Thursday, August 17, 2006

Barbershop futures

A couple of months ago, I got a haircut, for the first time in over a year. (Stay with me now, there's a perfectly good reason why I'm opening with that piece of pure trivia.)

The gentleman who did the deed, who introduced himself as Wally, was originally from Hong Kong, and having come to America as a young man, had spent the past 25 years cutting hair in San Francisco. He was, he hastened to add, still poor -- but he cheerfully told me about his ambitions, his life, and the likelihood that he would keep cutting hair for many years to come.

We got around to talking about what had brought me to the city, and the fact that I was a student of futures -- no, not the financial kind, but "the future" plural -- alternative possibilities.

Wally's eyes lit up. "You study the future!" he cried. "Tell me about the future!"

Now, while his response was uncommonly enthusiastic, the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast what would happen in the news the following day, or the appearance of the next customer to walk through the door, was not at all unusual. It happens to me all the time. People hear that I'm in futures and, depending on some combination of how credulous they are, and how silly I seem (maybe it's the hair?), frequently an assumption is made that I'm about to make an outrageous claim arising from some cursory crystal-ball based research. They don't know anything about me at that point, so the ridicule is at least pre-emptive (sheesh! at least give me a chance to show how ridiculous I am). There's often a dash of hope mixed in there with the ridicule, too, which is interesting, like there's a private wish that I'll be able to let them in on some secret to predicting the future, even if they're already 95% sure I'm full of shit.

In any event, Wally's interest was genuine, and I was able to explain that my work in the field is not in fact oriented toward predicting The Future, but rather toward helping people consider a range of possibilities relevant to their situation, and thus perhaps to choose more wisely between them. I told him that I and my colleagues work with governments, communities, businesses -- any group interested in thriving in conditions of change -- dealing with process more than content. This is because first, even the broad themes can vary hugely depending on the client or topic in question, and as for the "content" of the future itself -- well, it varies hugely depending on a whole lot of things.

Wally was insistent. How could any of this apply to his business? Ah. This certainly got me thinking. I knew, and still know, nothing about the hair industry. But I ventured that something could happen suddenly to affect the viability of his business. He pointed out that people had been cutting hair professionally for six thousand years, and they weren't likely to stop next week. Touché, Wally.

I ruminated, partly aloud, partly internally, about things that could affect Wally's modest barbershop on Van Ness Street. Fashions could change; people might decide to cut their own hair, or not to cut it at all. Shaved heads, do-it-yourself style, could develop a mass appeal. Military conscription might consign a proportion of his clientele to standard issue, regulation-length buzzcuts. A widespread health problem, such as a lice outbreak, could have the same effect. On a longer timescale, humans might evolve hairlessness -- or elect to disable our follicles through some kind of chemical or electronic therapy. Wally remained unperturbed.

I noticed that he had posted a sign advertising scalp and face massage -- here, then, an alternative business model. We agreed that if, perchance, circumstance should pose an unforeseen disruption to his hair-cutting activities, he'd always have the massage to fall back on.

I left, 45 minutes later, hair a couple of inches shorter than intended (the added toll of engaging your barber in a conversation he wants to prolong) not entirely sure that I had demonstrated to his satisfaction, or to my own, the strategic usefulness of futures thinking for those in the haircutting trade. But he had, apparently, been persuaded that it was worthwhile, interesting and -- importantly -- possible to think about alternative futures. It could open up new avenues of exploration; not all of them, thankfully, based on catastrophic lice infestations or burgeoning military engagements. (Damage control and risk management are merely among the more easily grasped practical applications of futures thinking.)

What this encounter made me realise was, really, two things. The first is that I need to be careful not to become the proverbial hammer looking everywhere for a nail to strike. What Wally really needed after 25 years of steady but unspectacular business was not a futurist, but maybe a bit of local advertising and a more realistic price schedule (charging just $12 a haircut, in San Francisco, no wonder he wasn't getting rich). The second realisation, in contrast, was that futures can indeed be helpful, for almost anyone, in clarifying where they may be able to make a difference, and where they are less likely to do so.

To explain: that occasional dismissive reaction to my chosen specialisation, which I described above, is one end of a spectrum, the "you can't predict the future" end. The other end of the spectrum is the "future is self evident" end. It's possible for people to believe both these things simultaneously, and what's more, to be right. If they believed the former today about the price of oil per barrel in 2020, I'd have to agree. But if they believed the latter about the likely fate of a drunk stumbling on to a busy highway, I'd be inclined to share that view also. There are lots of layers of change occurring simultaneously, and to make sense of them requires sensitivity to the relative momentum and internal dynamics of each. To me, this field is in large part about exploring the massive grey area between the white of complete predictability and the black of complete unpredictability -- which are both categories, I would argue, of phenomena for which one can refuse to take responsibility. No wonder people rely on them so much.

Most change does not occur at these extremes, however. There's a certain amount of regularity in how things operate, and persistence in the patterns of change they adopt, and a certain amount you can do to influence them one way or another. And you might as well act consistently with what you'd like to see happen. As Wally put it; "If you plant roses, it doesn't come up vegetables". This was his own rather beautiful and profound expression of the principle that as ye sow, so shall ye reap. (He was elaborating his karmic philosophy that if he ripped his customers off, he wouldn't be able to sleep so well at night; which was reassuring.)

As to many of the things that matter to us, we can do something about them. The something (or various alternative somethings) we can do, and why and how, and to what possible ends -- identifying and acting upon these is, to my mind, the purpose of futures thinking.

Maybe I should get my hair cut more often.

/Barbershop futures revisited/


Anonymous said...

Awesome entry. Really clarified the field as percieved by the regular guy. :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart,

Can I have permission to link to this blog entry via my blog?

Frank Spencer

Stuart Candy said...

Hi Frank,

Thanks for stopping by. Of course you can link to this entry -- and, for future reference, anything else I put out there. The web gets smarter through our making the connections that need to be made.