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How much foresight can you fit?

Perhaps the biggest inhibitor of foresight for organizations is time. Even if your organization recognizes the power and value of exploring its future, the press of daily work and immediate needs squeezes away the time and energy you might give to exploring change.

You only have the time and resources you have. You have to find a way to fit in foresight. Below is advice based on how much time you expect to have. Certainly more is better, but you can optimize impact with some care and thought no matter the timing. As always, a savvy futurist can help to shape your efforts and help you guide them. And I am happy to chat about your situation whether or not you engage my help.

What to do if you only have….

An hour — you finally got time on leadership’s agenda, or it’s your turn for a brown bag lunch talk. You want to change minds, wake people to new ideas, energize thinking about the future, give foresight its due. This is hard!

Get right to it. Make it a conversation, seeded with distinct insights on change. Pose “what ifs” about what is central to the organization.

Have a conversation about the critical forces changing the organization’s destiny. That means surfacing everyone’s assumptions about the future, and helping them interpret the big changes that are at play in your business and your sector.

Do this: Prepare, prepare, prepare. An hour is not enough time for group discovery, which is valuable and powerful when there’s more time. It has to be a call to action around one or several (at most) critical changes you face that need focus. This hour should end with collective interest in more. If you have a hour with top leadership, it should lead to permission to deepen the exploration of the future in the organization, and more time.

A day — you have a little more time with a small group or a cross-functional team, and you have a mandate to explore something about the organization’s future.

Make the most of it! Make it quality time, preferably off site, to pare away distractions. Get everyone focused on exploring change and what it means to the organization. You have time to give participants a clear sense of coming change, and for them to take ownership of it, adding their ideas.

Do this: Do your homework beforehand. Develop a briefing or find a valid and meaningful, and short, body of ideas about the future of your interests, such as a list of critical forces or transformations in the sector. Use those as the basis for discussions. 

If you can, invite people from different responsibilities in the organization. Think like a revolutionary. Your goal is to seed ideas and interest in confronting change and deepening the team’s foresight.

Hold people off from immediately “solving” the problems implied. Try to get their energy first on elaborating on potential change and its implications. End with a call to further action.

A week — You’ve secured teh team’s time for a week of futures exploration. A week is time to learn and strategize with a select group of folks. That has power since those involved can discover and interpret critical ideas about change. They can learn to talk about them and prepare to be missionaries across the organization.

Do this: Identify the best team you can for open-minded exploratory thinking. If you can get a cross-functional group involved, do it.

Shape expectations in the wider organization for what you are doing. Find people and experiences that will help your team understand more about the future and how to think about it. Visits to places where you can see leading edge change, and hearing from diverse thinkers will open up your thinking.

Ultimately, it’s hands-on shaping of futures ideas, and a focus on postive visions of where the organization can go that will matter. Your team should play in the future, try out ideas, and then work to interpet what is possible, what is likely, and what is desirable in the future.

A month — You’ve gotten time for several iterations of futures thinking, and time for ideas to evolve and develop. A month is long enough to allow more development of ideas, time for reflection, and time to engage others beyond the core team. The time allows team memers to go off, do research, and expand your knowledgebase.

Do this: Plan to have two intensive sessions with a week or several between them. After orienting and launching the thinking, you can have team members commit to exploring and developign ideas for further discussion at a second session. 

You may have time as you start or in the middle of the month, to engage a wider group of stakeholders with a survey or other process for soliciting ideas. That has two payoffs. First, it engages others and helps encourage their interest. Second, it draws on more people’s insights and knowledge, empowering the core team.

A year — You have time and a budget for a much deeper exploration, engaging more internal an external stakeholders, and an iterative process of learning and discovery. This will be a full-blown futures initiative, a chance to explore and develop a comprehensive view of the future of and for your organization.

Do this: Establish and train a core team in foresight techniques,. Assigning them to complete a comprehensive exploration of the future shaping the organization’s interests. They will have time and should have resources for attending thought-leader conferences and futures-focused symposia. 

