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Getting an organization to pay attention to the future is hard. There are people you meet along the way that help and others that throw obstacles in your path. Here are the five people you’re likely to meet along the way:

1. The Booster

The Booster lets you follow the path you’ve mapped out. Once you’re on it, they back you 100%. Boosters can be future-oriented themselves. They know what questions they have about the future and why the answers will be valuable. They clear a path for you to let you guide the exploration. They are your advocate and sometimes your collaborator in the work.

LESSON: Work as closely as you can with the Booster to align with their specific interests and goals. Answering their questions about the future gives you license to communicate any other insights, even sobering ones, about the future. Be prepared for this client’s own sophistication and knowledge about the future. Do your homework for a more fruitful relationship.

2. The Enthusiast

The Enthusiast is a gee-whiz fan of futures ideas. They thrill at the ideas that bubble up when you explore what's possible. They are impatient to break past near-term thinking. They have a reputation in their organization for having “out there” ideas. Your relationship with the Enthusiast can be fun and fruitful, but it also has traps.

LESSON: The Enthusiast may have a narrow interest in the futures cool factor, and much less interest in careful efforts to map and interpret change. Understand that you are, at times, a tool for the Enthusiast’s goal of shaking things up, and only that. Try to build interest in a more comprehensive view forward based on their enthusiasm. Their gut interest in new things can spark a passion for strategic foresight.

3. The Organization Man

The Organization Man is for exploring the future but fiddles with the process. The Organization Man believes in what you are doing, but fears others won’t. They bring up organizational norms and rules, and to look for conventional ways to measure outcomes that fit their organization’s usual business processes. They will pressure you to make things palatable to the organization and take out scary or sobering conclusions.

LESSON: The Organization Man needs reassurance. Understand their organization as well as you can. Be ready to ease concerns or even respond in the ways they crave. They may struggle to find a “safe” fit with something new and strange—futures. Though you may feel constrained by their worrying, they are doing you a favor; you can learn how to do a better job delivering insights to an inward-focused organization.

4. The Skeptic

The Skeptic is predisposed to fear or at least not have faith in the foresight process. They may say that it won’t work, or people won’t go for it. They may think it’s a waste of time. Often the skeptic will say, “We tried that in the 1990s, and it didn’t work.” If you are lucky, you’ll face a person who is Skeptic but still is willing to engage new ideas anyway.

LESSON: Be ready for cynics/skeptics. What can you do to respond? Work to get them to arrive at their own new insights. Work to build readiness for ideas about change. Be patient. Show the reasons, the power of new ideas about change. Winning over the skeptic can give you a strong advocate and will make your work stronger, clearer, and more compelling.

5. Big Foot

Big Foot will not allow an “out of control” process like futures to be as free as it should, if they allow it at all. “Big foot” is far more interested in order than discovery. Big Foot’s tendency is to subvert all parts of the process that lead toward unknown outcomes. They are not sold on the process to begin with. They may even be acting to unsure deniability if the process upsets anybody.

LESSON: Organizations want to protect what exists and avoid risk. Big Foot takes that to heart. You need to decide if you can work with this counterforce. Some potential clients are prewired for a bad fit. You are best off if you can find a true advocate that can endorse and guide the process, and get clear of Big Foot.

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Do you see yourself in one of the five types? If so, I hope you’re a Booster or Enthusiast. Even then, you may need to give yourself some coaching, to be sure you are not in the way of the process of getting folks to explore the future.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to the people I’ve worked with over the past thirty years. Whether I liked how it happened or not you showed me what it means to introduce long-term thinking in organizations.

And of course I based my title on Mitch Albom’s novel: the Five People You Meet in Heaven. Thanks for the inspiration. 

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Foresight tip: Scan the scanners

Environmental scanning (also known as horizon scanning) is part of anticipating the future. It's done by systematically gathering information about current and changing conditions. Good foresight requires environmental scanning for understanding emerging change.

Scanning is a lot of work, but other people already do it for you. Being efficient means scanning the scanners.

How do you scan the scanners?
Find the bloggers, news sites, podcasts, etc. that cover the range of news and information you need to monitor. Online sources, including tons of free ones, do this work well. You can fine-tune what you look at to tap well-curated sources.

My interests flop all over the place, and I find value in a rich mix of places. It's an ever-changing landscape of sources, but some I find valuable these days are: Reddit Futurology, PSFK, Slinking Toward RetirementBoing Boing, and various of my savvy friends' twitter feeds. 

