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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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

When only you see the future

You are intuitive, a trend-spotter, comfortable with conjecture, ready to explore something uncertain–the future. Right?

Other people you have to deal with are fact-minded, narrowly-focused, prefer what is knowable, and are focused on what they are doing right now. Sound familiar? Because you are talking about the future, maybe they think you are crazy and "just make things up."

So now you've got a problem. They don't get what you're saying or doing, or don't believe in it, or they fear it.

What can you do?

Knowing this problem exists is a big part of coping. It's not sufficient, nor useful to assume others are stupid, or actually tell them they are stupid. It's best to work with their perspectives and the reasons for their narrower focus. They are mired in the present, and not practiced at thinking about things that haven't yet happened.

Your goal should be to help people raise their eyes up to a further horizon, to open their thinking. Show them some new ways to understand things. Find ways to bring ideas about the future alive for them in images and words. Tell stories about what could be, but make sure they are vivid and show the changes that matter. Much of the work of helping people explore the future is simply doing this.

Scenarios are a great tool to use. See: Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future and much more at the tag "Scenarios".

I can help you! Let me know if you'd like to hear more, or if I can help build a program for you and your organization. Email Me or call 202-271-0444.

Confirmation bias is getting attention in American politics. It is the tendency we have to pre-filter what we see and read according to our established views. Confirmation bias closes our minds to new ideas and other viewpoints. We end up in a protective bubble of our own making.

This is also a trap in foresight. The act of exploring for information and ideas about change is called environmental scanning. (Also called horizon scanning.) It is the work of collecting information, links, observations, etc. to better understand change and explore future possiblities. Confirmation bias afflicts scanning. It leads us to see only things that confirm our beliefs about the future. In fact, even your set of digital or paper filing categories can trick you into missing other changes. 

Confirmation bias file folders

This is a inevitable risk, and you have do two things to overcome it:

1). develop an approach that ensures you encounter new ideas in new categories. Don't just collect things that confirm what you have already decided is true. Read opposing views on purpose. Move towards divergent thoughts instead of away from them.

2). watch yourself and learn to catch yourself at this. Call out your biases when they happen. Carry your awareness of them into situations like when you will meet people with different world views.

Breaking through your own biases is a win. You should delight in discoveries as you read and observe that don't fit your understanding or or your categories. Get excited about finding out you're wrong. If you can't file it, leave it on the desk top. It's got an important insight for you. Pop that bubble. 

Governance and foresight: Views of a futurist/trustee

28555956016_c3cd0f4ae8_zThis post accompanies “Pitfalls in Governance” 

Foresight needs to become instinctual and habitual for boards. Jeff De Cagna of Foresight First LLC, is doing seminal work on this. He coined the phrase “duty of foresight” to accompany the other duties of trustees: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience.

Foresight is an ongoing process—a culture to foster in a leadership group. Organizations should recruit board members with skill at working in understanding change. It’s common for too many trustees and too many discussions to be about compliance and about confirming actions already taken. Boards need to also be at play in generative discussions about new things, and not merely immersed in old or existing things.

Trustees should frame their own discussions in multi-year terms. They should require organizational leaders to given them tools such as financial statements that focus beyond the current budget year. Ask the organization to build long-term tools for leadership, e.g. a 5- or 10-year budget. Creating it will raise questions of long-term strategy, growth, and assumptions about sustainability. And it will identify of themes and forces of change that impact the organization. 

Boards and their organizations should build scenarios looking 10 years out and check the mission and strategic plans against those. This thinking is not exclusive to the board. But it is a best fit with boards who can stand outside the day-to-day work and crisis-to-crisis action inside the organization. 

To fail to do these things is, in fact, a derelection of duty, the duty of foresight.

Image: Alexis Lewis, via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license

Pitfalls in governance: Views of a futurist/trustee

This post addresses the non-profit governance roles of Boards of Trustees. See related post: Governance and Foresight

320px-WolfsgrubeThose in governance have a distinct role that may be at odds with the organizational roles they are used to. In the governance role, you wear a different hat. I bring to this question my own experience in non-profit governance. I am a trustee for two educational institutions. I also have worked as a futurist serving organizational leaders and boards for three decades. My work is about helping them understand change and prepare for the future. I have seen the traps and failures they face.

Trustees have a responsibility for the big picture and the long term. Jeff De Cagna of Foresight First LLC has done seminal work on explaining how and why boards need foresight. He coined the phrase “Duty of Foresight” and is at work to make the recognition of that duty a reality. [LINK]

Here are some of the pitfalls: 

Misunderstanding the governance role. People who join boards don’t always know what governance is. They instinctively act like workers or day-to-day managers of the organization, and may  have a weak or missing eye to the bigger picture.

