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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Navigating the Maze: Teaching and learning an emergent futures methodology for strategic thinking

Lynn Allen
Curtin University of Technology
Trudi Lang
Oxford University

Ariadne is an emergent futures methodology that incorporates a range of concepts from the fields of futures; soft systems thinking; creativity; organisational learning; strategy; and narrative. Ariadne is taught in a seven day program over three months in a program called Navigating the Maze. Participants are senior managers in government, corporate and community organisations. They bring a project to the program as part of the action learning approach. Presented since 2005, Navigating the Maze has been well received by more than 50 participants. In 2006 interviews were conducted with participants to discover what makes the program successful and to improve its ongoing presentation. This paper shares the insights of participants and presenters and reflects on potential changes to the program.


Introduction

The speed and complexity of change now facing organisations means that they 'must become as efficient at renewal as they are at producing today's product and services" (Hamel & Valkingas 2003). In fact, the Australian CSIRO suggests that for every $10 spent by a firm, $6 should be on conducting today's business, $3 on building new businesses, and $1 on exploring and seeding options for the longer term (Maxwell 2004). Yet increasingly leaders are finding they have less time, resources and the necessary skills to deeply reflect upon and plan for the longer-term future of their organisations in an increasingly complex world.

What is needed in this situation are approaches that embrace complexity rather than ignore it, that incorporate multiple perspectives, encourage holistic thinking, and facilitate the surfacing of emerging opportunities. Ariadne is an emergent futures methodology with a systems thinking foundation.

Ariadne is taught in a program called Navigating the Maze. Participants are senior managers in government, corporate and not for profit organisations. They bring a project to the program as part of the action learning approach. Presented since 2005, Navigating the Maze has been well received by more than 50 participants. In 2006 interviews were conducted with participants to explore their experiences. This paper shares the insights of participants and presenters and suggests several changes to the program.

Introducing Ariadne

Ariadne is both a character of Greek mythology who helped Theseus find his way out of the labyrinth as well as an acronym for Applying Research and Innovation to Advance the Development of Networked Enterprises. It is an integrated framework for groups generating creative and sustainable futures in situations where there are no immediately recognisable solutions or those solutions are contested.

Ariadne is a contribution to the development of processes for thinking and acting for the future. While the framework is a recent development, it draws on work from a number of established areas, in particular, the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and the Futures (including Scenario Thinking) field. (Allen & Lang 2006, Lang & Allen 2008).

SSM was developed by Professor Peter Checkland (Checkland 1981, 2006, Checkland & Scholes 1990) and is an action research methodology premised on people taking purposeful action to address a problematic situation. Scenario Thinking, as written and practiced extensively by well-known proponents such as Professor Kees van der Heijden (2005) aims to deal with uncertainty by managing the gap between changes in the environment and the aspirations of the organisation. These ideas were merged with others from the wider futures field, narrative theory, creativity and innovation.

Characteristics and applications

Ariadne's defining characteristics are: Ariadne is thus positioned 'before strategy' and belongs in the space Inayatullah (2002, 2006) calls 'anticipatory action learning.' Through the participants' exercise of conceptual thinking we hope to 'shift their mental furniture' (van der Heijden in Curtin University of Technology, Curtin Business School 2004:13).

Capabilities at the centre of the learning experience

Kuhn and Marsick (2005:29) refer to six 'cognitive dimensions of strategic innovation' called 'sensemaking, strategic thinking, divergent thinking, conceptual capacity and a malleable learning orientation.' Ariadne's purpose is to develop all these modalities, but especially the last.

The learning experience of Navigating the Maze centres not only on the different phases of the methodology but also includes the development of a set of capabilities. These include dialogue, narrative intelligence, creativity, systems concepts and ideas around the concept of the reflective practitioner. It is not the purpose of this paper to outline these but a few comments on narrative will give the flavour of the program content. For further details see the Navigating the Maze website.

