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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

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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.

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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.


Foresight is like fitness

Fitness Studio Fitness Studio Training DumbbellsForesight is work you do to get ready for the future. What will come at you? How ready are you to respond?

Most of what you will have to respond to is out in the unknown space that is your future. But you can prepare for the things you’ll do, though less often the exact things you’ll do. You need general foresight fitness.

Consider the gym-goer. She works out, building strength, flexibility, endurance, and agility. Her goal? Being ready for things she wants to do, and for life itself. She wants to be stronger, more flexible, and to feel good. Then she is better prepared for what life will throw at her. Daily life gives her physical challenges. And she may choose and reach for other challenges. Going in strong, flexible, agile, and with greater endurance makes everything else better.

Fitness as a metaphor for foresight
Fitness goal Foresight goal
Build strength Be more positive, prepared, and intentional about change
Gain endurance Grow the sustainability of your organization. Make it one capable of surviving and mastering change without spending or wearing itself out
Increase flexibility Improve speed to action and readiness to maneuver
Develop agility Become more practiced at responding to change


Foresight does this. Here’s how:

Exploring the future means exercising our minds—by exploring “what ifs.” We practice thinking about our response to change. We get stronger at anticipating future change, but also responding to it as it happens.

As with the gym, you can look at general training. Strength training and cardio, for example, give you general fitness. Exploring the future landscape 10 years out gives you strength as you face uncertainty. You can tailor efforts to specific needs. A baseball player works on the power with the bat by using a cable machine to simulate a baseball swing.

You can do something like this with foresight. Scenarios for your sector or a new technology let you prepare for responses to specific challenges and opportunities. 

So what about measurement? The gym analogy weakens. Yes, you can measure muscle and endurance with weights and times. But there isn’t a clear parallel for that in foresight. We don’t count trends gathered, for example, to measure the success of foresight.

But fitness has evolved far from “how much can you bench?” Fitness pros understand what matters is overall fitness, not some “look at me” measure of strength. Old gym rats are still measuring themselves on how much they can bench press or the circumference of their biceps. But modern-day fitness is about broad and holistic good health.

So is foresight. So get fit and stay fit, and you’ll enjoy a healthier future.

I'd love to help you learn more about how to do this. Call/email: 202-271-0444 and jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz


Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future

No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be…This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking 

–Isaac Asimov, Asimov on Science Fiction 1981

Organizations have to consider outside forces and trends as they build their strategies. But in most, too few people spend time thinking about how the future will shape the organization. Not enough of the knowledge and ideas of the organization finds its place in strategy. Leading firms use scenarios to solve these problems.

A science fictional way of thinking

Scenarios answer Asimov’s call for a “science fictional way of thinking”. They ask, “What if?” They are stories we build about future possibilities. The stories let us test and explore future risks and opportunities. 

The scenario building process draws out the insight of a team and helps make future challenges and opportunities clearer and more compelling. It gives participants a shared view of future possibilities. That view enriches their day-to-day work and strategic thinking.

We can use scenarios to think through potential decisions about strategy. The scenarios also become a tool for sharing strategic thinking with others. 

Most organizations have a good idea what they intend to do in the next few years. But that view can weaken their sense of more transformational change and bigger opportunities further out. Taking a look ten or even more years out lets us imagine bigger change. Then we can step back to today to understand what to do about it. 

The further into the future we look, the less certain we are about what will happen. But also, the further out we look the more our decisions today have the power to shape change and opportunity. 

This diagram shows how using scenarios can help us avoid just pursuing an “official” future. Official futures usually assume continuity. They tend to ignore both new threats and opportunities. Good foresight, exploring alternate scenarios, builds and maintains a broader view of what’s possible. 

Cone of uncertainty

Scenario building is a shared, immersive activity

The power of scenario building is in how it gets people to immerse themselves in the future. Working on scenarios leaves them no choice but to think both broadly and concretely about the future.

Once people have had the scenario-building experience, they have new ideas and places to go in their heads. They’ve got a much richer view of the future. They have a new mental habit–to think about alternative futures, not accepting that there’s some inevitable future out there. They should, and usually do, have a sense of empowerment. They discover there are parts of their future they can shape, starting now.

By the way, part of my practice is helping teams use scenarios. So, to be clear, I not only want you to do this, I’d love to help. We build scenario programs for all sorts of organizations. Here’s a page describing our support for workforce futures explorations.

