The best time in history

by John Mahaffie on July 2, 2015

Bob Olson, Olson Carriage & Harness, Black Forest, CO"What was, do you think, the best time in human history?"

Bob Olson, Olson Carriage & Harness, teaches people skills from the past. He is an expert at horsemanship. He shows people how to teams of draft horses pulling a wagon, carriage, or sleigh. 

Bob lives and works on his ranch in Black Forest, Colorado. I met him when he made his team and 100-year-old covered wagon available for a short fiction film created by my son Robert Mahaffie. (Here is a link to Robert's film).

In our conversations, Bob and I ranged widely. And Bob was particularly challenging as we talked about the past, the future, the good and the bad in each. I knew Bob likes old things and the old ways of ranch life. He knew my work was about change, technology, and the future. But we both appreciated the others sensibilities. We spent no time on disagreement.

When we visited the Olson ranch, Bob threw a profound and impossible question at me: "John, what was the best time in history?"

He had just backed his team of Percheron draft horses, harnessed in a hay wagon, into the barn. He'd put the team, Vickie and Minnie, in their stalls and given them straw and water. Then he put the question to me, his big city visitor, my cell phone a tactile presence in my pocket. And the lack of service on the ranch having been established and lamented. 

In his quiet way, he waited to see what I had to say, a gentle smile played across his face.

I had no good answer, but maybe that's the point. After being flummoxed for a moment, I told Bob that figuring out how to think about his question was what mattered, not an answer. I think he agreed, and he didn't demand my answer.

And of course, the answer depends. As with any complex question, so much depends on definitions, contexts, and so on.

We agreed we couldn't really answer the question, but we also agreed, that the best time for humans might be prehistoric times. Back then, despite the hellish risks and suffering that might befall people, despite hunger and cold and thirst and conflict, and despite the fact that you might, if you were lucky, survive to be 30 years old, by the measures of the time, with a simplicity of expectation, you might be well satisfied.

Prehistoric peoples didn't need "mindfulness coaches". They didn't worry, I think we can presume, about their or their children's self-esteem. They didn't become paralyzed by uncertainty of whether to cut back on refined sugars and add more chia to their diets. And on and on.

I'll keep pondering Bob's question. I don't expect to answer it, but expect to gain from the pondering.

Thanks Bob! 

Image: Jane G. Mahaffie


Our great privilege in helping organizations explore their futures is to sit with them when they make discoveries about the world of change surrounding them. Uncertainty turns to clarity and hopefulness at those moments. What may have felt like feeling their way around in fog becomes a brighter, clearer view of the future. With that clearer view, colleagues can find new common ground and begin to chart a course toward the future they prefer.

There is nothing quite like the cascade of “ahas” you can read on the faces of organizational leaders who get a chance to deepen their sense of the future, explore scenarios—what ifs about critical changes—and assemble their ideas about how the future might play out. As people explore their future with colleagues, they get a chance to try out ideas, compare assumptions, and engage with ideas about change for their organization.

With my colleagues, Jennifer Jarratt and Katherine Green, PhD, and at the direction of Joyce Oreskovich, Director, and Sam McKeeman, Programs Manager, of the Maine Bureau of Human Resources, we spent several months in 2014 exploring the future shaping the Maine State Government’s workforce. We led three workshops where the state’s human resources leaders and department leaders engaged with ideas about the state and the state workforce's futures. Our Maine 2025 project illustrates the power of foresight to chart a clearer course for workforce strategy.

The Maine State Government workforce

The Maine State Government workforce was built over time based on local needs and conditions, and it evolves and changes slowly. It must draw on the local and regional supply of talent, and that supply is not always adequate or available.

The state's workforce is aging, a detail that some stakeholders lamented in our interviews around the state. Maine, in fact, has the oldest population of any US state.

Core questions for the future of Maine’s government include how to recruit talent to the state, and how to keep Mainers with talent there, as well as interest them in working for the State Government. Talent and skill can be developed within an existing workforce as well, and Maine's state government has done so and continues to do so, but it still faces limits on resources, time, and "raw material" for reaching its workforce goals.

Perhaps most importantly, in the face of all this, Maine faces change, and its workforce needs to adapt and change to meet new demands on state government. How profound and comprehensive will change in the marketplace, change in technology, change in the citizenry be, and how might it evolve and shape the demands on Maine's workforce? Who should the state government recruit? Who should it develop? Where can it find the talent it needs? Maine faces those questions, and turned to an exploration of the future to begin to answer them.

How to use foresight for workforce development

Workforce development can be a slow, sometimes expensive process. It pays to get it right. Taking a long view into the future, five, seven, ten years, or more, may be critical in achieving HR’s goals. Maine's HR leaders realized this, and built a body of critical questions to examine, recognizing that a focused exploration would bring the clarity the organization needed to build its strategies now for future success.

Workforce Futures processAt the right is a schematic (click to enlarge) of the foresight process we used to help align Maine's state government for its strategic workforce development:

This is a process of open-minded exploration and discovery (Steps 1 and 2), ideally including key stakeholders who bring their insights, and but also who will understand emerging strategies and plans more readily if they are engaged in the discovery process. Then it involves constructing clear views of possible future outcomes, views of sufficient detail to bring insights on change to the leadership of the organization (Steps 3 and 4). 

From those alternate views of what is possible will begin to emerge specific ideas for strategy that are strong responses to one or more future view (Steps 5 and 6). The whole process: opens up thinking to possibilities not considered before, clarifies and expands assumptions about the future, engages more stakeholders and identifies the most robust strategic actions for long-term success.

Among the core conclusions for Maine from our program:

  • Build for digital government, continuing to harness technology and adjust the workforce, but focus on "finishing the change cycle"—getting beyond just adding tech and trimming staff to reconfigure government processes and structure, and the workforce that serves them.
  • Launch an age transition plan – lay plans to transition the state government workforce as staff are eligible to retire, retaining some talent and filling a pipeline of talent into the future as more people reach retirement age.
  • Make Maine State Government jobs best in class – making the state government a haven for talent, where a Maine State Government job is better than a private sector job, or a state job somewhere else. This involves a myriad of job, workplace, leadership, and development enhancements.
  • Nurture the skills pipeline – Engage with educators and industry around the state to raise skill levels for workers.
  • Market Maine – Get the story out on the qualities of Maine as a place to move to or return to, to live, to work, and to develop professionally.

How things will turn out for the Maine State Government's workforce is still to be determined, but with a clearer view of the state and state workforce’s future, Maine's leaders are better armed with the clarity they need to move intentionally forward, unstick what's stuck, build new ways of finding and engaging workers, and reach new excellence in public service.


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