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Using foresight to expand your strike zone

Your organization is good at something, or tries to be. It works for opportunities in a certain part of the marketplace. That part of the whole is the organization’s “strike zone.”

But that zone may be too limited for your ongoing success, especially as change unfolds around you. Areas outside that zone have potential too. They may be where the best opportunities are.

This, of course, is a baseball metaphor. And we can take it a little further.

Where’s the best “pitch” to hit? Is it in the zone of opportunities you already pursue? Can you, and should you, expand that zone? 

Ted Williams was sort of wrong

Baseball great Ted Williams wrote a book called The Science of Hitting (1970). He had been a phenomenal ball player who by 1970 was managing the Washington Senators.

In his book, he explained how to maximize success by knowing what pitches to hit. And the ideal pitches are specific to the batter.

There is wisdom in what he wrote. And smart organizational leaders follow a similar line. Even Warren Buffett, is a fan of Williams’ book and approach. Go for what you can hit well.

But organizations too often follow this to a fault. “Stick to our core business” they say. (That’s their “happy zone” in Ted Williams’ phrasing). “Don’t chase low-odds opportunities.”

Williams taught that expanding the zone in which you’ll swing the bat only gives the savvy opponent (his opposing pitcher, and your marketplace reality) a stronger chance of beating you. He did not focus on expanding your zone of capabilities, to expand your opportunities. But sometimes, that’s what an organization needs to do. Foresight can help guide that process, at least by showing you where to look.

How does foresight help?

1). It helps you understand your strike zone, its limits, and whether the opportunities there are growing or declining. Pitchers are like your marketplace, and pitchers around your league have figured you out. You may not get enough good opportunities any more, especially as the marketplace changes.

2). It shows you what’s beyond your strike zone, and motivates you to look at moving there. Where else are there opportunities?

You need to change your approach. The futurist is your batting coach. I’m happy to join you in the batting cage!

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If you enjoyed this baseball metaphor, here’s another from a while back:

As long as you do what’s conventional, you won’t be accused of a blunder

Designing packaging for sustainability

Working towards sustainability means package designs that acknowledge and respond to the larger system that the product/package is a part of. A package is integral to that broader system, and part of the big system’s sustainability.

A design that merely does not worsen the system’s sustainability is not a breakthrough. And packaging pursuing only its own greenness is missing the chance to help the whole system.

The leading edge of packaging design often falls short. Designers recognize the centrality of sustainability. But they often work with a narrow perspective vis-a-vis the wider total lifecycle and contextual reality of the package. More often than not, the view is too narrow, focused on a simple substitution; “Do it with a renewable material”. 

Another narrow-view solution is finding a secondary use for the package. That is not enough. In most contexts, there will be too many waste packages for the secondary use opportunity. We cannot turn all PET soda bottles into jackets and pullovers.

How can designers and brands work together to come up with solutions?

Each side knows much the other does not. Joining brand owner experts with designers and innovators can move designs to the next level. This means joint explorations of possibility taking a whole systems view, understanding emerging change, learning together, and finding inspiration from parallel and distant situations. For example, drawing on nature, harking back to old approaches, and discovering things from other cultures all can inform and inspire design thinking.

Are consumers really demanding change? 

Designers and innovators should know what consumers want. But they also often have to lead and educate consumers for the need for change. On the old question of technology push versus market pull, the answer is, both.

More consumers live where there are tightening requirements for sustainability, limiting, recovering, and recycling waste. Brand owners’ choices in packaging may hand the consumer a waste problem. A consumer may not make a personal choice for more sustainable packaging. But if their community requires something, it’s part of their daily lives anyway.

How do you balance sustainable design with a better consumer experience?

Work to make sustainability itself par of the consumer experience and do it well.

What role does education play with consumers when designing for sustainability?

It is central. To be able to educate the consumer about sustainability while also handing them a solution that works in their lives is the pathway to success.

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We bring this kind of thinking to our triennial Future of Packaging program. It’s a multi-sponsor program for packaging executives and others with a strong interest in packaging. For more about the program, visit Future of Packaging: 2030. Our program launches at the beginning of 2019.

6 ways the future consumer will be different

Powerful forces are changing how consumers think and act. As we look out over the next 15 years, we can highlight critical shifts that will change the way branding, marketing, producing, advertising, and retailing are done. Winning businesses will reckon with these forces by transforming how they produce, market, and sell their goods. It won’t be enough to just make minor adjustments—we will have to get beyond the low-hanging fruit.

What are the changes? Here are six: 

1. More consumers will be born digital – The next generations of consumers include the tens of millions of today’s children who have lived their lives digitally—most of that time with a mobile phone in their hands. Even before they got a phone, they probably had Xbox, Wii, or Playstation, or a parent’s device.

