From Fear to Fun

At the Dutch Open conference in November 2005, I met Arie de Geus, the author of the book The Living Company. He held a presentation about Innovation and Sustainability (the conference theme).Arie has worked for the Shell Strategic Planning Group. He talked about playing is learning and learning through playing, based on his experiences at Shell. He has also been influenced by people like Jean Piaget. Playing is experimenting with a representation of reality. In many disciplines, people play around with ideas, models, concepts, before taking decisions. When engineers are going to build a new oil platform for instance, they build lots of models and (computer) simulations that are thoroughly tested and stressed, until they know enough to take the right decisions and build the actual oil platform.

Learning by playing helps to stimulate creativity and opens up all kinds of options, things one probably doesn’t think of without playing. It speeds up organisational decision processes.

In the discipline of management however, there is almost no learning by playing. Managers play with reality itself instead. This is very scary, leading to a lot of fear in organisations. In my experience, playing with reality itself and the resulting fear is also an important issue in IT (project) management.

A culture of fear in an organisation closes down options, and kills creativity and innovation. Fear makes people reject new approaches, they keep on trying more of the same instead. This only works for very simple routine decisions. In other situations, it leads to ineffective coping behaviour and very long decision times (some strategic decisions in Shell took up to 18 months…)

Making the transition from Fear to Fun is difficult – the culture of fear itself makes it even harder by making indiscussable what the fear is about, and even making this indiscussability undiscussable.

The Shell Strategic Planning Group has developed the practice of scenario planning to let managers play with different possible futures. Some more ideas on how to get from Fear to Fun, based on the discussions at the Dutch Open conference and on my own experience, are:

  • let managers do simulations for strategic decision, e.g. using computer simulations (but let them make the models themselves, otherwise they won’t trust it and won’t accept the outcome);
  • introduce a “managerial teddybear”, e.g. a consultant or a real teddybear – thinking out loud makes fear manageable, smaller, and makes the future ordinary;
  • apply techniques like scenario planning and risk analysis in projects – play with different possible futures and all the bad things that could happen to a project;
  • let people play with the often difficult person to person communication issues – one of the goals of our Balancing Act workshop.