Memes. They are far to often silly, over simplified takes on life as if life were really that simple. Yeah, a few are good, but by and large I’m not a fan. They confuse, deceive and all too often make life seem too simple.

A recent meme from the Theranos CEO exemplifies this. Essentially, it says if you have a plan B, you already failed. Well, first off, Theranos is failing like a shot gunned duck. Even worse – it’s patently absurd, out of context advice for almost any business person under any circumstance. You don’t plan to fail first off and second you don’t pick a plan to follow failure.

Those who have the best success in life generally seem to do something utterly different. They don’t have plans per se but instead relish the planning for what it really does – developing a deep understanding of the world around you, what’s relevant when and how and then what options one has to execute upon based upon ever changing and unfolding circumstances. There is no plan A or B or C. Rather it’s more like, under these circumstances, these are our component options and based upon our appetite for risk, our resource mix and competition, these overall actions look best for this scenario. This goes for business, for personal life or a baseball game.

Arie de Gues of Shell wrote in his seminal book “The Living Company” that those with the most memories of the future invariably win more often than anyone else. That feeling is not a sense of déjà vu but rather an intuition derived from playing out hundreds of scenarios that make one think “hey, I’ve seen this option and set of conditions simulated and, hey, I know more than most how to respond most effectively” In fact, Shell’s global scenarios guide is a much sought after document each time it’s published for decades now.

For a startup to succeed, this never ending scenario playing keys initial survival and even funding let alone longer term success. I’ve rarely seen the typical startup not pivot for product, brand, operations and culture at least two or three times. In fact, it’s necessary learning the more differentiated the product and or device is. In fact, I’ll go further. How many startups are indeed great concepts but simply emerged at the wrong time or in the wrong place in history? There were many Facebooks, but only one emerged at just the right moment, with just the right market, software and hardware capabilities in play. Just ask Myspace and Friendster’s founders and investors.

I give Uber great credit these last months as they very aptly realized, as they emerged, behind closed doors, that labor laws would be a big deal. Scenario playing led them to realize that hoarding cash and talent to lobby for, defend against and craft itself capable contractor legislation would possibly be critical to success. As variable scenarios have unfolded in globally varying jurisdictions and markets, Uber is very capably responding accordingly and winning consistently.

For innovation, this memories of the future approach lead us Elemence Advisors Adaptive Innovation’s “what must be trues” for varied future needs and the abstracted products that can serve them. These abstracted, scenario based specifications allow one to see trends emerging via signposts for those scenarios as well as also emergent technologies or the elements necessary for a cobbled together technology. Those types of innovation principles are extremely powerful, not tied down by current paradigms and allow for organizational and even individual adaptation not plausible otherwise. Too many look at the familiar, the known and the simple turn left or right.

In business operations and then in politics, it’s the same yet again. Conceive, develop and play out scenarios over and over and over and judge how to spot when one scenario and option mix may emerge over another and plan resource management – time, people and money – accordingly. De Gues was masterful here, developing scenarios that for saw quite accurately that if the Gorbachevs of the world meandered to power, the Soviet Union would fall, that if in the late 60’s OPEC wielded its potential influence after certain member acquisitions, the global energy and political picture would change forever. Shell has profited consistently over its rivals accordingly.

I think it was Eisenhower who said half a century ago or more that it’s not in the plan, it’s in the planning. My favorite – “How do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans”

 

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