Narrative intelligence (Randall 1999) is increasingly being spoken of as a innate human characteristic, if not the essence of linguistic communication, that homo narrans may be more important than homo economicus. Because Ariadne's focus is the creation of the future through an appreciation and design of potential human activity systems, capabilities in dialogue, group communication, narrative, metaphor and myth are essential. As Lissack (1999:45) says, 'meanings are always multiple and ambiguous, and understanding must continually be struggled for and won anew.' Ariadne is a travelling companion on that journey.

Ideas from soft systems thinking where the emphasis is on human activity systems, when combined with the creation of alternate, ideal or provisional futures, means that Ariadne users have a set of 'tools' that, we hope, while never providing 'answers' may nevertheless assist in asking relevant questions.

Introducing Navigating the Maze (NTM)

NTM is conducted over several months, comprising seven one day seminars. Participants are expected to focus on the future of their organisation. They work on this both in the seminars and in their workplace. By the end of the program they have considered likely actions to advance their issues.

The focus on a real life issue and the duration of the program are aimed at dealing with the fact that organisations find it increasingly difficult to find the time to explore longer-term futures. By scheduling the seminars over a few months, we deepen the learning opportunity as well as provide a structured process.

The size of the cohort is limited to 15 to maximise interaction and learning. The groups are a mix of people from industry, government, and community sectors, reflecting on the idea that the future is an intertwined space and as such, each sector has much to share with the others in terms of perspective, knowledge, and experience.

While participants are asked to bring along a current issue from their workplace to use it in the application of the concepts and methods taught on the course, they are also encouraged to speak with people from their own organisation throughout the program. This could include the establishment of a workplace project team led by the participant to transfer new skills.

Participants receive a range of relevant materials, e.g. a workbook, a reading list, a concept book.

The research project

In 2006 participants were invited to take part in a research project running in parallel with their involvement in the NTM program. The purpose was to discover how successful the program was and to improve its ongoing presentation. The espoused value to participants and their organisations are as follows.
  1. Learn new approaches for thinking and engaging others in positioning for the future.
  2. Develop a capability to gather deep organisational and external intelligence to assist the organisation move forward wisely.
  3. Learn when it is best to apply analytical thinking and when it is most appropriate to use creative thinking.
  4. Regard diversity of viewpoints as a strength, and learn how to effectively incorporate them.
  5. Explore options and formulate actions for their organisations.
  6. Develop links with people from other sectors (government, industry and the community) and learn from their insights and perspectives about the future.
  7. Access better planning, rework less poor decisions, improve understanding of working across boundaries and adapt more easily to unforeseen complexity.
Given these learning outcomes the primary research question was: What helps participants in this program to achieve the learning outcomes?

The research methods were as follows:

  1. At the beginning of the program, participants were given a learning journal and invited to record their experiences
  2. The presenter kept a reflective teaching journal for the duration of the program.
  3. Interviews were conducted half way through the teaching process, after the last day of teaching and two months after a follow-up day, giving participants three opportunities to share their learning experience. The follow up day was held within three months after the last day's teaching.
Because of participants' busy schedules, it was not possible to interview everyone each time. 10 people were interviewed in round one, 9 in round two and 7 in round three. These were lengthy, rich and largely unstructured interviews. In addition, various comments were received from participants in 2005, 2006 and 2007 that have added to this richness.

The rest of this paper discusses the content of these interviews, followed by the presenters' reflections on what changes were made and what may still be need to be made or explored further.

Investigating participants' experiences

In this section of the paper, the findings from participant interviews are organised by the headings: methods; materials; and participant observations. Each section includes a brief description and an analysis of participants' comments as well as any necessary observation of the presenter.

Methods

Here we explore the various methods used to 'teach' the theory and practice of the Ariadne methodology. Those of particular interest are: action learning and adult learning leading to a discussion of participants' projects; group processes; individual learning; particular Ariadne methods and capabilities; and, finally, the presenters' styles.

Action learning and adult learning

The logic behind the program design is modified action learning. Marquardt (1999) defines the six components of action learning as: a problem, a group, a questioning and reflexive process, a commitment to taking action, a commitment to learning and a facilitator. We say we use a 'modified' model as these components have been embodied in the learning experience and applied to the study of the future.