They were born digital, and are growing up digital. They have habits and expectations on how they want to communicate with people and systems. Their digital lives are social too, with instant connections and inputs from their friends and “friends” being integral to what they do in the marketplace.

The bottom line for business. It’s time to look at the consumer differently, to recognize that the consumer’s interactions with you and your products and services are part of a bigger picture of his or her digital life. You cannot expect to do well with the born-digital consumer if you lag behind their routine expectations from technology and for social-connectedness. Growing up with video and computer games means the digitally-born expect the systems they use to be multi-sensory and interactive—that they can communicate with gestures, not just a keyboard. That they can touch a screen and scroll, zoom, and so on. Why should the systems they find in the marketplace in 2026 be less intuitive, interactive, and lively than their Xbox 360 or Wii?

2. Enjoying continuous digital access – Living a digital life means carrying a mobile device that gives people ubiquitous access to the ‘net. Most well-off people have that and far more have basic mobile communications with at least texting (SMS) capability. And with that is the power of social networking, which changes the dynamics of what people do while connected.

Network access, instant information, and social connections will be part of nearly everything people do. In their consumer lives, they will be essential tools and powerful influencers of what people want and buy. New information tools and channels will submerge traditional media—and advertising, in a cacophony of new, powerful influences.

The bottom line for business. Selling will be about tapping into social networks, harnessing buzz, finding what resonates with specific groups. You will need to find consumers in the cloud—you can’t wait for them to enter your store, whether that’s a brick and mortar building or a website.

Consumers will become even more “brand fickle”—the forces of digital communications, social networks, and the pace of change in the marketplace move them off of long-term brand loyalty. You will be able to win over consumers to your products, but it will be hard to keep them.

3. The focus is shifting to market niches of one (“N = 1”) – The consumer’s interest is in his or her individuality. Consumers have come to focus on themselves and business has supported that. Consumers care about their uniqueness and specific needs, and expect the products and services they use to fit closely to that uniqueness. This value is integral to US Baby Boomer sensibility, and America’s younger generations, steeped in it too, and are even more likely to have the digital tools and habits to do something about it. They won’t just crave it, they will have lived it.

The bottom line for business. The “N = 1” shift results in changed relationships: firm to individual consumer, instead of firm to market niche or mass market. Ultimately, consumers want to have a hand in creating, or at least identifying and fine-tuning the products businesses offer them. The relationship becomes two-way. Each sale will be about showing the consumer you recognize who she is and how your product fits her uniqueness.

4. We’ll be “free range” shopping – Anywhere/anytime network access leads to what I like to call “free-range shopping”. You don’t have to be at a shopping place to buy things, you can do that wherever you are, and increasingly, you want to. One key reason: encountering products out in the world shows them at their truest and best, and that’s probably when you recognize how they might fit your needs.

Because products have a digital life too, it will be possible to take a mobile phone picture and automatically identify the product for purchase. Consumers will embrace this ability, freeing them to find and choose products whenever and wherever they want. And they will be impatient with sellers who don’t make it that easy. Meanwhile, smart speakers add another tool to anywhere (or at least anytime) shopping: voice-command ordering.

The bottom line for business. Since the consumer lives in and wants to shop in the cloud, you will have to make more mobile purchases possible. Brick and mortar stores can continue to offer thorough, immersive experiences that are hard to replace, but convenience and ubiquitous access will often trump the qualities of store shopping. Finding ways to tie the physical with the virtual will pay off, but often brick and mortar stores will be the show-rooms for people who want to touch a product before they buy it. But does having them in the store guarantee that store gets the sale? And where else should your products appear? The answer is, everywhere.

5. We are reconsidering consumption – More consumers show at least some post-materialist values in their consumption and that value will grow. That means that they at least sometimes think, “Why do I want more stuff?” and make choices that are not about having more material goods.

They focus instead on how what they consume improves the quality of their lives. Consumers other values into this too, including interests in the environment and social justice. The “sharing economy” idea, notably seen with urban car, bike, and scooter sharing, shows how quickly not owning things can take hold.

Post-materialist thinking may mean consuming differently, not necessarily less. For example, more people want a new, authentic experience in what they consume, not just the latest product. But that could mean buying more expensive, more authentic, and higher quality things, such as hand-crafted clothing or furniture, or patronizing businesses that add a lot of personalized service and customization to their products.

