“I think this is a really valuable conversation for this moment where we’re talking about Web3 and the blockchain and all of this because there’s a fascination about using the metaverse to sell more things and to fashion more things. But what we need is a metaverse and a Web3 and a blockchain that allows us to collaborate to solve the world’s problems in ways that we haven’t before. We’re at a real tipping point, I think, for the net right now. “
– Frank Spencer
About Frank Spencer
Frank is the founder and Creative Director of Kedge, a global foresight, innovation, and strategic design firm, and co-founder and Lead Instructor of The Futures School, He has worked on strategic foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott, and The Walt Disney Company and has spoken about foresight around the globe for the last 20 years.
What you will learn
- Why we are futures thinking from the perspective of what we do on a daily basis (03:14)
- What is the difference between complexity and complication? (04:48)
- What is a swarm and holoptic foresight? (07:00)
- What is a digital angel? (12:36)
- What are some best practices for filtering and scanning information? (15:54)
- What are sense making techniques for interesting information? (19:07)
- How to balance our sensitivity to information with sense making (21:53)
- Why we should look for where information collides with each other (26:46)
Frank Spencer: Ross, it’s a pleasure to be here. It’s an honor and I’m looking forward to our conversation together.
Ross: You have thought a lot about information overload. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Frank: Yes, I love the focus of the podcast. This is a big topic for people. We’re living in a world that’s more complicated than ever before. I’m sure that some of your guests have probably talked about the difference between complexity and complication today, but I think when we think about information overload, we think about things being so complex. For me, it’s really interesting, because I saw a great TikTok by you yesterday, I’m just scrolling through, and of course, we’re friends on TikTok, and I love that you’re using that medium as well. You were talking about how to manage your day, and just make sure you don’t go over ten two minutes in the morning. I loved that. That was great. I think people are desperately seeking those kinds of ways to manage their time and the information that comes in, and the overload.
Futures thinking is interesting. I know that you know this, but maybe there’s some of your audience that isn’t aware that when we think about the future we think about it from the perspective of what we do on a daily basis. We can think almost like three concentric circles. The inner circle is what I do, and what I’m really concerned about, my job, and the things that I have to do every day, it’s sort of that microenvironment. Then you’ve got this middle bubble, that’s like, this is my environment, this is the industry I work in, this is the people I talk to, and this is where the information is bombarding me. But then how we live in this digital environment as well with this outer circle that’s all of the stuff that seems unrelated to us but it’s just information that’s bombarding us all the time, the disruption, and things that people are worried about that weren’t necessarily things that 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have been caring about at all, but it’s a much more connected or interconnected world today. There are things that we often don’t think relate to us now, people realize they do.
But as you know, Ross, good futures thinking and foresight really work from the outside in and not the inside out, because it helps us to redefine how we’re thinking about our environment. I think that’s why for me, really focusing on sense-making is a critical element of that information overload. What I love to say about that, and if we get a chance to go into it on the podcast a little bit is this idea that we formed 12 or 13 years ago, natural foresight, and a conference we just had on transformation is really helping people to embrace the complexity. I know that you know this, but for the audience, there’s a big difference really between complexity and complication. Complexity is the natural order of the universe. I was just showing quotes at the anticipation conference last week of all these social scientists and biologists, and they all were saying something very similar that greater complexity gives us greater ability to find unknowns, to do things, to tap into unseen possibilities and answers and solutions. We definitely don’t want to weed out all of that noise because if we did, we would miss all of this great stuff that could happen, this very transdisciplinary approach.
I think oftentimes what we think is complex. It’s really complicated. That’s us trying to overmanage the situation. We put another button in and we fax another sheet and we put another lever in to try to control it, it gets complicated, it’s very complicated, and that’s what gives us the overload, I think more so than the complexity does. What I would suggest for managing that overload is to think about the environment differently. When we develop this sense-making for complexity, and we embrace it as a friend, not as an enemy, we tend to look at things very differently.
