The Cat in the Hat is a classic Dr. Seuss character who creates chaos wherever he goes. As I remember the stories, he puts things right at the end, just barely. He’s a care-free, impish character who fascinates and alarms the children he visits—he is a daredevil, an experimenter, and wholly-unconventional. The children in the books act more like straight-laced adults, at least at first. They fix worried looks on their faces and wonder if what he’s doing is going to be ok.
In the original Cat in the Hat, the Cat drops in on a brother and sister, home alone. He creates a hellacious mess in their house, and brings in other impish characters: “Thing 1” and “Thing 2” to help generate the chaos. Then, in the nick of time, he returns with an enormous contraption that puts everything right. Whenever I read that story to my boys, I would chuckle when I thought about the Cat and Things 1 and 2 as the leaders of futures workshops and projects in organizations. Maybe I was sometimes the Cat, or an outside consultant (Thing 1 or 2, perhaps?).
The Mom is not home, so the element of danger in his visit is mixed with a fear of being caught doing something wrong. This is a lot like the tendency some people have to want to explore the future without actually using the “f” word (future).
The cat reassures the children, several times, that everything is going to be ok. There’s a goldfish in the story who’s having none of that, and who is convinced that disaster has struck—perhaps goldfish in a bowl live in a riskier way—they depend on the bowl not being upset. That fish is like the people we always find in an organization who cannot be reassured, only perhaps managed or kept from shutting down good futures thinking. And maybe, like the goldfish in his bowl, they feel more at risk than the others—we need to understand that.
As a futurist and regular workshop leader, I sometimes wonder whether we are coming in and creating chaos in the organizations we serve. We need to think about how far we go in upending things, creating chaos, and scaring people. Should we embrace the role or try to keep everyone assured?
Forthrightly exploring change with people is as scary as it is exciting. Do futurists put things right in the end? Not quite—once the new thoughts are unleashed, they won’t go away and they shouldn’t.
Are the people we work with changed for the better in the end? They seem to be. I think the core lesson here is about how we handle the worried onlooker, and the straight-laced, conventionally-minded in the organization. We can’t let them mute or stop the flow of new ideas, but we have to take their fears and biases into account too. Part of building a more foresight culture for the organization is getting a wide range of people with different attitudes about change to at least accept the idea of studying change. Understanding and defining our role in doing that is critical, as is understanding others’ views and biases.