Conversation with Napier Collyns on scenario planning, networks, oil, geopolitics, and noticing what matters

By Ross Dawson on September 19, 2008 | Permalink

I caught up with Napier Collyns in Sydney the other week, after having seen him in both New York and London earlier this year. His highly peripatetic lifestyle means that we’re often not in the same place at the same time, but we’ve managed to cross paths more regularly recently. Napier had just spoken at the Australian Leadership Retreat organized by the Australian Davos Connection on a number of topics including peak oil.
I thought it would be a great opportunity to record a video conversation with Napier. We sat down for an hour after a pleasant lunch and spoke on a wide range of topics, including many aspects of scenario planning and its history and future, Global Business Network, social networks, geopolitics, oil, and how we notice what’s important from an excess of information. The video is below, and a timeline of conversation topics at the bottom of this post.

Conversation: Napier Collyns and Ross Dawson from Ross Dawson on Vimeo.
I’d originally thought we’d create three 10-15 minute self-contained segments on different topics, but that’s not how conversations work. It ended up as a free-flowing discussion over an hour moving far beyond the intended starting points. There were some extremely interesting insights in the conversation, I thought, particularly for anyone interested in scenario planning, so I’ve posted the entire conversation, together with a chronology of conversation topics so you can go to the points of greatest interest to you.

What I found most interesting in our conversation was the last dozen minutes, where we discussed how to notice what is most relevant, be sensitized to pertinent information from the storm, to make new connections between ideas. Scenario thinking is certainly fundamental to this ability. However it is an increasingly critical still. I will definitely delve more deeply into this theme. One of my books in the very early planning stages relates strongly to this topic.
I expect many people will not have heard of Napier Collyns, as he tends to move behind that scenes rather than in the limelight, so a bit of background is in order. He spent his career with oil giant Royal Dutch/ Shell, where after senior executive roles around the world he was brought in as a senior member of the original group which created the modern discipline of scenario planning. Their work in the early 1970s and beyond provides the foundation to scenario planning today. The leader of the scenario group was Pierre Wack (as referenced in our conversation). An excellent article titled The Man Who Saw the Future by Art Kleiner in Strategy + Business magazine describes Pierre, and also discusses Napier’s role in the network. Pierre Wack wrote two articles on scenarios for Harvard Business Review in 1985, when Shell started being more open on its scenario activities. After leaving Shell Napier co-founded Global Business Network with another ex-Shell scenario executive, Peter Schwartz, and three others. Napier’s primary role, as it had been in Shell’s scenario work, was that of drawing on his vast personal network.
I originally met Napier in 1998, when I co-designed and facilitated the GBN Worldview meeting on Scenarios for Asia, and since we have caught up whenever our travels coincide. I wrote about Napier’s extraordinary personal network in my book Living Networks, excerpted below. See Chapter 10 of Living Networks for the full context of personal career development in a networked world. (All the chapters of Living Networks can be downloaded from the book website.)

Finding a book agent is like finding a life partner. It’s a close and highly trusting relationship that can indeed last a lifetime. When I was at the point in my career of needing a good agent, I sent one e-mail to one person in my network, asking for his suggestions. Napier Collyns immediately responded by introducing me to Henning Gutman, who is now my agent, and was instrumental in bringing this book to reality. During Collyns’ early career with Royal Dutch/ Shell, he was part of the initial team that developed scenario planning as a discipline, and subsequently worked in other parts of the oil industry, and as on the boards of many of the international chambers of commerce in New York. He was one of five founding members of Global Business Network (GBN), together with former colleagues like Peter Schwartz and Stewart Brand. GBN brings together a network of companies interested in using scenarios to explore their future and strategic directions, with a network of stimulating thinkers from science, business, art, and academia. Put together musician Peter Gabriel, biologist Lynn Margulis, science fiction writer William Gibson, economist David Hale and a few dozen of their peers, and some pretty good ideas are likely to emerge. Within the group, GBN is often jokingly referred to as “Global Buddies of Napier”, in respect for Collyns’ remarkable personal

Conversation between Napier Collyns and Ross Dawson: Topic timeline
01:10 Tapping people outside the organization
01:50 Using ‘remarkable people’ in scenarios at Shell
03:25 Founding of Global Business Network and building the initial GBN networks
05:50 Diversity of your personal networks drives richer thinking
09:30 The difference between normative scenarios and action scenarios and how they shape the information you take in
11:50 Differences between organizations and interest groups creating normative scenarios
13:10 Fundamentalist thinking – religious, environmental, and more
15:20 Trends and cycles in how people use scenario thinking
18:30 Accelerating change and how it impacts scenario thinking
20:10 Uptake of scenario planning by government organizations globally
21:15 Having time to do scenarios or becoming a scenario thinker
22:30 Network business models and openness
24:00 Giving value in order to get value
25:10 Contrasts in corporate attitudes to openness
25:50 US policy to China and Russia constraining
26:50 US hegemony as fundamental dimension to global economy
28:00 Experiences as a minority in Japan and Africa
30:10 Changes in the geopolitics of oil
32:00 US created an addiction to oil
33:00 Lack of taxes on oil creating dependency
36:20 In 50 years we will have broken oil addiction and shifting transportation
37:40 Scenario thinking is essential, perhaps inevitable
38:40 Are things going faster or slower?
41:30 Telephone, The Well, social networks and connectivity enabling us to think things we couldn’t think otherwise
42:30 Darwin, genetics
43:00 Ideas can be connected more broadly and quickly than ever before
44:30 We can surround ourselves with diverse ideas and thinking
45:40 Francis Crick’s genius as tapping diverse ideas
47:50 The ideas are there if you can find them
48:30 Picking out the important information from the storm
49:20 The marvel of human cognition and how media supports human society by enabling people to find the right connections, ideas, stimulus, and insights
50:30 Social media supporting us in finding those connections
52:00 Scenario thinking helping us be sensitized to diverse information
54:40 At an amazing juncture in human history
55:30 Breakthroughs in scenario thinking
57:10 Noticing things – a rich life is not just being exposed to wonderful diverse experiences but also noticing them
58:00 The gentle art of reperceiving is about noticing things

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