Now, I do think there are some very practical things that we can do to make the rubber hit the road here. Those deal with broadening our network, having a greater swarm around this, so that we’re able to tap into this information that’s needed, but we don’t have to house it all by ourselves all at one time, have multiple ways of seeing the world, multiple voices in our network. That’s a very different way than the good information or the good advice of managing your time, and I think those are all legit, of course, but also this idea of seeing complexity in a very different way and instead of shutting it, developing our sense-making ability to say, how’s this complexity broadening the way I see things so that I don’t feel overwhelmed by that information, and internalizing that information with networks and connections and swarms that are allowing me to think in a way that I’ve never thought before. It actually enlivens and empowers us rather than overwhelms us.
Ross: Let’s dig into that. One of those themes is around the swarms. Let’s dig into what’s it like to have that swarm of other people or ideas. How does that work? How somebody can put that in place in their life and work?
Frank: That’s a great question. It’s so important. We hear about holism being more important in organizations today and the multiple ways or models that we might get that in place. For over the past decade, we’ve been talking about something that we call holoptic foresight, and it’s a really fancy term. But to break it down, what it refers to is the eye that sits on the head of a dragonfly or a damselfly, those insects are unique, some other insects have this kind of holoptic eyes, but a holoptic eye is an eye that is 360 degrees at all times.
Dragonfly has an eye that covers the entire head, he can see forward and backward, up and down, right and left. But the really interesting thing is not that we can’t look behind us, we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads as a dragonfly does, but the dragonfly doesn’t look at those parts separately, they rather look at it as a whole. Could you imagine if we had that? It would probably drive us crazy, but maybe not because we would’ve been designed for that. To have an eye that has 360-degree vision allows them to see the environment very differently than we see with our eyes.
Even though our physical eyes aren’t probably ever going to evolve to that state, and we weren’t made for that, is there a way that we can model that holoptic eye of the dragonfly? When you zoom in on the eye, it’s really interesting because you see all of these little clusters and cells, and they are the individual parts of the eye that make up a whole. Likewise, is there a way for us to develop swarmed or holoptic networks that allow us to say, look, your diversity, my diversity, her diversity, his diversity is very important to coming together and bringing a common whole or cooperation?
Ross: What does that look like for an individual? Let’s say an individual says, this sounds great, I want to be able to get this many facets to see the world through, what do they do? How do they put that in place?
Frank: In organizations, we’ve got to think much more about hybrid value chains. There are many ways that we can think about this. But now we see these “Four P” models that are taking place of public, private, partnerships, and I forget what the fourth P stands for, but you see these “Four P” models all the time. It’s really beyond just public-private partnerships to saying, how can we get out of these siloed molds because our educational organizations are siloed, our organizations are siloed, and we, for so long, have leaned on and honored and esteemed the siloing because it allows us to think just about my one area, and I can really dig down deep. That’s valuable but research has even shown that the more we silo, the more we exacerbate our problems. Because we’re missing all of this information that could connect in between, that creates new solutions we’ve never thought of before, instead of trying to solve our problems from within the context of the problem.
Our organizations have to be more fluid, they need to be more open. We need to create organizational models that allow us to connect outside of what that organization traditionally thinks is its DNA, or what they’re doing. That means new work models too, that means new talent acquisition models, that might not be, you work for this company, but I work for seven different companies, and not just so the individual can have the freedom to work for seven companies, but the companies benefit for you working in them. I know there’s IP protection and all of this, I get that we get in those things but we have to start thinking about how we unsilo these things.
In terms of governments, very similar, but from me as an individual, we’ve got this great thing called the internet, maybe you don’t think it’s so great because it’s done a lot of damage, we see what’s going on with Twitter right now, we’ve seen how it’s directed behind the scenes, even elections and governments and wars and those kinds of things but the original idea, and I think David Eagleman had a great talk in 2011 at The Long Now Foundation, you can find that talk online, probably on Youtube, he talked back in 2011 about a civilization that has never had a tool like this before, that allows us to swarm in ways that elevate civilization to a new place. Back in 2011, he wasn’t thinking about what might happen with Elon Musk and Twitter in 2022, what might have happened with the elections in Australia or the United States and other places in 2018 and 2020 but certainly, he was saying, we have these tools, we have digital tools, we have organizational tools, but we really need to shift the way we think about siloing to connecting more.
