ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1999


Back To The Future In 2000

Purpose, Planning and Preparing

Get In Touch With Your Emotions

No Gimmicks. No Frills. Just The Facts

Ritz-Carlton Again


What A Difference A Space Makes
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change




Back To The Future In 2000

NFC: When you began your work in 1974, the year 2000 was symbolic for futurists. Now it is here. What kind of impact do you think you have had?

Barker: It is pretty measurable if you look at the world around us. Two of the things that I was almost the very first to focus on when talking to businesses were the concept of fundamental change, called paradigm shifts, and the need for vision. Recently, Industry Week asked their readers, “What’s the most important thing that you are doing with your corporation?” The number one thing was shared vision. With paradigms, the joke is now that it is a cliché. But that is all right, because to get to be a cliché you’ve had to be something substantial.

NFC: Why do you think that it became a cliché?

Barker: Because it was the most powerful explanation for what had been before considered stupid, aberrant behavior. Almost everyone could catch themselves in that behavior—the resistance to paradigm shifts. And now we have a conscious, rational, intellectual way of explaining both the behavior and the necessity of change. Now, I work with companies that say, “We are going to institute a paradigm shift.” It is a conscious, purposeful, anticipatory act. Very few people, when I started doing this work said, “Oh yeah we do paradigm shifts all the time. We’re conscious of it.” When I started doing a whole series of lectures for Motorola, I was taken aside by Bob Galvin. He said, “You know Joel, we’ve done this. This is actually in the tradition of our company. He told me about how his father had squeezed a radio into a car when everyone said that was impossible. He said they got the same thing with cellular phones. Remember we deserted the retail electronics business and everyone said we were crazy. We’ve actually lived this, but this is the first time that we have a methodology for articulating it.”

NFC: Could some of the negative connotations be a result of the fear of the instability a paradigm shift causes?

Barker: I think what it is all about is there is an intellectual snobbery. First of all it is, “What a stupid idea, who would ever believe in that?” Then when they get it they say, “Oh what a wonderful idea.” And then the intellectuals use it to the hilt. At a certain point they get so tired of using it that they basically say, “Oh no, this is old hat.” Now the power of a great idea is that it will make it through one more stage. And paradigms have moved into the final stage. It has become a common word where actually the majority of people use it within the correct range. So I don’t actually think that it has anything to do with the fear of what a paradigm shift is, so much as it is an intellectual game that gets played with all new ideas.

NFC: You started out as a teacher. What did you teach?

Barker: English and journalism.

NFC: You started as a futurist by developing a curriculum for grades K-12. Did you ever finish the curriculum?

Barker: I actually taught it for four years at the Science Museum of Minnesota. We taught more than 400 teachers.

NFC: Do you think that there is still a need for that in public education?

Barker: Huge.

NFC: And what is the benefit to public education?

Barker: My wife and I helped sponsor an advanced project that started in 1988. It was a new curriculum for the 21st century, based around ecological education, futures education and global education. It has about 160 schools using that curriculum or pieces of that curriculum around the United States. We actually helped underwrite a school in Chattanooga that ran a pure curriculum of that for four years. The program took kids mostly from the inner-city from very underachievers to the top 20 schools in all of Tennessee. The school was K-through- competence. No 12th grade. But we literally had 400, 5-18-year-old students in the same building.

NFC: The old one-room schoolhouse?

Barker: Exactly. Everyone told us that was impossible. It would never work. The older kids would not work with the younger kids and it turned out the exact opposite. We took away all varsity sports. This was an academic school. This was not a minor league waystation for football and basketball. There was a bell-shaped curve of kids, purposely selected, a bell-shaped curve of teachers purposely selected, because we didn’t want to say that we had all the best teachers in Chattanooga and look what we have done for the kids.

The students studied things in project structure. We would pick a project, like the study of the river. We would study a topic from 8-12 weeks. In that topic they would learn chemistry, biology, physics, English, foreign languages, the history of it. Within the project they were getting everything they would get in school, but it was focused around a single topic so they could really understand how this all fit together.

End result—when they started taking tests, they outscored the norm in every area.
By the way, I think that the most important key measure of success of the school was the average attendance went from 78 to 99 percent. So kids were coming to this school when they were sick, because they loved the school so much they didn’t want to miss a day.

NFC: What you are saying makes perfect sense, why is it intimidating for school systems or businesses?

Barker: What I have always loved about the paradigm shift theory is that it explains itself. What do we know? Insiders resist paradigm shifts. Why? Because they are good at what they do and a paradigm shift requires you to give up what you are good at and learn something new. So you come to the public school system and you say, ‘I know you have been teaching chemistry for 21 years of your life, but we’re now going to ask you to join English, history and math teachers. You are going to collaborate. And, by the way, you won’t be teaching chemistry everyday, but when you teach it you will probably be teaching at six hours at a time. You will be down by the river and teaching the pH levels of the river and how to take the pH and that’s OK isn’t it?” And of course the answer is no. It is not because that does not fit my curriculum.