Let me know if I can help you: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

Some of my other posts on scenarios:


Future of Learning: The Classroom of 2030

Future of Learning: The Classroom of 2030 is the fifth piece I've done for the World Innovation Summit for Education's online news and idea site: WISE.Ed.Review. My focus for them is on clear future views of what's possible and desirable in education in our future.

Previous pieces:

The Future of Education: How For-Profit Businesses Will Reshape Education

Future of Education: Nine Skills That Will Help Make Our Children Future-Ready

Exploring the Future for Education: Three Scenarios for 2025

MOOCs, Mobile, and the Future of Higher Education


You move, always, into the future. But what future? Well, there are two kinds:

1). The future you can shape. [“You make it”] 

Defining this future is about exploring the changes you can influence and clarifying the outcomes you want. A future you strive for is called a normative future, and there is little reason, across the sweep of change you can influence, not to drive toward the one you want. But too many people don't figure out what they want because they feel subject to, or even victim of the future.  

Your vision of a desired future will focus you on things you have a part in shaping. But defining it has to account for the other kind of future, the future you are subject to.

2). The future you are subject to. [“You take it”] 

This future is in your external context. It is a product of the forces and changes that will happen no matter what you do, or that you have, at best, only a small chance of influencing. To explore this future, you need to understand the forces of change and identify how you can respond to them to better reach the future you want.

This future is tricky, since there is no way to absolutely predict it. You have to stay prepared for a range of possibilities. 

If you don't yet understand the external future, you better get to work now to clarify. Otherwise, you won't have much chance at determining where it it there is the future you can have, or discovering how you will strive for it.

It's an easy trap for people and organizations to think that all they can do is address this second future, to try to just keep up with change. But reversing this, and identifying goals and visions of a desired future, can take you from a sense of being stuck, to a sense of command of your destiny. 


The unreasonable man

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

— George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"

If you acknowledge the need for change, sometimes sharp change, then there is a thin line separating the reasonable and unreasonable. What may be a sound plan for change can easily top over into an absurd, unworkable notion. 

Or at least some of the stakeholders involved will think so. This means that fostering change–the change we may need–can mean being distinctly, noisily, objectionably, unreasonable. If you go there for good reason, I've got your back. You're likely to make a difference.


The best time in history

Bob Olson, Olson Carriage & Harness, Black Forest, CO"What was, do you think, the best time in human history?"

Bob Olson, Olson Carriage & Harness, teaches people skills from the past. He is an expert at horsemanship. He shows people how to teams of draft horses pulling a wagon, carriage, or sleigh. 

Bob lives and works on his ranch in Black Forest, Colorado. I met him when he made his team and 100-year-old covered wagon available for a short fiction film created by my son Robert Mahaffie. (Here is a link to Robert's film).

In our conversations, Bob and I ranged widely. And Bob was particularly challenging as we talked about the past, the future, the good and the bad in each. I knew Bob likes old things and the old ways of ranch life. He knew my work was about change, technology, and the future. But we both appreciated the others sensibilities. We spent no time on disagreement.

When we visited the Olson ranch, Bob threw a profound and impossible question at me: "John, what was the best time in history?"

He had just backed his team of Percheron draft horses, harnessed in a hay wagon, into the barn. He'd put the team, Vickie and Minnie, in their stalls and given them straw and water. Then he put the question to me, his big city visitor, my cell phone a tactile presence in my pocket. And the lack of service on the ranch having been established and lamented. 

In his quiet way, he waited to see what I had to say, a gentle smile played across his face.

I had no good answer, but maybe that's the point. After being flummoxed for a moment, I told Bob that figuring out how to think about his question was what mattered, not an answer. I think he agreed, and he didn't demand my answer.

And of course, the answer depends. As with any complex question, so much depends on definitions, contexts, and so on.

We agreed we couldn't really answer the question, but we also agreed, that the best time for humans might be prehistoric times. Back then, despite the hellish risks and suffering that might befall people, despite hunger and cold and thirst and conflict, and despite the fact that you might, if you were lucky, survive to be 30 years old, by the measures of the time, with a simplicity of expectation, you might be well satisfied.

Prehistoric peoples didn't need "mindfulness coaches". They didn't worry, I think we can presume, about their or their children's self-esteem. They didn't become paralyzed by uncertainty of whether to cut back on refined sugars and add more chia to their diets. And on and on.

I'll keep pondering Bob's question. I don't expect to answer it, but expect to gain from the pondering.

Thanks Bob! 

Image: Jane G. Mahaffie