We could go off on a whole tangent about how we need to build what I might refer to as digital angels instead of digital devils or digital demons and how that kind of model of the internet could connect us in ways to swarm so that I don’t have to have all of it in my head, I can rely on the swarm to build that holoptic eye for me. That’s a way of managing information. That’s not just about siloing that information, but rather, letting the information breathe among a diverse cohort of people that will open up new areas for jobs, talent, new ideas, new products, and new innovations.
Ross: What is a Digital Angel?
Frank: You watch the media, and they’ll tell you all the bad news so you got that out of the way. The good news is behind the scenes, there are tons of people working on tons of great things around the world, and we just don’t hear about that very often. This idea of a digital angel actually came from a sci-fi author friend of mine, and I think he was writing a book on at the time, I don’t know if he ever finished it. But I was speaking at a conference in New York a couple of years ago and he said we know what a digital devil is, and we see them all the time, and bots online, and misinformation but what we need to do is develop these nodes, individual nodes, and also regional collective nodes, swarms that are watching out for ethics on the net. That doesn’t mean necessarily censoring, but finding how we can get information to the forefront is true, and protecting this environment so that it can be helpful for people to collaborate in, to build in, to model in.
Ross: That’s a great idea. Who is the author of that?
Frank: It’s going to come to me in just a minute. If not, I’ll let you know after the show is over. I’ll look it up and you can put it in the notes or something.
Ross: That’ll be great. Are you aware of any actual examples of this in practice?
Frank: It’s interesting, we wrote a scenario for a company a couple of years ago, a large international food company. One of the scenarios that we wrote, of course, you know in scenario writing, a lot of research goes behind it, it’s much like science fiction authors do, they’re not just making wild stories, they do a lot of research about technologies and where things are going, and in this particular one, we looked up several different examples of people that were actually building ethics on the internet. I can’t remember the particular names right now. But that’s another thing that I could send to you after the show’s over, maybe we could reference some of those. But there are great examples of people that are working on, again, what we might refer to as these digital angel organizations to really flip the net.
I think this is a really valuable conversation for this moment where we’re talking about Web3 and the blockchain and all of this because there’s a fascination about using the metaverse to sell more things and to fashion more things. But what we need is a metaverse and a Web3 and a blockchain that allows us to collaborate to solve the world’s problems in ways that we haven’t before. We’re at a real tipping point, I think, for the net right now. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more people get involved in Web3 development that are really truly saying, when I say decentralized, in that I mean so that we can work together in this sort of holoptic or swarming way to bring our diversity together to create a new whole that we’ve never seen before.
Ross: Fantastic. I want to dig into your practices. You help many organizations think about the future which involves being aware of what’s happening in the present. I’d love to hear you, potentially you and your colleagues together, what is your practice? You’re immersed in overload more than almost anyone, and the fact that you have to be across everything, and you clearly thrive on that, so what’s your practice? Even take me through the day, or what are the things that you do to be able to achieve that?
Frank: That’s exactly right. I’m glad you asked that question. Of course, the organization that we formed probably about 12 years ago, Kedge is our mothership. That’s the main company. We are a foresight and innovation strategic design firm. We’ve worked with companies like General Mills, and the Walt Disney Company, and intelligence agencies, I was going to say which one, but oftentimes, I’ve said it to them, and they’re like, you have to say, intelligence agency, don’t tell us what agency it was, or we have to come after you, and organizations like that, that you’ve worked for as well. Fortune 500, 100, SMEs and governments, and all kinds of people. That does mean that daily, we’re looking across a swathe of different kinds of information and then connecting it. Because a lot of regular daily scanning that we might do, which happens off and on. I don’t normally because it’s my job, set a time aside during the day when I scan, that’s just me, I’m more of a type B person, I guess, everybody else in the organization is very type A, and they always are like, oh, here comes Frank, he is going to disrupt the whole thing.
I’m more of the kind of person that just as I’m going along and doing my daily routine, the scanning comes that way. Of course, if we’re working with a client, we’re going to not say that to them, we’re going to say, hey, look, here’s how you set aside a time during the day where you can scan around information, here’s the kind of information that you want to scan. But scanning is an important part of our day.
Ross: One of the really important points I make in the book Thriving on Overload is don’t just look at printed information or information on screens, get up and look around and get out there, that’s one of the best possible ways to get a sense of what’s going on in the world.
