Nothing on the Horizon?

There’s an apocryphal fable concerning the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. Supposedly when his ships first appeared on the horizon, the indigenous people were literally incapable of ‘seeing’ the ships, all they saw were the ripples left in the wake of the ships and nothing else. The ships were physically invisible to them.

It took a Shaman to study and interpret the ripples and deduce that something must be making them and then finally ‘see’ the ships in all their glory. He then taught everyone else to ‘see’ the ships for what they were.

While it is obvious (I hope) that this story has grown in the telling, it would be a shame to totally ignore the lesson it’s trying to communicate. Putting aside the stratospheric hyperbole, the reminder that we can’t ‘see’ things which exist totally outside of our experience, is a necessary one.

Here are three totally unrelated examples – The question to you as you read them is, what do you see? Or more likely… what is literally invisible to you?

A) An unopened bulging food can sits on a kitchen shelf.

B) O, T, T, F, F, S, S, E, N, ?

1) P-K4 P-K4
2) Kt-KB3 Kt-QB3
3) B-B4 B-B4
4) P-B3

Here are the invisible ships for those who missed them:

a) I strongly suggest you don’t eat the contents of the can, it potentially contains Botulism.

b) The next letter is ‘T’, but you can only know that if you can count to ten in English.

c) This is a famous opening in the game of Chess named after ‘Giuoco Piano’.

In a sense, these examples are unfair. Unfair, because without the information necessary to understand what’s going on, it’s impossible to ‘see the ships’. That’s the whole point. Information provides context, context provides warnings.

Here’s the follow up trick question, “What’s on the horizon that will affect our organizations over the next few years?” (Another form of this question is, “What should be keeping me up at night?”)

If the above fable and the simplistic examples have done their job, then we should be extremely reluctant to ever state there’s nothing on the horizon, even if we can’t see anything there. The most we’ll allow is that there’s nothing we can currently see with the information at hand.

All of this is the compelling argument for conducting a regular analysis known as an “Environmental Scan”, a technique/strategy used by Futurists and long term planners (and Shamans) for searching the horizon for the ripples which might indicate the approach of something important.

The problem with the concept of an “Environmental Scan” is that it’s all too often a one time event. It’s like having a crow’s nest on a sailing ship and only sending someone up the rigging once a week, or once a year, to see if there are rocks on the horizon. A better use of the crow’s nest is to have someone camped in it all the time, always looking out to the horizon, always watching for opportunities and dangers.

While there’s no fool proof way, nor do we have the time, to identify everything that might impact the operation of any organization, there are simple techniques to instill a culture of curiosity. Every regular meeting offers the opportunity to discuss new developments, trends, conference reports, field trips and the like. In a world where we bemoan the infoglut, we tend to ignore all of it, rather than make an effort to nibble at mounds of info available to us.

Another method is to constantly perform a tiny, personal and informal environmental scan. Read Everything. Especially read those publications which wouldn’t normally interest you. The most readily available environmental scan resource is the magazine rack at your local bookstore. Here’s the challenge. At your next visit to the bookstore, pick up four magazines you’ve never read before. Both the articles and the advertising represent the ripples of unseen ships.