The bottom line for business. More consumers will want products that offer them something special: greater feelings of safety, wellbeing, a match to their values, authenticity, a new experience, and overall, a product that adds to the quality of their lives. They may look hard at your full value chain, not just the end product. While people will continue to buy mass-produced commodity products—ordinary things that don’t aspire to offer much beyond basic utility, it’s dangerous to assume that changing values won’t matter to consumers for your products. They will.

6. More are greening it up – Soon regulatory and social pressures will meet economic pressures to drive greener lifestyles. People are already subject to local recycling laws and often laws relating to their use of energy and water resources. But higher prices are an even surer way to wake up consumers to the need to conserve, reuse, etc.

The bottom line for business. Though it’s not a majority of consumers who are acting on green values as they consume, plenty are. And sometimes the green option is the choice when two choices are otherwise about equal. At some point a company’s overall profile is a critical brand attribute, and if that profile looks anti-green in the marketplace, that company loses. Sustainable practices will be an integral part of corporate processes and a prominent brand matter. And the sustainability bar is regularly raised, as we gain knowledge and awareness of what matters.

Conclusion: A lot of change is unfolding now and will probably accelerate in the next five to ten years, reshaping the competitive landscape for producers, distributors, and retailers. This is not a time to wait and see—it’s time now for business to game out the possibilities and figure out how to win in the new competitive arena that’s emerging.

Note: part of my work is to lead groups in workshops exploring how the future consumer will shape their businesses. I also present to trade and corporate groups on this and related topics. Contact me for more information: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz.

Image: Tia Henriksen, via Flickr, CC attribution license.

How to use cross impact analysis

Sometimes a blunt-force tool is best for grinding through the analysis and exploration of ideas.

Cross impact analysis* is just that. It forces you to test out the interactions among a set of forces, trends, or decisions.

The image at the right shows the basic concept, but let’s look a little closer at how to make this tool simple and useful.

In the basic grid you would relate, e.g. Item A to Item B, and Item B to Item A. But working the crosses two ways is hard. To do it more simply, just assume each pair interacts. Also, you don’t cross a thing with itself.

Thus in the stair-step cross impact diagram at the right, we work only in the unshaded cells. With this tool, you can explore emerging change to discover possible future outcomes.

Below is a filled-out example about the future consumer marketplace:

Where to use cross impacts

Cross impact is a back-shop or group-process tool. It is for exploration. Most of the time, nobody will want to see the gory details of your cross impact effort, though it is possible to tidy up and streamline the results for sharing with others.

What can you cross impact?

  • Trends/change forces
  • Proposed actions, strategies, or decisions
  • Different stakeholders, vis-a-vis an issue

Cross impact analysis resource page

For more on cross impact analysis, see: LINK

Conclusion

No matter the format used, the cross impact tool insists we acknowledge that nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s its real payoff. And the process of doing the analysis is its strongest benefit. Give it a try. Below is a link for a PDF of a template and instructions. 

Cross impact template and instructions

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*This post gives a view of one of multiple approaches to cross impact analysis. The original form, invented by Ted Gordon and Olaf Helmer [LINK] is a quantitative method for assessing probabilities and/or the magnitude of impacts between different factors or decisions. My use is qualitative and is focused on discovery of potential future outcomes. 

Futurists are presentists: The true purpose of a forecast

The other day my friend Holly asked me about my track record as a futurist. Holly is a journalist and has a knack for asking quiet, incisive questions.

I had told her about co-authoring a book in the 1990s about the year 2025. [2025 : Scenarios of US and Global Society Reshaped by Science and Technology] Holly’s question got me thinking about the purpose of my work.

It’s reasonable for people to expect futurists to predict the future. But accurate prediction is not the real value of our work. What futurists do is very much about today. Forecasts should show the range of and directions of change that get us started toward a desired future. The forecast endpoint is not the point.

There is little point in framing an idea about the future and then waiting ten or fifteen years to see “Did you get it right?” Today is where foresight has its power. 

The best question I could ask when we get to 2025 is: Did people who read 2025 in the late 1990s act differently because of the ideas in the book?

Why did we write 2025? To help business people in the late 1990s understand change and potential for the future in that year. So my book, 2025, published in 1996, was for people in 1996 to understand future possibility.

As the year 2025 approaches, I still expect to be embarrassed about where we were wrong. Most often that will be about what we did not forecast at all and where we were too optimistic. But I should forget about it. That was not the point or the purpose of the book. 

How should you think about this?

When you work with a futurist or engage with the future, know your today reasons. Allow the process to range imaginatively over future ideas. But don’t worry about certainty and accuracy at some future date. Explore what those ideas tell you about what to do now.

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For some further thoughts on this, see What do futurists really do?