My colleagues are scanners who curate insights with a focus on the Future of Packaging on Twitter at @packfutur, and on the future of work at @50PlusatWork on Twitter and the Future of Work on Facebook.

Your best strategy is to find a manageable set of sources. "Automate" your monitoring by subscribing to email newsletters, using social media, or RSS feeds. That means information will flow to you. You won't have to remember to check multiple sources.

Keep fine-tuning your set of sources. Ditch anything that wastes your time. Add sources when you have a particular focus or project. 

One caution. You can be too tailored in your strategy. Allow in some variety, alternative views, and serendipity. You will make discoveries that way, instead of allowing confirmation bias to get ahold of you.

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Constrained foresight and what to do about it

How often is foresight (or the lack of it) the weakest link in an organization?

There are always constraints that limit an organization’s progress. Eliyahu M. Goldratt brought this idea to management science in his “Theory of Constraints”. And one constraint is the “weakest link” for an organization. The bottleneck created when packaging equipment runs more slowly than the production line is a common example.

Constrained foresight is a bottleneck
Often the constraint is embodied in the organization's policies and paradigms (see: LINK). Engrained beliefs or habits restrict fresh thinking and thwart change. Foresight may be the victom.

What limits foresight? Low tolerance for talk about the future, a lack of awareness of its value, and insufficient time spent constrain foresight. People in organizations are busy and stressed. Leaders rarely reward people for breaking away from their “real work” to explore change.

Insufficient foresight harms an organization’s ability to change, its capacity for product/service/brand innovation, and the quality of its strategymaking. The organization flies blind into the future. 

Five things you can do about it: 

1. Acknowledge the value and unmet need for foresight. This means building a constituency for futures discussions and for including views 5 or 10 years out in strategic discussions.

2. Find forward-thinking people in the organization that can connect with each other, collaborate, and extend thinking into the future. They can meet ad hoc, or better, regularly for futures discussions.

3. Add futures thinking to your diet. Others are doing valuable work for you, free. Follow bloggers and news feeds that curate and interpret trends and discover leading edge change. And pay it forward—share what you find with your colleagues, and tell them why it’s important.

4. Harness the tools of foresight: environmental scanning and trend analysis and scenario planning, especially.

5. Convene cross-functional groups to assess the organization’s systems for their futures-readiness. An outside futurist can bring the tools and instincts you need to make sure these discussions keep to a longer view. (Call me! 202-271-0444 and jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz)

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Foresight fuels product and brand innovation

You can't innovate in a vacuum. Foresight opens new space for exploring change and discovering opportunities.

In product innovation, it’s essential to look beyond the boundaries of the current market for your products. You need to explore at least five or ten years into the future for fresh insights. And you need to test your assumptions about the marketplace and how it's changing. 

In brand innovation, a futures view tests assumptions about emerging change in values, attitudes, lifestyles, and consumption. It helps you fine tune your understanding of how consumers will understand and value a brand.

Without those enhanced views, you risk misunderstanding the patterns of change and missing opportunities. And you raise the risk of product failure or a mis-fire in marketing or brand development. 

What you can do

For the most robust innovation efforts, build foresight into your work. Innovation teams should discuss leading-edge change and where it may steer the marketplace. Making future outcomes explicit sharpens the view of emerging needs and opportunities.

A baseline environmental scan of the most critical forces and trends shaping society will fuel a team's creative thinking and fortify its understanding of the marketplace.

Scenarios help you test product/service ideas against a clearer view of the future.

Those are just two foresight tools among many that will enhance and enrich your innovation processes.

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You probably need a futurist to help, let me know. jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

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Humans are good at pattern recognition. But we see patterns based on personal experience and things that are close and familiar. This is called confirmation bias because that act of recognition typically confirms what we already believe. See also: Confirmation Bias in Foresight: Scanning to Find What You Already Believe. That is the biggest and most routine bias in observing change. It's more an instinct and even if people know better, they lapse into thinking that way. 

There is no "everybody"

Converse shoesA great example is our assumptions about Millennials. It's common to see them as tech-savvy, urban, Starbucks-frequenting, plaid-wearing, indie-band-listening. That stereotype is a shorthand we use for understanding and explaining them, but it's dangerously narrow. It has been fixed in our heads and gets reinforced all the time. Then we look for it in the world and say to ourselves, "there's another one".

In fact, we base much of our view of the Millennials on what is a few percent, total, of people born 1980 to 2000. There is no "they all" you can lump together. What's everyone else born between 1980 and 2000 doing?