Frank: So true, it’s my favorite way. We’ve actually even dug into that so deeply that we’ve had multiple clients that we take out on field trips, in California, here in Florida where we reside, and across the world, we’ve taken them to certain places, in downtown areas, festivals, and teach them really how to look for what are people wearing? What are they doing? What are they consuming? What kinds of businesses are attracted here? What does that mean when you think about new patents and ideas and innovations and products? It’s really great to be able to walk down a city block and to be able to see how it’s impacting them, what’s on the fringe, what’s arising.
Ross: When you’re seeing or are you scanning? When you see something interesting, what do you do with it?
Frank: Yes, if we see something interesting, we do several things with it. For one thing, we put it in our scanning repository, and there are lots of ways that you could capture it. Scanning information, we make sure we tag it, which means that if we’re working with a particular client, we might put tags on it for us to go back to and say this was about the future of shampoo, or this is about the future of dog food or this might be about the future of rhinos because we worked a couple of years ago with the top 40 rhino experts in the world, they’re using foresight to think about rhino conservation. We might tag it with those kinds of things or whatever the focal issue is about or generally, if we’re just scanning and it’s not for a client, I see interesting pieces of information that I know are going to come back up again, and it’s just important for no matter what client we get, then we might tag or put those in the repository with ideas around whatever they are that they’re speaking to us. Because I will say that one of the most important parts for me, scanning is not what the thing I see or the thing I read says on the surface, is what’s in between.
As a matter of fact, when we teach scanning we teach people to really scan three different ways. We talk about scanning around what’s on the surface, the trends and those things, and, of course, if you’re in competitive intelligence or consumer insights, you’re like, I already do that, but do you scan around the values as well? That’s the next layer down because we know that value creation comes out of trends and values create or emerge or bubble up to new trends, so what are those values? Oftentimes, when we’re reading or looking, we’re really looking for these things that are in between, what values are emerging, and what does it mean? And then we’re also looking at the impacts on humanity. It’s really three different ways of scanning. Then we collect those, we put them in repositories, that go into pattern building, which means multiple values, trends, and impacts that create emerging landscapes of change. These things are interrelated in some way. That really takes us back again to that sense-making piece.
We’re not just collecting trends and saying, here are the top 10 trends because that’s not enough, that’s just scratching the surface. We need to understand how these trends are interacting because, in the real world, none of this information that is bombarding us are in pieces. They’re all colliding, converging, and intersecting. Because of that, it’s more important to see how they’re patterning than how they are impacting alone. 3D printing and the metaverse, yes, those are individual things, but how are they colliding with one another? And what does that really mean for healthcare and construction and government, etc.?
Ross: I want to come back to the sense-making in a moment, but first, I suppose you’re pointing to these ways in which we are sensitizing ourselves; rather than just looking around, we’re looking around and we’re looking for values, we’re looking around and we’re looking for trends, we are becoming more sensitive to the world. I think that’s a fundamental part, of course, just to be able to understand what’s going on, to be able to see it in a frame that helps us to make sense, but that starts to mean that there’s not just overload but there’s just more and more. As we sensitize ourselves even more, there is more and more to see, there’s more and more to notice. How do we deal with that? There are plenty of people that go through the world with tunnel vision and that makes it a bit easier for then in some ways but once we sensitize ourselves, we’re seeing so much. How is it that we balance that?
Frank: One of the things I was suggesting, I know people often hate this phrase, but they can’t swallow the ocean, I think that’s the phrase. We can’t do that. That’s why I think it’s important to understand the information we’re seeing in the context that we’re in. Now, of course, as you just suggested, it can change our context somewhat. I love this phrase that I heard a long time ago: we must hold tightly to our vision but be ready to let go of strategy at a moment’s notice. Applying that to this situation, I think it really means that the information we’re taking in doesn’t change the context or doesn’t change the vision necessarily but it does change our strategy around it, which could very well broaden the vision and alter the vision and help us to see the vision in a way we weren’t thinking of before but it’s still that vision. It doesn’t mean that the information when we take it in that way is going to overwhelm what it is that we’re trying to accomplish. It means that we’re making sense of it in our context. We’re not just making sense of the world, oh, I understand my identity in this context, I was really struggling with this for a moment but now I can understand how this makes sense for the world, but we have to center this thing around what it is that we’re doing and we’re trying to accomplish our vision.