What is and What if

In organizations, knowing what’s going on today across the business landscape (”what is”), is essential. Too often the press of daily work keeps an executive from knowing enough.

But understanding how things are changing and the emerging challenges and opportunities in front of you (”what if”) needs attention too. Nearly always, the press of business and immediate demands shut down attention to “what if”.

Here is what is involved:  

“What is” — the operating environment:

  • Due diligence — care and attention to the organization’s interests
  • Industry focus — sector and market knowlege
  • The state of the art — best practices and the latest technology, systems, processes
  • What’s going on — the competitive landscape

“What if” — the future:

  • Leading edge change — emerging change in the market, technology, society, that will impact the organization
  • Emerging and future possibilities — identification of specific opportunities and challenges and potential responses to them

For both, we can’t help but stand in today as we think and work to understand. But we must try to think forward to better anticipate the future.

“What is” functions poorly without “what if.” Taking action in response to conditions today, without thoughts toward the future, is risky. But the reverse is true too. You need to know enough about current conditions to fully explore potential change. 

What to do about it

Broaden your view of “what is” by exploring the environment more broadly, beyond the specific marketplace niche, or issue, or geography you focus on.

Deepen your view of “what if” into the future by: Explicitly testing out ideas about 5 or 10 or more years from now. Ask the “what ifs” questions. Build stories (scenarios) of future possibilities. Draw implications of those “what ifs”.  Attention to both questions will make you stronger and more limber as you face challenges and meet new opportunities.

For more insight on this and a related illustration, see: Management, strategy, and foresight, compared

How much foresight can you fit?

Perhaps the biggest inhibitor of foresight for organizations is time. Even if your organization recognizes the power and value of exploring its future, the press of daily work and immediate needs squeezes away the time and energy you might give to exploring change.

You only have the time and resources you have. You have to find a way to fit in foresight. Below is advice based on how much time you expect to have. Certainly more is better, but you can optimize impact with some care and thought no matter the timing. As always, a savvy futurist can help to shape your efforts and help you guide them. And I am happy to chat about your situation whether or not you engage my help.

What to do if you only have….

An hour — you finally got time on leadership’s agenda, or it’s your turn for a brown bag lunch talk. You want to change minds, wake people to new ideas, energize thinking about the future, give foresight its due. This is hard!

Get right to it. Make it a conversation, seeded with distinct insights on change. Pose “what ifs” about what is central to the organization.

Have a conversation about the critical forces changing the organization’s destiny. That means surfacing everyone’s assumptions about the future, and helping them interpret the big changes that are at play in your business and your sector.

Do this: Prepare, prepare, prepare. An hour is not enough time for group discovery, which is valuable and powerful when there’s more time. It has to be a call to action around one or several (at most) critical changes you face that need focus. This hour should end with collective interest in more. If you have a hour with top leadership, it should lead to permission to deepen the exploration of the future in the organization, and more time.

A day — you have a little more time with a small group or a cross-functional team, and you have a mandate to explore something about the organization’s future.

Make the most of it! Make it quality time, preferably off site, to pare away distractions. Get everyone focused on exploring change and what it means to the organization. You have time to give participants a clear sense of coming change, and for them to take ownership of it, adding their ideas.

Do this: Do your homework beforehand. Develop a briefing or find a valid and meaningful, and short, body of ideas about the future of your interests, such as a list of critical forces or transformations in the sector. Use those as the basis for discussions. 

If you can, invite people from different responsibilities in the organization. Think like a revolutionary. Your goal is to seed ideas and interest in confronting change and deepening the team’s foresight.

Hold people off from immediately “solving” the problems implied. Try to get their energy first on elaborating on potential change and its implications. End with a call to further action.

A week — You’ve secured teh team’s time for a week of futures exploration. A week is time to learn and strategize with a select group of folks. That has power since those involved can discover and interpret critical ideas about change. They can learn to talk about them and prepare to be missionaries across the organization.

Do this: Identify the best team you can for open-minded exploratory thinking. If you can get a cross-functional group involved, do it.

Shape expectations in the wider organization for what you are doing. Find people and experiences that will help your team understand more about the future and how to think about it. Visits to places where you can see leading edge change, and hearing from diverse thinkers will open up your thinking.

Ultimately, it’s hands-on shaping of futures ideas, and a focus on postive visions of where the organization can go that will matter. Your team should play in the future, try out ideas, and then work to interpet what is possible, what is likely, and what is desirable in the future.

A month — You’ve gotten time for several iterations of futures thinking, and time for ideas to evolve and develop. A month is long enough to allow more development of ideas, time for reflection, and time to engage others beyond the core team. The time allows team memers to go off, do research, and expand your knowledgebase.

