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.
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.