Among the programs to consider are workshops on the future that engage the thinking of folks across the organization. Building, illustrating, and publishing scenarios [TK links] that show alternate future contexts for the organization will create a tool for use with internal and external groups to further explore future possibililties.

This program year should include its own public relations. At least for internal groups, setting expectations for results, encouraging participation, and communicating emerging results will help ensure that the foresight effort leaves a legacy. Some organizations include in this a space, such as a “futures room” where images and words can be displayed, and where visitors can interact and add their own ideas, e.g. on a post-it wall. 

When you have built a view of the future, you should share it widely. Brief the chiefs, your board, and key stakeholders. Publish the thinking. Convene groups to make their own interpretation of the work, fitted to their interests.


No matter the time you can secure and use, if you use it well, you will have a smarter, more foresightful organizatio.

10 years of blogging about foresight

In October 2007, I started this blog. I had pent-up ideas to share about foresight. Over 10 years, I’ve posted 236 times. 

Has it been valuable? Plenty of readers benefited. But I know I gained the most. Thinking through and writing the posts let me to refine how I communicate about foresight. And I know that better communication fueled others’ interest and work.

Creating the posts also prepared me for teaching and advising organizations on foresight: its power, its essentialness, and how people can do it with the constraints they face in their organizations.

Foresightculture turned out to be about 95% about the processes of foresight and 5% about “what is the future?” The “how” was a natural fit for me and was where I had the most interest in sharing my thinking.

Blogging clarified for me how I think about foresight, and evolved in tandem with my sense of the role I play as a futurist. That role today is more about being the guide to how to change minds and understand change than it is foreseer of the future. When I sit with others to help them, I’m first and foremost there to help them change how they think.

Here are some insights from the ten years:

  1. In foresight, it is the journey that matters, not the forecast, report, or briefing at the end.
  2. Foresight is about changing minds. What you change them to may be critical for you, but the first order of business is unlocking people’s thinking.
  3. My readers are often alone in their quest for clarity on the future. They need allies and they need techniques.
  4. Foresight seems difficult and mysterious to people. People want grab-and-go tools and instructions, not theory. That has made my posts on environmental scanning, SWOTs analysis, and scenarios “best sellers” on my blog.
  5. People want to visualize what foresight is, what it means, and how it’s done. They gain from simple, draw-it-on-the-nearest-whiteboard doodles that give people an “ah ha!”. My favorite is “The Mother of All Futures Diagrams“.
  6. People like “listicles”. They know that they will get something pared down to essentials from posts like “6 Foresight Hacks” or “8 things leaders should know about strategic foresight“.
  7. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation or approach to foresight. I write about the same things again and again. Why? Because as I lead workshops, and have conversations, and read and ponder, I discover new angles to come at the same concepts. Someone who didn’t find the last one useful, may find the new one lights them up.

So I will keep going. If I learn and others learn too, it’s well worth what is pleasurable time spent.

Thank you for reading.

The future shaping the accounting industry

I will be speaking in October 2017 at “Women Who Count,” the national conference of the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA) in Alexandria, Virginia. For AFWA, I wrote the article linked below, which closely tracks the theme of my talk.

My key themes:

  • Accounting and finance professionals can have a great future, but it’s not guaranteed.
  • They have to sieze the initiative and make the transformation they want happen. 
  • The scary news: The center drops out–mid-skill level work is destined for automation, and that includes accounting and finance.
  • The good news: The transformation of commerce–new business forms, new scales of operation, and other elements of the “millennial economy” create new opportunities for accounting and finance professional.

The Future Shaping the Accounting Industry

Do you suffer from mill-mindedness?

The Mill astride the river was the town’s heart. Life blood pumped through it in surges of steam, blasts of the shift-change whistle, toings and froings of boxcars and hoppers on the rail spur, shift workers parading in and parading out. Tied up the traffic light? A mill shift was entering or leaving. A man asking credit at the grocery? The Mill cut back hours. New houses going up on the North side? Output and sales are up. Like peasant shacks against a castle wall, the whole town leaned on The Mill, and drew its sustenance from it. Imagine the town without The Mill? You cannot.

