Credit: Joshua Earle via Unsplash

Unleashing the Future

Why institutions need to experiment more and why that’s a challenge for all of us

It’s February and this is my first Medium piece in 2017. Rather late, though not because I’ve been lazy or bored. No, I felt that any regular coverage of technology and business is currently somewhat beside the point. At best it’s not as relevant as usually, at worst it’s detrimental because it is a form of escapism. An escape, of course, from the political world that is apparently going nuts these days.

If I wanted to illustrate my current state of mind I’d place it in a Venn diagram right where bewilderment, fascination and concern overlap. Dealing with tech IPOs, digital strategy or other minutiae of regular business life would seem almost trivial in comparison. I already wrote a fair deal about politics in general and Trump specifically but I don’t feel like commenting on it continuously. I’m neither political beat writer nor analyst.

Luckily, there are some things going on in the political realm right now that — if you think through them thoroughly — also contain relevant insights for life in business.

Challenge Future

Most people of my generation experience the current developments in global politics with disbelief. Whereas similar events occurred in history, most of us were naively convinced that our society had learned from past mistakes. Judging from the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency we clearly underestimated how susceptible modern societies are, even if they are well-established democracies. The coming weeks and months are going to be extremely interesting — and likely decisive for the kind of future we are going to live in.

While the current volatility apparently surprises many, it doesn’t come unexpected to vigilant observers. After all, we are living through a period of dramatic changes. Such times tend to stir things up.

Most of those changes are, if not caused by, at least linked to our technological advancements, particularly the internet’s advent. They result in real issues many people struggle with. In epochs like this, two questions become elementary for people: Who can offer the most believable story for what’s going on and who comes up with the best scenario for the future.¹ Progressive minds with a vision for a better future or reactionary forces who want to solve new problems with means from the past (e.g. walls, closed borders, demonizing specific minorities etc.)?

Alas, the latter appear to have the upper hand currently. It seems like established politicians and parties lack a vision for a better future. But let’s examine a bit closer what’s going on here.

Conventional wisdom holds that established policy makers reside all too comfortably in their chairs — at times in power, at times in opposition but with a fine salary either way — not even trying to find new solutions. Why, after all, leave the coziness of the status-quo as long as it is functioning? Readers from a business background will recognize this pattern well: It’s the position of the incumbent who became satisfied and slow thanks to its own success.

Certainly that is part of the story. I even wrote as much back in December:

“It’s a matter of incentives. If you are at the steering wheels of the status-quo, the incentive to drastically alter it is small. That’s why most established companies tend to innovate incrementally, not radically; why politicians hardly appear to be thinking outside their system’s box…”

But reality is more complex. If we simply denounce that politicians don’t offer innovative solutions for the problems of our time, we overlook one critical fact: The future isn’t developed on a drawing board and then implemented accordingly. No, progress is much messier. Especially when we enter uncharted territory in history, we usually don’t know what’s going to happen in advance — much less what’ll work. Finding it out is a matter of trial-and-error, test-and-adapt.

Sure, we can argue endlessly about the potential risks and benefits of a universal basic income. But only once we actually try it — and do so in different environments (demographics, cultures, regions etc.) — will we really know how it influences behavior and society.

The Experimentation Dilemma

This mindset and approach towards innovation has slowly but surely become accepted in the business community. It’s at the heart of the prominent agile methodology and countless other approaches which try to increase an organization’s ability to deal with an uncertain future. However, those ideas are a world away from the realities of the political process. I go even further: It overtly conflicts with the assumptions our democratic systems are built on.

Think about it. A representative democracy — where voting is the major means of exercising power — is a competition of suggestions and ideas. Politicians are supposed to come up with concepts and solutions they want to implement when in power. Mostly, they stick to their guns when doing so. But not necessarily because they are too lazy to think. We, the public, are to blame as well. It is unheard of that a politician wins elections if s/he says something along the lines of:

Like all of us, I don’t know what the future is going to hold. But I promise I will experiment with unprecedented ideas in order to find solutions that are really going to work

As long as challenges have a precedent, we can anticipate what a given proposal will do in practice with at least some precision.² But once we are dealing with something radically new, our current democracies necessarily turn into a game of make-believe. Faced with new challenges and suggestions, as voters we’re left to ask: Whose theories and ideas appear the most convincing (and convenient) to me? It’s basically guesswork.

Hence, the reason why we see little experimentation in modern states is that it’s hard to sell it to voters — or at least politicians think so. Is it really that surprising then if most politicians don’t go down the route of innovation? The reactionary path — trying old recipes to solve new problems — appears to have an inherent advantage.

I think that’s a dilemma. While it’s understandable that voters strive for certainty and predictability, it’s likely counterproductive. Given the radical changes we are witnessing at a global scale, I would welcome our politicians and institutions to be more eager to experiment. In turn, we as a society need to give them a longer leash³ when it comes to trying out new things. And we need to be prepared that things will go wrong. It’s a necessary condition if we want to arrive at a better future eventually.

Because the future will be built, but not in planned fashion. It also won’t ask for a building permit. Which means: If our current institutions fail in the process, new ones will emerge. For better or worse. So, the question they need to answer is: Are we going to watch the future being built or are we willing to pitch in?

Incidentally any business needs to answer the same question today.

¹ A decision not necessarily made based on validity and logic. Often it’s about what people want to believe in

² Though even that is often difficult. Look, for instance, at the hard-fought battles in several countries about the implementation of minimum wages. There is always a heated discussion about the potential consequences even though other countries had minimum wages for a while. In complex systems, even minor changes to a few variables can change the result drastically.

³ Mind you: a long leash is not no leash! Also, when I talk about experimentation it’s worth to mention the concept of sandboxing. Because most experiments, by definition, don’t lead to the intended outcome, scale matters a lot. Thus, you best don’t test your brand new idea at nation-level right away but start in a single city. Failure isn’t a problem, its impact is. That’s while you limit the potential damage by consciously managing the scope.

About me

I work, think, write and speak about digital business, technology and decentralized systems. If you’d like to connect, follow me here on Medium, or check out my website to find out more. I’m always glad to talk & interested in inspiring discussions. My analog residence is Munich, Germany.