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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.

Being a futurist means believing in progress for human society. And it means working for that progress, even when progress seems threatened.

I look, when big things happen, for any evidence that society as a whole has learned something. No matter the circumstance, good or bad, learning means we have gained something. When we share that learning as a society, it is most powerful of all.

The 2017 solar eclipse that crossed the United States was one of those learning moments for Americans. Hundreds of millions of people shared the experience. The hour-and-a-half shared experience was not dampened by division or politics.

The eclipse may have inpsired millions of American children to go and learn more about science, about the earth, the sun, the planets. Where I watched, I was with a specialist in space policy and a Phd student in Astrophyics. We talked about whether more students will now take a course in astronomy, or even major in it in college. Was it good for science? I think and hope so.

Millions of Americans heard about it, millions took a look. The First Family viewed the eclipse from the White House’s Truman Porch. That too was part of the collective experience. Did the President look without eclipse glasses? We even learned from that minor moment of controversy.

My best guess is that American society tends to take two steps forward, then one back. And this experience may be no different. But at least there’s some movement forward. The future gained something.

Eclipse photo: Jane Galbraith Mahaffie

What keeps an organization stuck in the present (or struggling to get out of the past)?:

  • Holding on to sunk investment — Organizations hold tight to the big systems and assets they have invested in, often limiting their ability to move elsewhere, but also framing their thinking about what they can and should do.
  • Tradition — For example, social organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Freemasons have deep-set traditions that factor in their ability to even conceive of change. 
  • Inability to change the business model — Corporations and nonprofits face limits on their ability to evolve or jump to a new revenue or business model, for example to scale up or down their revenues, sales or donor volume, etc.
  • Defined by others — For example, the United States Air Force struggles to take up roles in cybersecurity. It is defined historically and in the public eye by its role for 70 years operating military aircraft. Similarly, organizations are often defined by Wall Street. A blue chip firm isn’t supposed to suddenly act like a start up, plunging into a new marketplace, or taking its operations and investment in a new direction.
  • Market drifting away — For example, cable outlets such as ESPN may have a steady-state view of their markets and an interest in continuing to push for market share and viewership, even as entertainment viewing has moved to mobile devices, non-real-time viewing
  • Fear of change/inability to imagine positive change — Not having a positive vision of what’s ahead, or at least a sense of taking intentional action to try for a positive future leaves organizations locked in current, often defensive behavior.
  • Pollyannism — Excessive optimism — the habit of thinking things will come around or that there are no threats that really matter. A simple human tendency or temperament, this can also be an affliction of whole organizations.

What to do about it — How to get un-stuck

1. Inventory how your organization is stuck. Pull together a few colleagues who you think are ready to think differently. Together, inventory the way your organization is “stuck”. Consider each of the items above. Which applies to your organization. How?

2. Identify critical forces of change. Make the case for change. Decide what those critical forces mean. Do they compel you to make changes? What is stopping you?

3. Pose sobering, critical “what ifs” for the organization. These should be powerful changes that would require the organization to change. What do they imply you need to do differently?

4. Get beyond key biases. Tell each other what they are. List them. What are they rooted in? See more here.

5.http://Setting aside biases Armed with these self-assessments, open up the conversation about needed change. Go at it. Don’t backslide!

Other prior posts with some good insights on this:

Image: Han Solo in Carbonite, William Warby, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution license

6 Foresight hacks

Hacks are shortcuts for getting things done and being clever about it. Foresight needs hacks too. And there are great ones that fit into real, busy lives. Here are six that you can use to get a better sense of your future: 

1. Scan the scanners–Find the bloggers, news sites, tweets, podcasts, etc. that select what matters from the wide range of news and information you need to monitor. They are doing work for you, free. More here.

2. Use push–Use email subscriptions, rss feeds, social media follows, etc. to make sure that fresh insights, in the appropriate volumes, flow to you, so you don’t have to remember to go and look at them.

3. Automate serendipity–As you do 1 and 2, be sure you don’t create your own, finely-tuned echo chamber. Find sources that give you breadth and variety. Use push tools online and develop the habits that make sure you encounter things to open and change your mind.

4. Get out from behind the mouse–Going with no. 3, and running over your efforts in 1 and 2, be sure you don’t only learn from electronic sources. Go places, talk to people, see things. Experience the changing world. Surprise yourself.

5. Lurk–Take a note from great novelists—listen in on others’ conversations. This can be about exploring online discussions/social media, even without participating. There area tons of places where people share ideas. You can dip in, search, follow, or just visit, and open up a front for encountering new ideas. You don’t have to subscribe or even have an account, and you don’t have to participate.

6. Take a futurist to lunch–Believe me, they want lunch! Ask most futurists any question and they’re off and running. You will get all sorts of insights. For the cost of lunch, or coffee, or an online post, your effort will pay off. 

