I once heard someone (I forget who) describe a business simply as ‘a group of people working together to achieve something.’ While I don’t know if every business fits into that definition, I quite like the simplicity of it, and it started to make me think about what exactly our ‘something’ is that we are working to achieve here at Andthen.
Every year we have a retreat where the team and our associates hole up somewhere remote and think about the future of our company. One of the things we’ve been working on in the last couple of retreats is to define our mission and get a better sense of our organisation’s point of view, or our ‘beliefs.’
We respect that we’re quite a young company and that as time goes on these might evolve or mature, but for the time being this is how we’re thinking about our organisation’s mission and beliefs:
We want to empower people, communities and organisations to think and act as if the long-term mattered as much as today.
There are plenty of reasons why we believe this matters, but I’ve outlined four of the main ones below.
Thinking about the future, on a big or small scale, helps you realise that there are multiple possible futures — that there isn’t just one inevitable destination, and that the direction of change is made up through the actions and behaviour of every entity in this system we’re a part of. Through thinking about change in this way, you realise that everyone has some agency to change the future (even if it is just in a small way) — the future isn’t something that just happens to you. Everyone can help to shape the future. We call this ‘Futures Reflexivity’ — whereby the simple act of imagining a future impacts that future’s ability to come into being.
As argued by Doteveryone, “many of the social harms of digital technologies built with a move fast and break things ethos — from its impact on social interactions to the results of national elections and large scale hacks — are now becoming apparent.” Short-termist attitudes to innovation can often lead to wide-reaching unintended consequences further down the line that can be hard to unpick post-facto. While we respect the need to test assumptions early and fail fast, we feel that this over-emphasis on short term results can lead to the equivalent of running forward with blinkers on, unaware of potential hazards ahead. Thinking about your impact in the long term not only provides scope to make more socially conscious choices but also to build sustainable relationships with your customers or communities over time.
Confronting the System
The act of meaningfully thinking about your, or your organisation’s existence over a longer time period encourages you to confront the wider system you operate in. Often it can be easy to see yourself as an isolated entity, while in fact, everything is part of a complex and interrelated system. By considering this wider system it becomes easier to see the organisations, communities and entities that will be affected by the consequences of your innovation choices.
Balancing efficiency innovation
We keep coming back to this take on efficiency innovation in an RSA paper, “According to Clayton Christensen, there is a rising focus on ‘efficiency innovations’ — where innovation leads to process improvements that save costs — and there is insufficient investment in the ‘empowering’ market-creating innovations that lead to new technology or service breakthroughs that progress society.” This is why we focus on the messy front end of innovation — as we want to fight for better breakthrough innovations that have positive impacts by creating clarity at this stage of the decision-making process.
Alongside building out our mission, we realised that as an organisation we have a collective way of understanding the world. This informs our mission and motivates every action we take as an organisation. We summarise this point of view as a set of ‘beliefs’ which are outlined below:
We believe that long term thinking benefits everyone
We think that long-term thinking is good for all of us — no matter the scale of the organisation or action. When talking about this, it’s important to recognise how privilege plays a role in looking forward — some individuals and organisations will comfortably be able to think decades ahead, while others will struggle to justify thinking a week ahead. However all actions, regardless of circumstance, have long term impact in some way — therefore it’s important to think about the long term, whatever ‘long term’ means to you.
We believe that anticipating the future helps us make better decisions now
We feel that the act of looking forward is primarily not about thinking about the actions you might take in the future, but is first and foremost about the decisions you are making and actions you are taking now. The idea here is that the future is something you can create — anticipating the future gives you a greater ability to create the change you want to see. Douglas Rushkoff has a great rant about his frustrations on this matter in this talk.
We believe that everything is interconnected, and that change is non-linear
Due to the way innovation challenges are often approached, it’s easy to forget about the broad and complex systems that they are a part of. Instead, we often focus on seemingly isolated elements (people, things, behaviours etc.) which are most apparent in the challenges we’re working on. We also fail to realise that many of the thorny challenges we’re addressing these days aren’t fixed in a particular moment in time — they rarely only exist in the ‘now.’
Similarly, it can be easy to oversimplify change and see it as linear. At first glance, history appears to take the shape of a straight line, and so we assume that the future, or change, will unfold in a linear fashion too.
As we hold a systems-centric mindset and believe in non-linear change, we advocate for a futures practice that focuses on anticipating change, rather than attempting to predict it.
We believe that innovation should be regenerative, not disruptive
We think that ‘disruption’ isn’t the right metaphor for innovation, and we don’t buy into the techno-utopianist, move fast and break things, unicorn philosophy that goes hand in hand with the idea that ‘innovation = disruption.’ We’re not interested in breaking things, we’re interested in regeneration, and collectively building towards preferred outcomes. The Zebras Unite movement have put it better than we ever could in their article ‘Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break.’
Defining this mission and these beliefs came through dedicating a significant amount of time and space for self-reflection, something we aim to continue to do. What has been laid out here is far from complete, and we expect it to evolve with Andthen.
We also recognise that defining and articulating our mission and beliefs is just the first step — we need to find ways to build them into our everyday and ‘way of being’ as a company. So far we’ve been trying to do this by making sure we’re working on the right kind of projects and creating avenues for more kinds of organisations to access futures thinking, while also contributing to conversations about futures, although we’re always looking for more ways to do more, and would be more than happy to hear what you think.