The same is true for Baby Boomers, Gen X, Hispanics, immigrants, Republicans, etc. etc. There is no everybody.

What to do about it

1. Check yourself. To understand the world and how it's changing better, examine your assumptions about what's going on. Assess your biases and face them. Write them down, say them out loud. Say, "of course I am biased because I am _________."

2. Step away from your worldview. Do what you can to deepen your understanding of others. This means getting past stereotypes, and wholesale categories. Read and view stories told in others' voices. Talk to strangers. Listen.

3. Walk a mile in another's shoes. Immerse yourself in other communities where you can. Watch and listen. Read and view stories from diverse viewpoints. Follow Instagram or photoblogs from places and cultures and groups far and far different from you. Think of someone quite unlike you. Then, look at things with those different eyes. For example, if you are exploring change for a consumer product, go to a store that sells products like that, "wearing" a different persona. What would that person see and care about? You can't get 100% there, but you will move off the safe zone of things that are familiar and comfortable to you.

4. Be ready to be wrong. Assume your conclusions will often be wrong. This means, despite your hard work at trying to transcend your biases, assume you won't get there every time. Knowing you might be biased will protect you from relying too much on your "certainty" about what's true.

Take these steps and you'll stop just confirming what you think you know. You will start knowing new things.

Another post: Talk to the Frog, has a parable to tell that relates to this post.

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The ridiculous scenario

"Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous"
— Dator's Law, Futurist Jim Dator, University of Hawaii Manoa, [Source

Jim Dator says that to be useful, a statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous. But we fight the ridiculous trying to be responsbile thinkers about the future. 

"Don't waste time, that's crazy."

"Let's not get off track here."

"Oh, here we go, this is where the rubber hits the sky!" 

Of course, the ridiculous future is not often what we end up with. So why bother with it? To provoke better insights and action, we have to stretch our thinking. Rather than steer clear of an at-first-ridiculous idea, you should embrace it and play with it.

Until you’ve explored things that at first blush are “impossible” or “can’t ever happen” you haven’t explored the full landscape of meaningful, impactful change. The Wright Brothers told a incredulous world, after all, that humans were going to fly.

An example of a ridiculous scenario

“What if there was zero packaging?” We surely can’t manage unpackaged orange juice. But the concept lets you wonder about a future with far less packaging. Or a system for the containers we use with food and other products to be permanent and reusable. Or a marketplace in which packaging is no longer thought of as a nuisance and waste, but as an investment. So the ridiculous idea bears fruit. And it does so by leaping past thoughts of small-scale changes to show the potential for more transformational ones.

So take this as a cautionary to be sure we don’t too readily only see continuity, that we don’t miss significant threats and opportunities, that we don’t fail to explore the full landscape of possibility. 

NOTE: For more on scenarios, see: Why We Need Scenarios to Be Ready for the Future.

A previous post is similar: “the Unspoken Scenario”. Another is, “Come over to the dark side.” In those analyses, the missing scenarios are “unspoken”–perhaps unspeakable or “dark”. But the missing scenario can also be a wildly positive view of the future. 

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You can’t be what you can’t see

"If you have the words, there's always a chance that you'll find the way."
–Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and playwright

"You can't be what you can't see," attributed to Marian Wright Edelman, American civil rights activist, and others.

"To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it–well, that's a way of bringing the said thing into being" –Iff, the Water Genie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Seamus Heaney, Marian Wright Edelman, and Salman Rushdie's Water Genie, quoted above, remind us that until people have a name for something, understand the change it represents, and recognize it as desireable, they have trouble accepting it and taking steps to get there.

To be able to describe not just changes, but outcomes, is essential to progress. Too often, the visionaries among us understand, but the stakeholders we face do not, they can't see it, and don't have the words with which to talk about it.

In foresight, we use scenarios to describe potential futures and often to identify desired outcomes. The more specific and clear we can be about the potential future, the better we are able to communicate with others about it, and identify paths forward. The first step is to articulate the future: you can't be what you can't see.

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MainStreetNovelI recently met a couple who are leaders in their small Southern US town. They are not elected leaders. They are self-driven change makers. They are working hard and spending their own money to improve the town. They have planted thousands of flowers and created a festival to build town pride and draw visitors. They are planning new spaces for incubating creativity and businesses.

Their efforts reminded me of Carol Milford, the heroine in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. She wanted to bring culture and sophistication to her adopted town. Like Carol Milford, my friends face tradition-minded, suspicious townspeople who don't understand their motives or vision for the community.

