In "The Visionary's Handbook," Watts Wacker and Jim Taylor lay out a vision of the future where change is the only constant and decision-making is shrouded by various paradoxes that often contradict each other. The stated goal of this "handbook" is to help readers identify nine paradoxes that they deem critical to understanding the future and managing business activity.
The so-called Age of Uncertainty that Wacker and Taylor describe picks up where their popular 1998 book, "The 500-Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next?", left off. In that book they argued that The Age of Reason was rapidly coming to a close after 500 years, and that the shift would force businesses to increasingly rely on chaos-based logic rather than traditional reasoning and economics.
In "The 500-Year Delta," Wacker and Taylor called the current business model an Age of Possibility, and established that an overabundance of possibilities was leading to a crises for decision-makers, an embarrassment of options that leaves chaos and confusion in its wake.
The nine paradoxes presented here are a guide to cutting through this clutter, providing clarity in a sea of chaos and a mechanism for managing decisions based on a well-defined vision of the future. Wacker and Taylor open with the Paradox of the Visionary, which states: "The more you are right, the more wrong you will be." The idea being that as we experience higher levels of success, we are faced with greater and more frequent "collisions with chaos." Ultimately, the authors conclude that we are no longer in control of outcomes, and the more successful we become, the more poignant that becomes.
They caution, "All we can do is attempt to influence our own future or the future of our own business, absorb the paradoxes that our personal and professional life presents us with, and be prepared for whatever tomorrow does arrive." In order to do that, they insist throughout the book, organizations and individuals must constantly ask themselves two fundamental questions: "What am I?" and "What will I be?"
While this may echo James Stockdale's--Ross Perot's 1992 Presidential running mate--befuddled debate question ("Who am I, and why am I here?"), Wacker and Taylor relentlessly pursue those questions throughout the book and meticulously apply them to each paradox. Every chapter features "future exercises," where they ask readers to define themselves, their company and products and how they visualize them in the future, according to the paradox in question.
Readers may find each chapter's command to soul-search and to put it in writing to be somewhat annoying. Who really relishes the idea of writing "the resume of the person you want to be in X number of years" or composing an exhaustive list of "all the qualities ascribed to you, and all the stories you have reason to believe are told about you by your colleagues?"
However, the paradoxes themselves are thought provoking and cleverly grounded with solid historical and anecdotal examples. The Paradox of Time, for example, illustrates the concept that at the speed of light, nothing happens: "To succeed in the short term, you need to think long term, yet the greater your vision and the longer the time interval over which you predict results, the greater the risk you will be unable to take the steps necessary in the short term to achieve long-term ends." While this almost sounds like theoretical doubletalk, they do provide concrete analogies, in this case ranging from Kodak's difficult transition into digital imaging to Apple's rollout of the new G-4 chip.
A couple of other paradoxical gems are to be found in the Paradox of Competition ("Your biggest competitor is your own view of the future") and the Paradox of Leadership ("To lead from the front, you have to stay inside the story").
In the end, Wacker and Taylor have some interesting ideas and an unusual historical approach, but don't expect their technique to be taught at Harvard's School of Business anytime soon. They themselves admit upfront, "We don't know if we are right about the future--how can we until it happens?"
(This review originally appeared on Notara.)