Decide what you most want to explore about your future. Then try a hack or two. No matter what, it will expand and enrich your view of the future.

More “hacks” are among my 27 Habits of highly effective futurists 

This post distinguishes management, strategic planning and foresight. It suggests how the “long view” and global perspective of futurists, which is at the core of foresight, also benefits management and strategic planning.

Here are some definitions:

  • Management—design and orchestration of processes to maintain an organization’s operations and achieve its defined objectives. Near-term, generally focused on the present, and centered on the organization and its current operating environment.
  • Strategic planning—identifying and prioritizing goals and objectives for an organization’s near-term future, generally 3 to 5 years. Focused on the existing organization, it considers, or should consider, external environment impacts and change.
  • Foresight—long-range exploration of change, generally 10 years plus, and interpretation of possible futures for their organizational implications. It takes a broad, often global/contextual view of external forces shaping the future, and looks deep into the future to identify unmet challenges and emerging opportunities.

Managers are understandably focused on the present and on day-to-day management. The best are fine-tuning their processes and systems as they run. Others are playing catch up, implementing changes to put things right and catch up to existing demands. In either case, the work they are doing is management

Managers have an instinctive action mindset. Their framing is on the organization and its sector and marketplace. That close-focus holds thinking in organizations in the present and the near at hand. It constrains exploration of more impactful change. The risk is an organization with blinders on, one that engages in a steady pattern of fire, ready, aim

Strategic planning arises from this close-focus and near-term context. It works inside the habits of business managers, and usually falls short of engaging long-term thinking about new challenges and possibilities.

The solution is to separate execution from exploration. True leadership means pressing for a long view to discover more potential change and opportunity even as they maintain operations. With that stretch thinking comes a promise to “bring it home to today” which reassures stakeholders that the exploration is relevant and valuable.


Today’s leaders are pressed to focus on strategic foresight and many are responding. But it’s not always clear what strategic foresight means. What do leaders need to know?

  1. It has to be long term. For true clarity on your future, you need a view that goes at least five or ten years out. You need to see past immediate concerns and explore and envision real change. See: The short-term view and the long-term view
  2. There are no “answers.” The future is uncertain, with a range of potential outcomes. So strategic foresight doesn’t mean prediction, it means clarifying patterns of change and modeling potential outcomes and choices. See: Foresight illustrated: The mother of all futures diagrams
  3. You have to look beyond your usual domain. New challenges and undiscovered opportunities will often come from outside your sector or market. See: All futures are global
  4. You need to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit. The actions you can take now to fix things and keep going are obvious, whether or not you are able to accomplish them. They are the low-hanging fruit. Addressing bigger challenges and opportunities, and forging a successful future, means reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit to bigger systems that will need to change. See: Making change beyond the low-hanging fruit
  5. The foresight process itself is valuable. Wider participation in the processes of strategic foresight strengthens organizational foresight, agility, and learning. You need others’ inputs, and you need others to be a part of innovation and decisionmaking. And everyone benefits from the time spent learning, exploring, and imagining. See: Noun=bad, verb=good and Planning, scanning, forecasting—it’s the verb not the noun
  6. You must confront unpleasant truths, not just hopes and dreams. That means “what ifs” that include catastrophic or transformational change. From those scenarios can come fresh thinking about a positive path forward. See: The unspoken scenario
  7. Success means forging a culture of foresight. Strategic foresight can’t be a once-in-a-while activity. Organizational habits of mind and action should stand on a base of clear and regular thinking about the future. See: What is a foresight culture? and The characteristics of a foresightful organization
  8. The future is yours to shape. Finally, the future is not inevitable. You can and must shape it yourself. Don’t wait for it to happen to you. See: Don’t be a victim of change

My work is all about helping leaders do these things. Let me know if I can shed more light on this, or help you kick your efforts up to a new level. Jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444 More about my work is at www.leadingfuturists.biz.

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.” — Association of Professional Futurists

That’s a good definition, rooted, as you’d expect, in considerations of the future. And it nicely characterizes what I do. But what’s even more fundamental about my work is getting people to think differently.

When I work with groups to help them explore change, what I realize is how much they already know, at least about the near-term future. But their view is too narrow. They need help: advice, tools, an independent pair of eyes, to see past the immediate, change their perspective, and get somewhere new. They need to think differently.

Foresight is a superb capability. It jumps your thinking beyond what’s in your inbox, beyond what’s going on today that is soaking up your time and attention. It opens up a space to anticipate change, and to do so with colleagues.

But that fresh thinking needn’t only be about the future. Opening a door and looking out, encountering something new, even in the here and now, is already transformational. Of course, foresight helps. It keeps you from falling back into narrower thinking patterns. It helps makes sure you think differently.