We hope participants use their projects to focus their learning and transfer it to their teams. In addition, time is provided for group and personal reflection in the program's days. Triple loop learning is explained to participants. As Novellie & Taylor (1992:143) say: 'First order learning involves improving the efficiency of current practices. Second-order learning involves examining the congruence of values and objectives sought with the approach taken to accomplishing these objectives. Third-order learning involves improving the learning potential of the contexts within which the other two types of learning take place.' As Ariadne is a methodology it requires constant conscious design rather than a recipe approach so participants need to be acutely aware of not only methods but the logic of their practice, thus living the processes of what Toren (1993:113-114) calls generative learning which requires 'personal involvement, awareness of personal perceptions, assumptions and feelings, and awareness of the systemic connectedness.'

Participants commented on two aspects of this: the extent to which they worked on their projects and the use of the reflective journal.

Participants' projects and 'homework'

Few participants applied the methodology systematically in their workplaces. Some had used Rich Pictures extensively. One found the program 'immediately relevant' and was engaging with his team. It appeared that different methods were being used on a range of daily activities. While it was gratifying to hear that thinking had been affected it was disappointing that practice was less so. One participant had begun a strategic planning process and was determined to see it through.

In the early interviews, people were enthusiastic, saying the program was 'challenging.' One 'felt energised' and several were already speaking of 'confidence.' In the last interviews, more had practised the methods. They spoke of being 'more aware,' more relaxed with the unknown, 'processing differently,' and had 'changed the way I think.'

The homework comprised suggestions from the presenters each day on the kind of work that participants should consider carrying out to embed their learning. Only a small percentage of them turned up each time with homework done but those who did commented on the great value of doing it. At interviews there was general advice for the presenters to be more forceful with the homework: to 'put them on the spot more', 'force people to talk about it,' 'allocate time for people who had done it.' One suggests there be a 'carrot' for doing it, perhaps offer some additional coaching. One person was so enthusiastic about doing her homework that she suggested more reading recommendations be provided in addition to what is already an extensive bibliography.

Reflective practices and the reflective journal

As Mintzberg (2004) suggests, one of the most important learning approaches in executive programs is to make reflective practices central to the experience. Gray (2007) outlines a series of reflective tools, including storytelling, conversations, dialogue, metaphor, journal, critical incident analysis, repertory grids and concept mapping. Several of these are part of NTM. Here we focus on the reflective journal.

At the beginning of the program a small notebook and coloured pens are given out. Time is provided for self-reflection on learning and other matters such as: What went well? What didn't? When were you out of your depth? What were you feeling? What were you thinking?

This is a vehicle for triple loop learning and self-awareness. In essence they are being introduced to the reflective practitioner concept. As Ariadne caters for multiple perspectives, regular writing or drawing in the journal enables exploration of the world's complexities.

In the early interviews, a few people indicated they were using the journal. One said they liked being told to pause and write at various times on the course. Others said they were using coloured pens and used it for 'anchoring.' At the end of the program there was still the same split between those using it and not. On the one hand, some found themselves being 'quite self-reflective' and liking to 'observe self' using the journal as an 'imagination jotter.' On the other hand, a few found it 'frustrating' and a 'struggle.'

Follow up conversations have revealed that the journal has become a regular tool for some participants in their ongoing learning.

Group dynamics and the case study concept

As mentioned earlier, the groups who undertake NTM are diverse: they have a wide representation from business, government and the community sectors as well as professional, gender and age diversity.

Each time NTM has been run, the group has generated a unique dynamic very quickly. In early interviews, people said they appreciated the mix of the group, that the group was taking the program seriously, and it was a 'challenging' group. Later comments reinforced this more strongly, saying that they 'enjoy learning from each other,' there was an 'intellectual connection' and 'no competition.' One commented that the members of the group carried 'no judgement,' were 'respectful' and operated at 'different levels.'