You must try to imagine the town without The Mill.

Small towns exist because of a mill or rail depot, a mine, a factory, a college, a hospital, something central that informs, shapes, sustains a community. But America’s ghost towns are often mill or mine towns that lost their mainstays. They didn’t think past The Mill.

Too many companies and sectors have something just like this: a mill, a production line, a critical machine, a cash cow, that is everything. It occupies the front and center of the minds of stakeholders: owners, investors, leaders, and workers. Wall Street sees the firm with mill eyes. Lenders see it with mill eyes. The community sees the firm and itself it with mill eyes.

All of them want The Mill to be The Mill, to churn along, to make money and jobs and community. And all of them define their truths in reference to it. This is mill-mindedness and it can constrain thought and change.

Using foresight to fight mill-mindedness

Foresight can make the difference. Images of different futures are powerful for fighting mill-mindedness.

What is the company (or the town), after The Mill?

Good futures thinking brings a focus beyond what exists now. It can break down rigid mental framing. Without images of something different, The Mill will define everything, past, present, and future.

How to work past mill-mindedness:

Ask these questions of yourself or better, discuss them with colleagues:

  1. What is our mill—that central thing or process that we allow to define us?
  2. Does that thing or process have a secure future?
  3. What would our organization become if we no longer had it?

Exploring the answers means confronting fundamental questions about how you frame and understand what your organization is all about. And answering them sets you up to consider “what’s next?”.

So build scenarios of your future without The Mill. Re-imagine the organization on a new basis. Those thought experiments allow you to see a future that doesn’t depend on this singular force or asset. It gets you past your mill-mindedness.

This blog has dozens of posts about “thinking differently” and on the power of foresight to work past stuck thinking. See: Thinking differently 

My practice as a futurist is centered on helping organizations break down barriers to thought and positive change. If your organization is so afflicted, maybe I can help. Let me know. Email me or call 202-271-0444.

Image: White Oak Cotton Mill, North Carolina, about 1914, with part of the mill village in the foreground. Public domain.

Eclipse 2017: Shared learning and our future

Being a futurist means believing in progress for human society. And it means working for that progress, even when progress seems threatened.

I look, when big things happen, for any evidence that society as a whole has learned something. No matter the circumstance, good or bad, learning means we have gained something. When we share that learning as a society, it is most powerful of all.

The 2017 solar eclipse that crossed the United States was one of those learning moments for Americans. Hundreds of millions of people shared the experience. The hour-and-a-half shared experience was not dampened by division or politics.

The eclipse may have inpsired millions of American children to go and learn more about science, about the earth, the sun, the planets. Where I watched, I was with a specialist in space policy and a Phd student in Astrophyics. We talked about whether more students will now take a course in astronomy, or even major in it in college. Was it good for science? I think and hope so.

Millions of Americans heard about it, millions took a look. The First Family viewed the eclipse from the White House’s Truman Porch. That too was part of the collective experience. Did the President look without eclipse glasses? We even learned from that minor moment of controversy.

My best guess is that American society tends to take two steps forward, then one back. And this experience may be no different. But at least there’s some movement forward. The future gained something.

Eclipse photo: Jane Galbraith Mahaffie

What keeps organizations stuck in the present?

