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Book Review: Get There Early
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Book Review: Get There Early by Bob Johansen

Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present

Written by: Bob Johansen. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2007. 258+xix pages.
Reviewed by: Steven P. MacGregor

Get There Early

What does the future hold? No one can tell for certain of course, but there is an emerging science around trying to forecast the future and using that as a basis for overall company strategy, within which the development of new products takes place. Perhaps no one foresaw the full force of the global financial and economic crisis toward the end of 2008, but certain companies would have been better prepared than others, with the same perhaps true of the previous burst bubble that was the dot-com market at the end of the 1990s. Business forecasting may be traced back to the scenario analysis exercises conducted by the big oil companies at the end of the 1970s. Playing with the scenario of highly fluctuating oil prices they were able to successfully generate “what if” strategies that were quickly put into action when required. Business change cycles and point disruptions are ever more common at the beginning of the 21st century, and the value of foresight and related tools and methods is ever greater. Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present attempts to demonstrate that value to the wider business community.

Get There Early author Bob Johansen, former president of the Silicon Valley based think tank Institute for the Future, states that the book is for leaders, present and future, to help them “succeed even when faced with a situation (you) can't solve” (p. xx). The focus of the book is the increasing preponderance in today's world of dilemmas, which differ from problems in that they cannot be solved. Johansen's call is for leaders to learn about how to deal with dilemmas when they occur, leaders who in the main have been trained to resolve and are much more comfortable with, solvable problems. Two further points, linked to the concept of dilemmas, are at the core of the book and worthy of note. One is that timing is a key factor in dealing with a dilemma, the key being maintaining a balance between judging too soon and deciding too late. Second, these challenges take place within the context of a changing world, what Johansen calls a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world (see chapter 3) and that, with the right approach, may be transformed to vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. Summary remarks, which may form the basis of such an approach, conclude the book on pages 225–227.

These key concepts are delivered through the foresight to insight to action cycle across 11 chapters and just over 250 pages, each part of the cycle being covered in a dedicated part of the book. There is little direct reference to the world of new product development (NPD), though several areas, especially in part 2 titled “Insight,” overlap. This part has the subtitle “Sensemaking” to inspire strategy and content on the importance of stories, simulation, and group workshops, mostly common ground for the NPD community; nevertheless, it makes interesting reading. The value of immersion, where “leaders get to dive in and learn in a first-person way without playing for keeps until they are ready” (p. 101), links well to user-centered design methods in NPD. Part 3 on action, subtitled “To Get There Early,” is a slightly disappointing end to the book (except for a solid conclusion chapter in itself) and already seems dated in parts, while more specifics in part 1, “Foresight,” would have been welcome, especially for the NPD community. Analyzed in this initial part on sensing provocative futures is The Institute for the Future 10-year forecast, cleverly printed on the inside of the book cover, which provides a rich and fascinating context for thinking on the main themes of the book and the future world in which new products will be developed.

There is certainly value in the book, and Johansen should be commended on doing a good overall job of bringing foresight science toward the mainstream, though there is a disconnect between the content and the intended audience for the book. In short, Johansen should give leaders more credit for what they already know and, crucially, the balance that they possess and require to remain as leaders—for example, between judging too soon and deciding too late (chapter 4), being clear without being simplistic (p. 53), and shaping firm and flexible organizations (chapter 9).

Many in the NPD community ought to be familiar with several of the main points that Johansen uses to construct his argument, such as being comfortable with ambiguity and emerging trends in codesign and corporate responsibility, while pushing the creative agenda toward the traditional business education syllabus has been part of the conversation for a few years now (Nussbaum, Berner, and Brady, 2005).

Yet the core of what Johansen says is certainly well worth listening to, especially in the front end of the book, and will become more important as we move into the future. It may also be considered in a broader life sense, as each of us assumes the role of leader in some context within a rapidly changing world. At times, Johansen's divinity education adds an interesting philosophical and moral weight to the argument.

For the senior manager, Get There Early promises a little more than it delivers. There is certainly value in the core arguments, yet more original material on foresight would have been better. For aspiring leaders, even students, with less exposure to recent trends and best practice business tools, it is a useful reference and even a good overall snapshot of our business world in the mid to late ‘00s.

For NPD leaders specifically, the book will offer an interesting context for their work and only a cursory introduction to foresight. The text could also be used, if required, as a useful argument to push the creative approach further up and across the enterprise.

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