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”   –William Bruce Cameron, sociologist (often attributed to Einstein)

We put a lot on measurement. We say, “what gets measured gets done.” What we can measure takes priority over the subjective and unmeasured.

We expect proof of progress that we can measure. Numbers that we can report or publish prove success. Statistical reports and year-on-year comparisons dominate leadership meetings.

But measurement weakens or fails when we’re dealing with the future. The future does not exist. There is no data. There is nothing we can touch or feel or measure.


1. You can’t measure something that hasn’t happened
The results of a policy, program change, or new business model unfold over time. Any measurable outcome is in the future. We need to start the change process now, ahead of any chance at measured assessment. Yet often managers look for immediate quantitative evidence of success.

EXAMPLE: RotoRooter placed radio ads in my city in the 1970s. Then I didn’t hear any ads for 20+ years. But they had planted an idea (and a jingle) in my head that I used thirty years later when I had a blocked drain. RotoRooter could not have measured that payoff of the ads in the 1970s.

2. New or emerging things are hard to measure and our traditional measurement tools don’t fit
New things need new measures. But we don’t always know what those should be. Or, we may think the measurement tools we have fit when they don’t. Our measurement can give results that lead to wrong assessments and decisions.

EXAMPLE: When a consumer sees a promotional Instagram post, some kind of brand message has gotten across. But such social media marketing is new. What’s the value of that Instagram post to the brand owner? Is it the equal of a TV or print ad? We have numerical measurement tools for those: circulation, impressions, and reach. Do those work for social media messages? We don’t know enough to say. But instinct tells us to use the social media anyway. Our instinct is surely right.

3. We can’t measure some things that matter
Some of the most interesting changes in society and commerce are those that are hard or impossible to measure. Social phenomena, psychic outcomes, and culture and behavior change don’t fit our measurement tools.

EXAMPLE: In education, we don’t know all the payoffs from experiential learning, from collaboration, or from the application of new technology. Common standardized testing doesn’t directly assess those programs. The intellectual outcomes for a child won’t be clear or measured until years later. But mandated standardized testing has to correlate specific parts of curricula to measured assessments, today.

What to do about this

In strategic conversation, consider changes that you won’t be able to assess quantitatively. Allow strategic action that has weak or no measures. Get beyond the tyranny of measurement. To do otherwise is to hamstring organizations and limit positive change.

Image: G. Combe, Elements of Phrenology, 1824, via Wikimedia Commons.

Change is messy

It’s easy to fall into assuming:

  • No change is happening because we cannot see or feel it (a famous metaphor is the frog in heating water. AKA change blindness)
  • Change is gradual (after-the-fact simplification of history can lead to this)
  • Change is sudden (forces, trends, and evolutionary change are not plain to us until a moment of crisis or a high-profile event, e.g. Occupy Wall Street marches in 2011-12 or the risk of extremist terror after 9-11).
  • A small change is significant (this is aligned with confirmation bias, in which you place excess significance on something you are particularly aware of or interested in).

Understanding history helps us see that change does not work in only one way. It’s not always gradual. It happens whether we’re focused on the changes underway or not. It includes sudden shifts, like Post-9/11 change as well as gradual ones, like the rising influence of the Baby Boom after World War II.

And change happens;simultaneously for each element of society; populations and communities, natural systems, technologies, etc. Some change gradually. Others jump forward. And the changes all interact. It’s messy.

The future will emerge the same way. The future will be messy.

Image: James Lee, via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license.

Stepping into a 2017 classroom, a school teacher from 1917 or even 1817 would recognize where she was. Formal education long ago settled into Flatland. We put students in rectangular rooms, seated in arrangements of chairs and desks. They use books, papers, chalk and whiteboards, and tablets or computers. They follow fixed, planned curricula.

In fact, the language we use keeps us in Flatland. Our words — school, classroom, teacher, grade, class — connote that enduring Flatland system.

It’s time to finally break loose from Flatland. Here are four metaphors for the future learning place that can open up thinking:

A black box theater — A place where learners and their helpers can arrange and rearrange their learning spaces with total flexibility.

A forest — Learning in and from nature, anywhere and everywhere. Learn about the world in the world.

A maker space — The learning place has tools, materials, and room for learners to experiment, create, and collaborate.

A diner — A place to be with friends and encouonter strangers and to learn together.

There are lots of other metaphors that can help change how we think about education. What are your ideas? Please share them in the comment section, below.


For more on the future of education, see: Education futures.

Images: all Creative Commons Attribution License. Black Box Theater, Beso17, Wikimedia Commons; Finland forest, Tiia Monto, Wikimedia Commons; Maker space. Makerspace der SLUB, Germany, 2014, Albert Steinmetz; Al Mac’s Diner, Fall River Mass, 2012. Source: “Al Mac’s Diner-Restaurant Fall River MA 2012” by Kenneth C. Zirkel.