What keeps an organization stuck in the present (or struggling to get out of the past)?:

  • Holding on to sunk investment — Organizations hold tight to the big systems and assets they have invested in, often limiting their ability to move elsewhere, but also framing their thinking about what they can and should do.
  • Tradition — For example, social organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Freemasons have deep-set traditions that factor in their ability to even conceive of change. 
  • Inability to change the business model — Corporations and nonprofits face limits on their ability to evolve or jump to a new revenue or business model, for example to scale up or down their revenues, sales or donor volume, etc.
  • Defined by others — For example, the United States Air Force struggles to take up roles in cybersecurity. It is defined historically and in the public eye by its role for 70 years operating military aircraft. Similarly, organizations are often defined by Wall Street. A blue chip firm isn’t supposed to suddenly act like a start up, plunging into a new marketplace, or taking its operations and investment in a new direction.
  • Market drifting away — For example, cable outlets such as ESPN may have a steady-state view of their markets and an interest in continuing to push for market share and viewership, even as entertainment viewing has moved to mobile devices, non-real-time viewing
  • Fear of change/inability to imagine positive change — Not having a positive vision of what’s ahead, or at least a sense of taking intentional action to try for a positive future leaves organizations locked in current, often defensive behavior.
  • Pollyannism — Excessive optimism — the habit of thinking things will come around or that there are no threats that really matter. A simple human tendency or temperament, this can also be an affliction of whole organizations.

What to do about it — How to get un-stuck

1. Inventory how your organization is stuck. Pull together a few colleagues who you think are ready to think differently. Together, inventory the way your organization is “stuck”. Consider each of the items above. Which applies to your organization. How?

2. Identify critical forces of change. Make the case for change. Decide what those critical forces mean. Do they compel you to make changes? What is stopping you?

3. Pose sobering, critical “what ifs” for the organization. These should be powerful changes that would require the organization to change. What do they imply you need to do differently?

4. Get beyond key biases. Tell each other what they are. List them. What are they rooted in? See more here.

5.http://Setting aside biases Armed with these self-assessments, open up the conversation about needed change. Go at it. Don’t backslide!

Other prior posts with some good insights on this:

Image: Han Solo in Carbonite, William Warby, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution license

6 Foresight hacks

Hacks are shortcuts for getting things done and being clever about it. Foresight needs hacks too. And there are great ones that fit into real, busy lives. Here are six that you can use to get a better sense of your future: 

1. Scan the scanners–Find the bloggers, news sites, tweets, podcasts, etc. that select what matters from the wide range of news and information you need to monitor. They are doing work for you, free. More here.

2. Use push–Use email subscriptions, rss feeds, social media follows, etc. to make sure that fresh insights, in the appropriate volumes, flow to you, so you don’t have to remember to go and look at them.

3. Automate serendipity–As you do 1 and 2, be sure you don’t create your own, finely-tuned echo chamber. Find sources that give you breadth and variety. Use push tools online and develop the habits that make sure you encounter things to open and change your mind.

4. Get out from behind the mouse–Going with no. 3, and running over your efforts in 1 and 2, be sure you don’t only learn from electronic sources. Go places, talk to people, see things. Experience the changing world. Surprise yourself.

5. Lurk–Take a note from great novelists—listen in on others’ conversations. This can be about exploring online discussions/social media, even without participating. There area tons of places where people share ideas. You can dip in, search, follow, or just visit, and open up a front for encountering new ideas. You don’t have to subscribe or even have an account, and you don’t have to participate.

6. Take a futurist to lunch–Believe me, they want lunch! Ask most futurists any question and they’re off and running. You will get all sorts of insights. For the cost of lunch, or coffee, or an online post, your effort will pay off. 

Decide what you most want to explore about your future. Then try a hack or two. No matter what, it will expand and enrich your view of the future.

More “hacks” are among my 27 Habits of highly effective futurists 

Management, strategy, and foresight compared

This post distinguishes management, strategic planning and foresight. It suggests how the “long view” and global perspective of futurists, which is at the core of foresight, also benefits management and strategic planning.

Here are some definitions:

  • Management—design and orchestration of processes to maintain an organization’s operations and achieve its defined objectives. Near-term, generally focused on the present, and centered on the organization and its current operating environment.
  • Strategic planning—identifying and prioritizing goals and objectives for an organization’s near-term future, generally 3 to 5 years. Focused on the existing organization, it considers, or should consider, external environment impacts and change.
  • Foresight—long-range exploration of change, generally 10 years plus, and interpretation of possible futures for their organizational implications. It takes a broad, often global/contextual view of external forces shaping the future, and looks deep into the future to identify unmet challenges and emerging opportunities.