They are working for a better future for everyone, so why the pushback?

It's likely a combination of things. People are unsure or suspicious of the changes. Their instinct is it's better to have what you know than to chance it on unclear and outlandish new ideas. They don't know or share the vision of the couple who are leading change. So what do my friends need to do?

5 ways foresight can help

  1. Sell their vision better. This means bringing clarity to their ideas about change and their motivations for pressing for it. They do so while respecting and celebrating the town's legacies, and the people who are a part of those. Appreciative inquiry is a technique for working with groups that starts with acknowledging strengths and positive legacies. It offers a starting point for a community (or organization) seeking to move forward cooperatively.
  2. Join with stakeholders to explore a positive future. This means not claiming to have all the answers. Instead, invite community members to help forge plans. Community members with the strongest sense of "ownership" of the town should be allies, not opponents. Giving them participation in the process preserves their ownership. Some thoughts on dealing with people whose thinking is stuck in the present (or past) are here: "When only you see the future." Also, "difficult history" may be part of what my friends face in their town. See: "How to break free of difficult history."
  3. Start the conversation by sharing assumptions about the future. Have participants in visioning meetings share their thoughts on "In 2027, I believe that ______________" . That view is at least 10 years in the future. Why? because that will help people jump past their immediate concerns and "today" objections. Probing this question does two things. 1). It gets the juices flowing, getting everyone's head in the future. 2). It surfaces assumptions about the future that we all carry and operate on whether we've told each other them or not. Sometimes the inability to move forward will be rooted in unexamined assumptions about the future. See: "In 20xx I believe that ________"
  4. Do some unencumbered thinking. With stakeholders, explore the question: "What would we build today if none of this existed?" You don't do this because you plan to blot out everything and start over. This discussion allows people to imagine things not from the perspective of rigid, existing barriers that would make it hard to acheive them, but rather, from the point of view of what would be best. See also: "The clean slate scenario".  
  5. Build a clear vision of a desired future. Create 10- or 20-year views into the future. These scenarios could include stories about "what if we don't change" as well as views of positive futures. You can develop these scenarios with people from across the community. The scenarios will bring out clear and vivid images of the future. An artist's renderings of the future can further showcase the new ideas and enourage feedback. See also: "Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future".

Entering into processes like this is scary. But my new friends show only signs of excitement about it. They will make an even greater difference going forward, armed with some of the tools of foresight.

If you are working in a community or organization with these sorts of challenges, I can help you develop and lead a process to get further, more smoothly. Let me know if I can help: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

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Keep an eye on the future while righting the ship

SS_Principessa_Jolanda_sinkingIn a crisis, organizations focus inward, and work to put things right.They right the ship as a top priority. 

But in a crisis, the long-term still needs attention. An organization fixing things can come up short in laying the stepwise plans its needs for its desired future. Fixing things is reactive, and reacting is not enough. 

Organizations need to keep foresight in the mix while they right the ship. Foresight doesn’t serve you if you only consider it once in a while, and it doesn’t work to put it off. If you take your eye off the ball, there’s a strong chance something fundamental will change in the landscape while you are tied up correcting things. 

Righting the ship is about catching up with the present, not preparing for the future. But if you are only catching up you are, in effect, falling behind. See also: If you're only keeping up, you're probably going backwards.

In troubled times it's understandable that everyone drops into the trenches and rolls up their sleeves to fix things. You need to do more than that.

What do you need to do?

Even in crisis, leaders must keep an eye toward the future. They need to give time for generative discussions about what’s next. This means planning for the future. It means assuming success with the fixes and aspiring to seize new opportunities in the future. And doing so means taking actions now for those future successes. In short, it means confidence in present action, and a focus on the future.

While you work on the present:

  • Expand awareness of what else is going on that will shape your future
  • Build views of where you’re headed (scenarios)
  • Make a ten- or fifteen-year forward view a part of the conversation
  • Identify how “fixing things” is part of your long-term strategy
  • Don’t fail to take actions now that go beyond righting the ship, they build towards your future

IMAGE: S.S. Principessa Jolanda, 1907, listing badly right after launch. Public domain.

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When you talk about change, especially big changes in society and technology, people are not all in the same place in their awareness and understanding. This shapes their recognition and acceptance of new ideas and organizational strategies. If your goal is to promote new ideas, products, or processes, or marshall organizational response to change, you need to help people along the scale.

The graphic below presents the change recogntion scale and suggests how you can move people along it. 

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions on this. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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