NTM days offered a wide range of dialogic methods: whole group conversation; peer coaching; small group work; question sessions and interaction with visiting speakers and people who had already done the course. Small group work was appreciated and several said they wanted more because it provided 'different ways of thinking.'

An interesting idea was: 'each day devote 45 minutes to take that day's work and have group interaction on that day's learning.'

A 'case study' and examples

Because Ariadne is a framework that needs conscious design for each context, we have contemplated various ways of using examples without giving the impression of a stepped process. In the program from which the interviews were sourced, we decided to focus on the future of higher education. The topic of the appropriateness of the topic and the need for a case study was a specific question in the interviews because this method is problematic for the presenters.

Early interviews provided some suggestions: use case studies from previous people; use a single case study and 'work it over'; grow and develop a case study; do a group 'project.' In later interviews, this was still an issue for participants. In addition to repeating earlier comments, there was greater emphasis on working through a topic for the duration of the program, perhaps select a 'hot and exciting topic, not the uni.'

Related to the case study topic is the use of examples. We have provided multiple examples throughout specifically to counteract the recipe notion mentioned earlier. Participants appreciated the variety but suggested they wanted more time to work through them in more detail. They liked the pairing off sessions where they could explore topics in more detail.

One of the core Ariadne capabilities is story telling and several participants said they appreciated hearing others' stories as well as wanting to hear more of others' reflections to help their own practice.

Ariadne methods and capabilities

One section of the interviews was devoted to the Ariadne methods and capabilities. The purpose of these questions was to see what had the most impact both on learning and application. Methods mentioned by participants were (apart from those discussed elsewhere in this paper): dialogue; environmental scanning; rich pictures; scenarios; wild writing; questioning.

Dialogue: the various techniques associated with groups developing shared meaning were valued. Conversation was used both as a technique within the methodology and as a learning process within this program. Most participants valued this.

Environmental scanning and scenarios were remembered as useful techniques. They were seen as 'powerful' if a 'bit scarier.' Rich pictures were the most valued by some participants and probably the tool used most early and most often, calling them 'powerful.'

A technique called 'writing wild' (Goldberg 1991) was introduced as part of the learning journal practice and a creativity tool. Even those who did not use the journal regularly seemed to find the writing practice powerful. Some like it and wanted more of it during the program days.

Mention was made of the Questioning exercises where only questions were allowed in the group. Several participants said they applied this process 'right away.'

In relation to Ariadne, the methodology as a whole, one participant said there was 'some similarity with other approaches.' Others said it 'seems new,' is a 'new science', is 'exciting' because it 'lets people in.' One saw it as a 'naturalistic way of thinking' while another said their 'thinking was turned upside down - a good thing.' Yet another said that the 'approach prevents quick judgments.'

With the theory, there was equal diversity. Early on, they found the 'new language challenging'; it's 'very big,' 'huge.' By the later interviews it had become 'quite comfortable' and 'common sense.'

Materials

Here we explore the materials provided to 'teach' the theory and practice of the Ariadne methodology. Those of particular interest to participants were: diagrams; PowerPoint slides; a concept book; reading list and resources; and a workbook outlining the phases of Ariadne. In general, participants praised the depth and breadth of the materials. They found them 'logical' and 'just right' with 'nothing extra needed.' There were differences of opinion as to when all the materials should be provided. Some wanted them handed out seriatim while others wanted them all at the beginning.

Ariadne diagrams

Ariadne's main outline and subsystems are presented diagrammatically in the style of conceptual models (Checkland 1981). The diagrams are issued as a set so they can be used subsequently in practice. While most found them useful, some found the handwriting approach difficult and wanted to use more computer-produced approaches.

The base Ariadne diagram is the foundation of the methodology and participants found it to be 'great,' that the 'framework provides discipline.'

PowerPoint

Extensive PowerPoint slides are provided. This is not a preferred medium for the presenters but is expected on an executive education program. Participants had mixed feelings about them.

In early interviews a majority felt it was good to have them behind the presenters and the 'screen must be there.' One thought it was a 'bugbear' while one wanted less so it could reflect 'what people want to know.'