Managers are understandably focused on the present and on day-to-day management. The best are fine-tuning their processes and systems as they run. Others are playing catch up, implementing changes to put things right and catch up to existing demands. In either case, the work they are doing is management

Managers have an instinctive action mindset. Their framing is on the organization and its sector and marketplace. That close-focus holds thinking in organizations in the present and the near at hand. It constrains exploration of more impactful change. The risk is an organization with blinders on, one that engages in a steady pattern of fire, ready, aim

Strategic planning arises from this close-focus and near-term context. It works inside the habits of business managers, and usually falls short of engaging long-term thinking about new challenges and possibilities.

The solution is to separate execution from exploration. True leadership means pressing for a long view to discover more potential change and opportunity even as they maintain operations. With that stretch thinking comes a promise to “bring it home to today” which reassures stakeholders that the exploration is relevant and valuable.


8 things leaders should know about strategic foresight

Today’s leaders are pressed to focus on strategic foresight and many are responding. But it’s not always clear what strategic foresight means. What do leaders need to know?

  1. It has to be long term. For true clarity on your future, you need a view that goes at least five or ten years out. You need to see past immediate concerns and explore and envision real change. See: The short-term view and the long-term view
  2. There are no “answers.” The future is uncertain, with a range of potential outcomes. So strategic foresight doesn’t mean prediction, it means clarifying patterns of change and modeling potential outcomes and choices. See: Foresight illustrated: The mother of all futures diagrams
  3. You have to look beyond your usual domain. New challenges and undiscovered opportunities will often come from outside your sector or market. See: All futures are global
  4. You need to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit. The actions you can take now to fix things and keep going are obvious, whether or not you are able to accomplish them. They are the low-hanging fruit. Addressing bigger challenges and opportunities, and forging a successful future, means reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit to bigger systems that will need to change. See: Making change beyond the low-hanging fruit
  5. The foresight process itself is valuable. Wider participation in the processes of strategic foresight strengthens organizational foresight, agility, and learning. You need others’ inputs, and you need others to be a part of innovation and decisionmaking. And everyone benefits from the time spent learning, exploring, and imagining. See: Noun=bad, verb=good and Planning, scanning, forecasting—it’s the verb not the noun
  6. You must confront unpleasant truths, not just hopes and dreams. That means “what ifs” that include catastrophic or transformational change. From those scenarios can come fresh thinking about a positive path forward. See: The unspoken scenario
  7. Success means forging a culture of foresight. Strategic foresight can’t be a once-in-a-while activity. Organizational habits of mind and action should stand on a base of clear and regular thinking about the future. See: What is a foresight culture? and The characteristics of a foresightful organization
  8. The future is yours to shape. Finally, the future is not inevitable. You can and must shape it yourself. Don’t wait for it to happen to you. See: Don’t be a victim of change

My work is all about helping leaders do these things. Let me know if I can shed more light on this, or help you kick your efforts up to a new level. Jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444 More about my work is at www.leadingfuturists.biz.

Deep down, it’s about thinking differently

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.” — Association of Professional Futurists

That’s a good definition, rooted, as you’d expect, in considerations of the future. And it nicely characterizes what I do. But what’s even more fundamental about my work is getting people to think differently.

When I work with groups to help them explore change, what I realize is how much they already know, at least about the near-term future. But their view is too narrow. They need help: advice, tools, an independent pair of eyes, to see past the immediate, change their perspective, and get somewhere new. They need to think differently.

Foresight is a superb capability. It jumps your thinking beyond what’s in your inbox, beyond what’s going on today that is soaking up your time and attention. It opens up a space to anticipate change, and to do so with colleagues.

But that fresh thinking needn’t only be about the future. Opening a door and looking out, encountering something new, even in the here and now, is already transformational. Of course, foresight helps. It keeps you from falling back into narrower thinking patterns. It helps makes sure you think differently.