Do this: Plan to have two intensive sessions with a week or several between them. After orienting and launching the thinking, you can have team members commit to exploring and developign ideas for further discussion at a second session. 

You may have time as you start or in the middle of the month, to engage a wider group of stakeholders with a survey or other process for soliciting ideas. That has two payoffs. First, it engages others and helps encourage their interest. Second, it draws on more people’s insights and knowledge, empowering the core team.

A year — You have time and a budget for a much deeper exploration, engaging more internal an external stakeholders, and an iterative process of learning and discovery. This will be a full-blown futures initiative, a chance to explore and develop a comprehensive view of the future of and for your organization.

Do this: Establish and train a core team in foresight techniques,. Assigning them to complete a comprehensive exploration of the future shaping the organization’s interests. They will have time and should have resources for attending thought-leader conferences and futures-focused symposia. 

Among the programs to consider are workshops on the future that engage the thinking of folks across the organization. Building, illustrating, and publishing scenarios [TK links] that show alternate future contexts for the organization will create a tool for use with internal and external groups to further explore future possibililties.

This program year should include its own public relations. At least for internal groups, setting expectations for results, encouraging participation, and communicating emerging results will help ensure that the foresight effort leaves a legacy. Some organizations include in this a space, such as a “futures room” where images and words can be displayed, and where visitors can interact and add their own ideas, e.g. on a post-it wall. 

When you have built a view of the future, you should share it widely. Brief the chiefs, your board, and key stakeholders. Publish the thinking. Convene groups to make their own interpretation of the work, fitted to their interests.

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No matter the time you can secure and use, if you use it well, you will have a smarter, more foresightful organizatio.

10 years of blogging about foresight

In October 2007, I started this blog. I had pent-up ideas to share about foresight. Over 10 years, I’ve posted 236 times. 

Has it been valuable? Plenty of readers benefited. But I know I gained the most. Thinking through and writing the posts let me to refine how I communicate about foresight. And I know that better communication fueled others’ interest and work.

Creating the posts also prepared me for teaching and advising organizations on foresight: its power, its essentialness, and how people can do it with the constraints they face in their organizations.

Foresightculture turned out to be about 95% about the processes of foresight and 5% about “what is the future?” The “how” was a natural fit for me and was where I had the most interest in sharing my thinking.

Blogging clarified for me how I think about foresight, and evolved in tandem with my sense of the role I play as a futurist. That role today is more about being the guide to how to change minds and understand change than it is foreseer of the future. When I sit with others to help them, I’m first and foremost there to help them change how they think.

Here are some insights from the ten years:

  1. In foresight, it is the journey that matters, not the forecast, report, or briefing at the end.
  2. Foresight is about changing minds. What you change them to may be critical for you, but the first order of business is unlocking people’s thinking.
  3. My readers are often alone in their quest for clarity on the future. They need allies and they need techniques.
  4. Foresight seems difficult and mysterious to people. People want grab-and-go tools and instructions, not theory. That has made my posts on environmental scanning, SWOTs analysis, and scenarios “best sellers” on my blog.
  5. People want to visualize what foresight is, what it means, and how it’s done. They gain from simple, draw-it-on-the-nearest-whiteboard doodles that give people an “ah ha!”. My favorite is “The Mother of All Futures Diagrams“.
  6. People like “listicles”. They know that they will get something pared down to essentials from posts like “6 Foresight Hacks” or “8 things leaders should know about strategic foresight“.
  7. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation or approach to foresight. I write about the same things again and again. Why? Because as I lead workshops, and have conversations, and read and ponder, I discover new angles to come at the same concepts. Someone who didn’t find the last one useful, may find the new one lights them up.

So I will keep going. If I learn and others learn too, it’s well worth what is pleasurable time spent.

Thank you for reading.

The future shaping the accounting industry

I will be speaking in October 2017 at “Women Who Count,” the national conference of the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA) in Alexandria, Virginia. For AFWA, I wrote the article linked below, which closely tracks the theme of my talk.

My key themes:

  • Accounting and finance professionals can have a great future, but it’s not guaranteed.
  • They have to sieze the initiative and make the transformation they want happen. 
  • The scary news: The center drops out–mid-skill level work is destined for automation, and that includes accounting and finance.
  • The good news: The transformation of commerce–new business forms, new scales of operation, and other elements of the “millennial economy” create new opportunities for accounting and finance professional.

The Future Shaping the Accounting Industry

Do you suffer from mill-mindedness?

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:

  1. What is our mill—that central thing or process that we allow to define us?
  2. Does that thing or process have a secure future?
  3. 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.