Back To The Future In 2000
Purpose, Planning and Preparing
Get In Touch With Your Emotions
No Gimmicks. No Frills. Just The
What A Difference A Space Makes
by Peter Block
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
NFC: Could some of the negative connotations be a result
of the fear of the instability a paradigm shift
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
Barker: English and journalism.
NFC: You started as a futurist by developing a curriculum
for grades K-12. Did you ever finish the
Barker: I actually taught it for four years at the
Science Museum of Minnesota. We taught more than 400
NFC: Do you think that there is still a need for that in
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
NFC: There are some who would say that by focusing on the
leader, we have placed the focus on the wrong
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
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
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.