Later interviews showed different responses. The slides were 'ideal for pictures' and provided 'structure and reinforcement. Others found them disruptive and wanted more of a show rather than tell approach. One provided ideas that perhaps there should be an interactive website. In the last interviews, there was a general sense that the slides were not useful to go back to after the program. Perhaps a table of contents would assist, one suggested.

Concept book

A concept book, that is, a descriptive glossary of concepts used in both Ariadne and the teaching is provided at the beginning. This is a reference tool during learning and it is cross-referenced to the workbook so that people will know which concepts are most evident in which phase. Participants said they found this useful but there was little specific reference to it.

Readings and additional resources

An extensive bibliography is provided. Linkages are made in the workbook so that people may deepen their learning by further reading.

During the program other books and articles are referred to and other resources are handed out as examples, activities or project materials.

Participants took a great deal of interest in the books that presenters brought to interactive sessions and those formed basis of further conversation. They expressed gratitude for the depth of the bibliography - one participant asked for more!

Comments were made that setting some pre-reading could deepen their learning but this was not a common request.

Workbook

The workbook includes subsystem diagrams, lists of related activities, concepts and readings.

Participants praised this tool the most, calling it 'useful' and 'valuable.' It contains questions to be asked of each phase and they found this 'very useful.' This is the document that is considered most useful for ongoing use after the program.

Some final reflections

There were varied responses to the length and structure of the program. In earlier interviews, after four days learning, some said the speed was good, others okay, some 'really good - I like the gaps.' In later interviews, there were suggestions for change. These included: more days, shorter days; do 4 days intensive then later 2 days, preferably Saturdays; every Monday for six weeks; do in summer residential. Structurally, one participant suggested moving more quickly up front and then go through the methodology with a worked example. One interesting comment was to 'use Ariadne to teach Ariadne.' (We thought we were.)

The overall value of the experience

Participants mentioned their increased confidence frequently in the interviews from beginning to last. While many recognised the difficulties of transforming their organisations they nevertheless felt they had 'gained new knowledge', learned 'new ways of thinking critically' and had 'greater comfort with uncertainty.'

Some expressed deeper values: greater 'belief in self'; one had undergone a 'paradigm shift' and others were on a journey with 'confidence in tackling the future.' It had 'changed the way I think,' 'crystallised my thinking,' and 'improved my articulation.'

As Kuhn & Marsick (2005:45) say there are always limitations with these types of programs. Many things have to be right, they say: 'the competitive environment, organisational readiness, the sponsor, the projects, the partic ipant mix, the facilitators, the design team, the learning coaches, to name a few.' For one participant the program was 'magical' but she could not specify what generated that feeling.

In answering the research question - What helps participants in this program to achieve the learning outcomes? - there are multiple answers. For each participant different teaching and learning techniques worked, perhaps reflecting their learning styles. The materials, methods and other resources and the value placed on them by participants have been explored above.

The synchronicity, diversity of the group and the openness to new thinking evidenced in the participants' approach to the program have manifested in the creation of the Emergent Futures Group. At the end of the first program in 2005, several people said they wanted to keep meeting, that the time out, for one, was 'keeping me sane.' We were hopeful of creating a learning community but would not suggest it. The Group continues to meet every 8 weeks to share experiences and learn new methods from each other.

NTM continues to develop. Many ideas have been absorbed and we will continue to reflect on the teaching and learning experiences. It is a privilege to spend time with talented senior managers facing the complex challenges of their world.

References

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Allen, L. & Lang, T. (2005-2008). Navigating the Maze. http://cbs.curtin.edu.au/business/professional-services/consultancy/emergent -futures-group/navigating-the-maze

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Authors: Lynn Allen and Trudi Lang
Curtin University of Technology and Oxford University
Email: Lynn.Allen@curtin.edu.au ; trudi.lang@sbs.ox.ac.uk

Please cite as: Allen, L. and Lang, T. (2009). Navigating the Maze: Teaching and learning an emergent futures methodology for strategic thinking. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/allen.html

Copyright 2009 Lynn Allen and Trudi Lang. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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