networks. Being able to generate metaphors about the future can help strategists pave the way to creating the systems or processes that will be required for success in it.

I had the honor of sharing the opening session stage with DARPA Director Dr. Arathi Prabhakar and Rhodes College political scientist Jennifer Sciubba and our moderator Toffler Associates CEO Deborah Westphal to discuss Strategic Foresight.

Arathi talked about DARPA’s investments in artificial intelligence, Jennifer explored some of our myths about global demography,  and I addressed our need for anticipatory metaphors (beginning at 44:21).

When Conditions Change, so Must Our Strategic Narratives

Despite our 3 different topics, we all stressed that changes in our global condition means that we must think in new ways about how to be successful.  As the conditions of the industrial age fade away, so will our ability to define success in the terms of that era.

When global trends portend dramatic change, as ours do now, we must assess how we think about success, and rewrite the stories and myths that guide us in our quest to compete successfully.  A hundred years ago, technological conditions privileged size—big tanks, and sizable armies could take territory and resources. Our guiding principle for success became: lets get big and control large spaces.

The rise of computer networks changed our social metaphors. We think in terms of networks now: social networks, networking, and everything from human bodies to neighborhoods as networks.  We didn’t simply discover that all of these phenomena are arranged as networks, we applied a guiding metaphor to discover ways in which they are like networks.

My question is: what’s next? What will be the guiding metaphor of 25 years from now? The organization that can begin to frame an anticipatory metaphor–the future of our own imaginations– is preparing itself conceptually for the future. After that, structures, processes and systems will follow.

And while our conversation at the Atlantic Council was about the American role in the world, the basic takeaways for how to generate strong strategy apply to organizations everywhere.

To see the entire day’s sessions, go: here.

 

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