Ross: The vision then is the vision of your objectives, objectives of the organization, so you say that you have clarity on that, that then starts to make that. One of the points I’m making forever on overload is that it’s a shift from overwhelm to abundance, in the sense of you’ve got overwhelmed because you got too much but if you have a sense of purpose, then everything, basically you’ve got as much information as you possibly want. Now that clarity around that vision or purpose or direction, whatever it is, then starts to essentially mean that everything is a resource and everything shapes something in the middle rather than just not having any you know or It’ll all just be in a mishmash.
Frank: Yes, that’s beautifully put. We just had a retreat, our first in-person get-together since COVID took place. The reason we were super comfortable with it is that we all went to a retreat center in Northern California, above San Francisco, and it was the rolling hills and it was beautiful. We had all kinds of people come there and met with Zan Chandler, who is a professor at OCAD, one of the association’s professional features board members was there with us, and we had just a great cross-section of different people there. One of the world’s most awarded and renowned slam poets was there with us. It was really a cool collection of people. They all brought a very diverse way of seeing things. Of course, every one of them came with their passion or purpose as you put it there, their passion, I love that. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
During that time we were there, we talked about the fact that we are nature, and to not silo, and we’re nature, we’re anticipatory, and if that’s the case, we can co-create together, we can collaborate, and we can cooperate without losing our diversity. It was amazing to see people leave the retreat and say, I feel more passionate now about the thing that I was passionate about when I came in than I did before I got here because now I realized that all of your passions can help me understand my passion better, and connecting with the cosmos in a greater way, and understanding that I’m not disconnected. Humans are a part of nature and nature as anticipatory has helped me to think about this in ways I never thought about it before. I love how you just put that. It’s not about just hearing the information and being overwhelmed, but it’s about receiving it and understanding the context of what makes us passionate and gives abundance to our passion. I love that you use the word abundance there, it just enlarges or empowers the scope of that passion.
Ross: That’s fantastic. I really resonate with that. Often I have those interactions where I think, well, you’ve made me even more excited about what I was excited about before because of the complementarity. Coming back to sensemaking, that’s a phrase we understand but it’s very conceptual in a way. I’d like you to try to make it as grounded as possible, what advice can you give to people that are saying, I’ve got lots of information, I’ve got lots of bits and pieces of things, I’m trying to do this, what can I do to be able to make sense of that?
Frank: One of the things that happens even in our practice because we have to make the rubber meet the road too, and of course, our clients are like, that’s great, Frank, sensemaking, can you make this very practical, as Ross just said? One of the things that we like to do is we like to keep a running mind map going. We actually have whiteboards all over the office. Right now you’re seeing me in the studio because over the last three years we built…I can look at 10 different cameras here, and actually Ross is over there so I’m just looking at the camera, but I see his face to the side because there are all kinds of screens. This is actually real behind me. That’s not a fake background, but it’s fake in the manner that there’s like a whole other studio behind it and such.
I say that to say that I’m in here, out there down the hall and then the offices, just whiteboards like crazy. However, you do it, there needs to be a way for us to be able to take this information that we see. If we’re working on new models, or new organizational resources or operations, or we’re working on an entrepreneurial idea or innovations, how can we actually map these ideas and make sense of them? One way we do that is, we first talk about the collision of ideas or information that we’re getting. That’s what really makes what we might call pattern recognition. I want you to keep a whiteboard, or on a piece of paper somewhere, somewhere that colleagues can see this. Maybe you’re an individual in your house, or you meet on Zoom with people, or you have a group, a mentoring group, or maybe you’re in an organization, so now you’ve got a room where you can put this up, I want you to actually do that, and make sense of the collision of these pieces of information.
