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:
- What is our mill—that central thing or process that we allow to define us?
- Does that thing or process have a secure future?
- 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.