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Ask the right questions

Be sure to look at things differentlyI always try to think, in organizations I am a part of and in the work I do for clients how I should play my role as a futurist. What can the futures perspective add that helps? Should my role be to provoke, to inform, or to bring a fresh perspective? How assertive should I be?

It’s tempting to be a capital “F” Futurist, and play that role, as they say in the theater, broadly. To me that means getting in people’s faces with ideas about a bold new future: transformational changes in technology and society, for example.

But sometimes that’s not what will work well for the situation. People with a futures perspective risk tooting on the same trumpet no matter the question at hand, the setting, or who is there. That can do more harm than good. So, temptations aside, I try often to internalize my futures focus and perspectives, and instead work quietly but persistently to make sure that the right questions get asked about the topic at hand.

In anything we do that involves evaluating ideas, planning, or making strategic decisions, we should work with a checklist of critical questions. We need to make sure people consider the right things, ask the right questions, and avoid mental bad habits and thinking traps.

Some of those questions:

Are we talking about the right thing? Have we opened up the question to the right level? For example, an exploration of workplace safety needs to include a lot more than what’s going on in offices and factories, what about people working from home, workers on the road, and people who work outdoors? It is easy to frame the question too narrowly.

Did we consider all the boundary conditions and how they might change? Our tendency is to look at change inside the system or subject we’re exploring, and hold the rest of what’s going on in the world constant. So, for example, a high school building its curriculum might determine that since China has become a critical player in the world, it should add Chinese language to its curriculum. China’s rising influence is important right now. But what cultures and languages will be important in ten or twenty years? Can we prepare our students for those? In fact, too many businesses put themselves in jeopardy by giving all their attention to today’s problems and opportunities without considering how conditions are changing. The future goes wanting.

Are the right people in the room to discuss this? Having the right people in the discussion matters especially for two reasons. First, you need to have people that bring knowledge, experience, and wisdom to the topic at hand. Second, you need to involve the key stakeholders in the discussions, or risk that they will not accept your findings later.

Are we overly influenced by our past interests and sunk investments? For example, if a company is underway with construction of a new facility, it’s hard to break loose the thinking to explore ideas free of the assumption that that facility must be a central part of the organization’s future. Of course, sunk investments matter, and an organization’s assets have to be considered in a view of its future, but they should not make people blind to true change in the world. There’s an old saying that if you have a hammer in your hand, everything is a nail. That’s dangerously narrow thinking, a trap for organizations trying to move successfully forward.

Do we really all understand each other and our assumptions about the future? It’s critical to get everyone’s assumptions about the future out in the open. They powerfully influence perspectives on the future, what information people connect to the problem at hand, and the decisions people make. A frank and full discussion of the future—and there are lots of great foresight tools for facilitating those discussions—can help get those assumptions out of people, discussed, and considered.

Are we accounting for multiple perspectives? For example, on a particular question related to technology, we can tend to respond from the point of view of technology, with technical questions, ideas, and details. What about the personal/social perspectives? What about the institution’s point of view. Hal Linstone laid down some great thinking on this as the TOPs perspectives, Technical, Organizational, and Personal. Ensuring you consider all three can make a difference in the validity of your exploration and decisionmaking. 

Are we really looking at the future? This question is best answered by testing the thinking that you are doing. Are you exploring the possibilities and your aspirations out to the year 2018 or 2023? Can you describe some possibilities in a future year? Are you really talking about a changing world, or are you just talking about catching up with the unfinished business and the unmet needs of today?

You can have your own list of questions, in your mind, or made explicit with your colleagues. Either way the goal is to be sure you don’t focus too narrowly in your thinking or focus on the wrong things. Our fast-changing world makes that too risky.

Seth Godin was on this same wavelength in a recent post on, “Seth’s Blog”.

Image: by fdecomite, via Flickr, creative commons license

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Keith October 1, 2008, 8:52 pm

    I totally agree with this philosophy. Hard to get one’s clients to do but well worth the effort.

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