Five signs that you believe in 'the future'

How to stop believing in the single future

Five signs that you believe in 'the future'
The single path to 'the future'

The phone rings in my office one day.

X: Hello Maree, I need to know about the future of (topic/issue/trend) please.

Maree: Hello, why do you need to know that?

X: I have to manage our strategy process and my boss told me about futurism. He wants to use it.

Maree: (Thinking ‘futurism?’ An art movement and strategy?) How in particular does your boss want use foresight?

X: Well, he asked me to get some predictions about the future of (topic/issue/trend) so that we can focus our resources on those predictions.

Maree: I’m afraid I don’t do predictions.

X: Why not?

Maree: What happens when the prediction is wrong? Most of them are you know.

X: Well, it’s a prediction, how can it be wrong?

Maree: Because predictions need facts and data to be right. There are no future facts, just our ideas of and images about the future. There are no crystal balls that work you know.

X: But people make predictions all the time. Why can’t you? I just need to get some predictions so I can write strategy based on them.

Maree: I have to ask again — what happens if the prediction is wrong? You will have wasted a lot of time and energy on something that falls apart when your prediction doesn’t come true. What will you do then?

X: Good point. But that’s not my problem. No one pays attention to the strategy anyway. We write a plan, it’s someone else’s job to implement it.

Maree: (Thinking wow that’s sad.) Well, I have to say again I don’t do predictions. I don’t believe in them. I think they help us stay stuck in the status-quo, in our comfort zones, assuming that the future will be more of today, tweaked around the edges a bit. They try to explain away the uncertainty that surrounds the future. They save you from doing any real thinking.

X: What?

Maree: (Sighing silently.) Predictions help you believe there is a right future, a single future, THE FUTURE. There are always multiple futures in front of us and our organisations. Predictions deny that and lull us into thinking that THE FUTURE is real. It’s not.

X: What?

Maree: I can’t help you with predictions. I can, however, use foresight with you to develop a broader view of what your organisation might look like in a changed future. You can think about those possibilities and build some strategy from that. Your people would be involved at all stages, and you’d come up with exciting and maybe even unexpected outcomes you can use to develop your strategy.

X: We don’t have time for that. Don’t you know how busy we are now? We only have two weeks to get this sorted.

Maree: I don’t do predictions. I help people use foresight in practice and think in new ways about the future.

X: (Getting angry.) But you are one of the world’s top 125 women futurists! It’s your job to do predictions!! I don’t even know what foresight is!!! And I need predictions!!!!

Maree: I am really sorry but I don’t do predictions. Maybe you should tell your boss about how to infuse foresight into your strategy so that you can create futures ready strategy? That has to be better than a business as usual strategy based on predictions that will fail when they meet the future (Thinking hope X doesn’t notice I just made a prediction).

X: You have to be kidding. Have you met my boss? (No, I think. And I’m glad.) He knows everything about everything. What you have said is stupid. You have been no help at all.

Maree: I’m sorry about that but I think predictions are rubbish and a waste of time. Best to spend that energy and resources exploring change and thinking about how it will shape your organisation’s future.

X: Like I said, we don’t have time to think. I’ll find a futurist who will do predictions for me and show you that you are wrong.

Maree: Good luck with that….but the phone call has been terminated before I can finish.

This isn’t a real conversation. It is, however, based on real interactions that have occurred since 1999 when someone did walk into my office and ask me to tell their school about the future of engineering. They wanted a linear future, a certain future. There is no such thing.

That person got incredibly annoyed with me when I said I couldn’t, but I could help their engineers think about the future of engineering themselves. I didn’t get that job. I still don’t want those jobs.

Here are five signs that you believe in THE future and how to change that belief by using foresight.

1. You talk about THE future without questioning what that means

Instead of asking ‘what’s our future?’ ask ‘what are our possible futures?’

2. You think what a futurist does is somehow connected to an art movement

Futurists (the good ones) think about futures and help other people think to broaden and deepen their perspectives to inform their decision making and action today. They use their foresight capacity. They find the new and novel in the present.

3. You believe you don’t have time to think about the future because you are very busy today

You are in a danger zone if these words come out of your mouth because what you are busy with today is probably going to be irrelevant in 10 years time. Re-orient your thinking to the long-term, to what our futures need from us - rather than what we want our futures to be.

4. You believe that your CEO and senior managers are smart and wise enough to create a strategy for your organisation or that strategy is not your job

Sometimes, not always. Move strategy away from the top of the organisation to a more horizontal approach. All parts of your organisation are connected to strategy in one way or another so they should all be involved in its development from the beginning. Strategy should be everyone’s job.

5. You see your job as writing a plan instead of building an organisational strategic thinking capacity

A plan’s life is finite and often outdated as soon as it is published whereas a strong strategic thinking capacity is forever. Integrate foresight into your strategy to start thinking strategically.

For many years, my focus was helping people reframe strategy development so they could move beyond conversations like this one above in their organisations. The point of a strategy is to create a preferred future that becomes the strategic destination, that sets a long term context for decision making today.

That long term context lets you escape the busyness syndrome to focus on what really matters, beyond the reactive responses that characterise so much work in organisations today. It is time to change how we view strategy development and to do that, we need to think in new ways about the future.

The point is not to get the future right, not to create THE future. The point is not to get the future wrong. Explore the possible, the uncertain, not the certain.