Only responding to what’s laid in front of you. The role of a Board member is to look beyond, ask questions, frame things in ways different from how those in executive roles do. Here’s a post I wrote on this: “Don’t just answer the question you are asked

(Only) chasing growth or dollars. A board can have “spreadsheet eyes” and fall into the habit of focusing tightly on financial matters, at the expense of the mission, sustainability, new roles, etc. Yes, the business model may be tracking well in terms of a budget and balance sheet. But is the organization on the right track?

Groupthink. The tendency for a governance group to go along so as to get along. Everyone should be coached to have a “yes, and” or “yes, but” frame of mind. A board’s leadership should model and validate this behavior.

Fix and stop. A temptation in a board role is to see that a problem in the organization is solved and then breathe a sigh of relief and fade back. Instead, the board needs to keep its eyes on the bigger picture, and turn to new issues and opportunities.

Falling out of the governance role. This happens when a Board member/trustee drops into the business of the day-to-day management, overriding decisions (as opposed to asking questions, framing long-term strategic goals, etc.) Some in governance are also in day-to-day roles. They have to be able to switch hats and maintain a mindfulness about which role they are in when.

Failing to exercise the duty of foresight. Last but not least, at the core of responsibility for the long-term success of an organization is anticipating the future. That means looking beyond the usual time horizon the organization considers, to take a view five, ten, or fifteen years out. Here Jeff De Cagna’s work (see above) is vital. I will address this more in a subsequent post. See: Governance and Foresight for more on his vital issue.

The solutions to these problems are in the hands of boards themselves. A board should give its new trustees a proper orientation. In it, they should talk through the role, learn from example cases of things that could come up in their board work. Since board members may also have “roll up your sleeves” duties, such as assisting with fundraising, it’s important to air out the question of which roles each plays, when.

Boards should refresh these lessons each year. People forget. One way to do that is to have existing trustees join new ones in their orientation. They can join in small group discussions of situations that come up for people in the role.

Trustees should get in the habit of saying, “why?” and “does this support our mission?” and “can this be sustainable or help the organization’s sustainability?” And they should call out pitfalls when they see them. "Watch out!" 

Image: pitfall trap for wolf hunting, Germany. Georg Waßmuth, via Wikimedia Commons.

Foresight helps you see the forest for the trees

LeavesTreesForestWorldYou sit at your computer, productive, focused, dedicated to your work. You engage the detailed specifics of your job, the numbers, the facts, the personnel, the movement of things. You are an expert. You can tell when things are right and wrong. The organization rewards you for your knowledge and skill. You get things right. You are proud of your knowledge, skill, and focus. But you may be missing the future.

    Expert knowledge can put blinders on you 

It's hard to see the forest for the trees or you may have fallen out of the habit. I see this with people I meet in organizations. They can be savvy outside work and un-thoughtful or un-critical inside.

The job does it to them. The overburden of work and sometimes the corporate culture, squeezes them into a narrow place. So can a sense of the special role of their profession. Sometimes I hear people say they had read about an interesting trend or technology in the news or saw it in their travels, but it didn't occur ot them to think about how it might relate to their work. Too often their workplace doesn't encourage them to bring such observations into their what they do. 

A specialist's tight focus can blind you to the bigger picture. It can dim your view of new demands and opportunities from outside the system. And yet it may be, officially, your job to have that tight focus. It's also true that ideas about "how our business works" and "this is our mission" may be nearsighted for the evolving global reality that is shaping your destiny.

We all should be scouts, out in the world encountering change and clues to the future. If we can build and reinforce the habit of bringing those insights into our work our organizations will be better off. And with that, we should keep our focus broad, see the whole forest, not just the trees. 

Foresight tools bring a payoff by widening the view (as well as deepening it into the future). Most change is from the outside. Foresight tools are for making the whole forest visible to people whose eyes are on the trees, or even only the leaves. 

Those tools include:
+Environmental scanning 
+Scenario development
+Systems mapping

Each is a big(ger) picture mechanism. Each has been a powerful tool I've used with my clients over the years. They end up sharper, clearer-minded, aware, and more foresightful.

Please let me know if I can help you and your team to explore a wider world of change that will be a part of your destiny: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-272-0444.

Images: Aidan Grey, Joshua Mayer, Beatrice Murch, via Flickr, Creative Commons ShareAlike license. NASA.