NFC: You believe that the leader’s role is to be the seer recognizing the future. How well equipped are leaders to do that right now?

Barker: Not too well. That’s why when you see someone who does it extremely well, you are blown away by it. Warren Buffet, for example, what an amazing job he has done at finding, recognizing, securing the future. Jack Welsh, even though there are some things that I disagree with him about, you have to absolutely honor the man for what he has done and how he has done it as a leader. He has really taken GE and absolutely positioned them so that they can be a fully functional organization in 21st century.
The number one thing I look for in leaders is where are they spending their time? If they are really focusing on the present tense, you have a problem. The simple measure is that the leader has either not put in the right people to take care of the present or they don’t know where the future is so they are just micro-managing the present and hoping that the future will fall the right way for them. So if we were going to reward our leaders in any way, it should never be for quarter to quarter stuff. It really should be for a five to 10 year time span. If you think about it, a good leader secures the jobs of, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of people.

NFC: There are some who would say that by focusing on the leader, we have placed the focus on the wrong place.

Barker: Leadership is fractal. It is a pattern that repeats itself at all scales. So when you look at a Jack Welsh or a Lou Gertzner, this is not a man thing. This is a leader thing. Look at Martha Stewart. If you look at those people, what they are doing is leading at the largest fractal scale available. What that means is that they have to make the largest decisions and they carry the largest responsibility. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t other leadership going on in the organization. And with a fractal, what we know is that the same pattern occurs as you run down the organization. Remember, my definition of a leader is someone you will follow to a place you would not go yourself. The thing that I drive home is that it is a choice. I make this choice to follow you. And I would not go there if you didn’t go there first. So you have to ask yourself, what is the value of that person? You almost can’t value it because it means that there is no movement unless that person moves first. So do I think that leaders are important? Massively.

I had some people call me up once and tell me that no, no, no; it is not like that at all. There is leadership everywhere. Organizations are actually led from the bottom up. I said, “Send me some examples, if you are so sure.” I never got one. A leader is a leader is a leader. And if you don’t have them in your organization, nothing else is going to happen. Many people say that vision comes from the bottom. I say, “No that is not true, elements of the vision come from the bottom.” Then people get interested in that and they ask what I mean by that. It is very simple. I am one of 30,000 people and I have an idea of where this corporation should be. But if you ask me to map the whole picture, I don’t have it. I have some good elements. One of the roles leaders have is to go down and to talk and to hear all of those elements. The coalescence of those elements into a coherent picture that makes sense, a vision that will work, is the job of leaders.

In the military, there are men watching. They say, “No, go over there.” How did Patton know that? He had a capacity to see the coherent large picture. You are not born with that capacity. It is not instinctual. It is intuitive, and intuition is trained by many, many experiences. That’s what we pay our leaders for. I truly believe that one of the things we’re going to learn at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st is just how important leadership is. We have some people in leadership positions who do not act like leaders. They are greedy. And that is not leadership. If Patton had said, “By the way, you guys go out there, you won’t ever see me close,” nobody would have followed him. In many cases, Patton walked in front of the tanks to get them into the lead location before walking back to his high post. Everybody knew he was putting his life on the line. I think we have some people who should be leading who are, in fact, grabbing all the wealth they can grab. That contradicts fundamentally what leadership is about.

NFC: “Future Edge” is dedicated to your parents who were never bothered by you being a little weird. How were you a little weird?

Barker: I was a heavy-duty reader. I was inventing things. And I wanted to be an astronaut at age five in 1949. That’s a little weird. Mrs. Bennett, my fourth grade teacher luckily took me aside and chastised me and said, “Joel, man will never leave the surface of the planet, stop doing this.” And my parents didn’t say, “Listen to Mrs. Bennett.” They said, “If you want to be an astronaut, you be an astronaut.” I got perfect grades until I found out I couldn’t be an astronaut when I was 12 years old. Took my first airplane ride and threw up. I found out I had a hypersensitive inner ear and was told I would not be able to fly. So I lost my image of the future. My own vision of the future disappeared at 12. But the habits die-hard and thank god for the habits because when I found out that I could be a futurist I was all ready to be a futurist. So that was my weirdness, I was doing things that other little kids weren’t doing. And I was real serious about wanting to be an astronaut when most kids in Rochester, Minn were talking about being doctors.

NFC: What are you reading now?

Barker: “Bionomics” by Michael Rothchild. It is about the ecology of economics. What he basically does is look at an ecosystem and asks what can an ecosystem teach us about economics. He comes up with some wonderful insights. “The Future and its Enemies,” by Virginia Postrel. I disagree with some of her stuff but she has taken a very lucid position on what she calls the “statist,” those people who want to control the future down to its intimate details, and then the “dynamists,” who just believe if you just leave things alone the future will unfold its own way. I sit halfway between those two positions. I believe that when you envision the future you actually do influence the future to go one way or another, but then you also have to allow for the surprises.

December '99 News for a Change | E-mail Editor
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