Obviously, you’re thinking about it around what I might call a focal issue, but I love Ross’s use of the word passion here, so your passion issue, what is it you’re trying to accomplish? What are you passionate about? What are we doing here? First of all, look at the collision of these things, A, B, C, and D, they really speak to this pattern arising, this is the thing that’s happening that could really impact what we’re doing, so we’re mind mapping through that entire process. Every time that we go another layer down with that mind mapping, we’re really drawing out the sense-making, but we’re never losing sight that it has to relate back to our passion again.
You could put this in circles or squares or however it best suits you but to find some way to actually mind map this information so that you can stand back and see what it’s speaking to, what is shifting, and what is changing speaks to the issue that you’re trying to relate it to, and what that might mean in terms of change, or adaptation, or resilience or transformation, I like to often say even a higher order purpose is like, this is what we’re trying to accomplish but gosh, now that I know this information, this can add to what we’re doing in ways that we never thought of before. But you’re not going to be able to do that if it’s just floating around your head, you’re going to need to be able to do this collectively with others, to put it down on paper, to mind map this thing on a whiteboard, to get it out somewhere where you can really see it.
If I could take you on a journey out into the office out there, you would see all of these mind maps that wouldn’t make a lot of sense unless you were working with the clients. They look convoluted but to us, they’re beautiful paintings of how this connects to the issue and how we can actually make sense of this.
Ross: I think that’s around the relationship between the ideas. You’ve got all these ideas, these insights, this data, whatever it may be, but it’s the relationships between them out of which sense happens. I use paper and digital tools, but I think there’s real power to putting it on as big as possible canvas to draw that out.
Frank: I do too. I’m still a tactile person like that. I’m a child of the 70s and a teen in the 80s. Of course, I use digital tools now. We’ve had a long-standing decade-long relationship with Mural. We’re grandfathered in back when one of their first clients was the Walt Disney Company where we built a foresight team that spans 45 countries. They’ve been using Mural ever since. I love to use those tools, Miro, whatever it is that you use are all great. But there’s just something about being able to have that board in front of you, and you’re conversing, and you’re working together, you’re collaborating and cooperating.
There’s something that’s not just the information that goes on the board but sort of the mirror that happens back between the board and the group, or you yourself, where it’s changing that environment, I love that you just use the word relationship, it’s so powerful, and being able to see those circles and those connections on the board that says, this is what this would mean for us, and this is how we make sense of this environment, and this is how we’ll need to adapt or be resilient, or transform, to take our opportunity to transform because all living things transform, and that goes for people and organizations and governments, etc., if they’re alive, if they’re living, they eventually have to transform, so that tactile element is so important for me.
Ross: Yes, that’s fantastic. It’s been incredible just touching the surface of your practices, but I’d love to provide people a touch point to find out more about your work or even examples of that. Where can people go?
Frank: The place you want to go nowadays online is thefuturesschool.com. Going into next year, I’ll give a little tease or hint that we’re not completely rebranding, but we’re going to pull a BCG, PWC, EY stunt here, because people have known us as TFS for the longest time, and actually, even though the mothership is Kedge, everybody knows it says The Future School now, so we’re rebranding completely towards that. The Future School is a great resource. This has been what we call the Year of Free for us. We just tabulated yesterday, since we’re getting to the end of the year. This year, people around the world have been nominating other people to go to one of our programs, our three-day training program that was born out of our work with large corporations, Fortune 100s, from years ago, we used to do this three-day program to kick things off for them. Then it went public about eight years ago, and it just went gangbusters.
We’ve done it all around the world. Now we do it online. It’s our Foundations program. We also have a six-month activations program. Next year, we’ll have a lot more programs, because The Future School is a learning ecosystem. During this year, free people have nominated people to go to that. We’ve given away $200,000 in seats this year and had I think 95 people around the world get nominated this year. It was really cool. That’s a place where you can get free resources, go to the resource center, we gave away all our resources this year, and you can still get free resources until December 31. Just go to the checkout, and everything says $0. You can check out and get all kinds of templates and tools and great stuff, so thefutureschool.com, that’s where you want to go.
Ross: That’s fantastic. I think that generosity of sharing is really important because these are such important capabilities. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Frank. It’s been a real pleasure.
Frank: What an honor to speak to you today, Ross. We here, The Future School, my business partner who used to be the Head of Futures at the Walt Disney Company, we respect you greatly from afar, and it’s a great honor to be on your podcast.