≡ Menu

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief and loss. To anyone trying to get people to face and accept change or the need to change, the stages ring familiar.

Experts in change management recognize this. They have used the stages in identify what happens when people face change. The stages make sense in foresight too. They are a lens for looking at how people cope with the future.

When you face change, your responses fall on a spectrum. Foresight makes sure you are in the right place.

Reactive — Watching and likely being blindsided by change, and only making a move when forced to do so. Often your action is expensive and not effective. You miss opportunities and risk failure and economic loss.

Responsive — Preparing for and responding to emerging, visible change. You gain agility for responding, and may get ahead of crises and seize opportunities.

Proactive — Anticipating and shaping change. You are ready for crises and sharp change. You can seize opportunities ahead of others.

Never be a victim of change. Anticipate and shape it. Foresight is decisive in making you ready.

1. Ignoring the future (You let today's concerns give you an excuse to not focus on the future) [See: Keep an eye on the future while righting the ship].

2. Shortsightedness (You only think a few years into the future) [See: The foresight gap: what too many organizations get wrong]

3. Mistaking the present for the future (You mistake fixing things and catching up with today for being future-focused) [See: If you're only keeping up you're probably going backwards]

4. Narrowness (You fail to realize your future will be shaped by a much larger one which you need to understand) [See: Foresight illustrated: choosing how broad a view to take while exploring the future]

5. All else held equal (You let your attention focus on just one change, and assume everything else stays the same) [A solution is to use scenarios– fleshed out views of the future — to make sure you explore how multiple changes will unfold. See: Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future

6. Lack of vision (You have not thought through nor communicated the future you want or expect) [See: You can't be what you can't see]

7. Deafness (You don't listen to others, or pay attention to signals of change) [See: Talk to the frog]

For more on pitfalls and "deadly sins" for foresight see: 13 mistakes you make when exploring the future

For good habits in foresight that can fight these sins, see:  27 habits of highly effective futurists

Image: detail from Hieronymus Bosch, The seven deadly sins and the four last things, circa 1500. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public domain.

Don't look where the magician wants you to

Magicians rely on tricking the eye and the mind to dazzle and puzzle us. How they do it offers cautions for exploring the future. We are easily tricked by the signals of change or blinded to them.

How do the things magicians do trick us?

Magician Teller of Penn and Teller (the silent one) explained ways a magician's tricks the audience in a recent article. Below are the tricks with my interpretation of parallel issues in exploring the future:

  • Exploit pattern recognition — Magicians make viewers trick themselves by relying on our pattern recognition. In foresight, we also interpret things from the known and the familiar. That obscures important unknown and unfamiliar change. 
  • Make the secret a lot more trouble than it seems worth — Magicians rely on their audiences not believing the magician would, for example, modify every card in an card deck to enable an illusion. Audiences assume something simpler must be going on. In foresight, we reach for the easier-to-understand implication or outcome. For example, we think the future will be a lot like today, with a few high-profile and highly-visible changes.
  • Make 'em laugh — Jokes distract audiences. In futures, we fall victim to 1). our own jokes about the future–"bet you're wondering where your flying car is" which make light of change or even foresight itself, or 2). others' sense that all this future stuff is a bit wild and crazy, so why look closely at it? 
  • Do the trick outside the frame — A magician get us to focus on their right hand while the left is "out of frame" hiding something in a pocket, for example. In futures, things that matter happen further afield than we think is relevant. What's right in front of us distracts us. 

So you risk being tricked when you set out to understand the future. The solution is to know that, acknowledge it, and fight it all you can. Don't look where the magician wants you to.

Image: By trialsanderrors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Getting an organization to pay attention to the future is hard. There are people you meet along the way that help and others that throw obstacles in your path. Here are the five people you’re likely to meet along the way:

1. The Booster

The Booster lets you follow the path you’ve mapped out. Once you’re on it, they back you 100%. Boosters can be future-oriented themselves. They know what questions they have about the future and why the answers will be valuable. They clear a path for you to let you guide the exploration. They are your advocate and sometimes your collaborator in the work.

LESSON: Work as closely as you can with the Booster to align with their specific interests and goals. Answering their questions about the future gives you license to communicate any other insights, even sobering ones, about the future. Be prepared for this client’s own sophistication and knowledge about the future. Do your homework for a more fruitful relationship.

2. The Enthusiast

The Enthusiast is a gee-whiz fan of futures ideas. They thrill at the ideas that bubble up when you explore what's possible. They are impatient to break past near-term thinking. They have a reputation in their organization for having “out there” ideas. Your relationship with the Enthusiast can be fun and fruitful, but it also has traps.

LESSON: The Enthusiast may have a narrow interest in the futures cool factor, and much less interest in careful efforts to map and interpret change. Understand that you are, at times, a tool for the Enthusiast’s goal of shaking things up, and only that. Try to build interest in a more comprehensive view forward based on their enthusiasm. Their gut interest in new things can spark a passion for strategic foresight.

3. The Organization Man

The Organization Man is for exploring the future but fiddles with the process. The Organization Man believes in what you are doing, but fears others won’t. They bring up organizational norms and rules, and to look for conventional ways to measure outcomes that fit their organization’s usual business processes. They will pressure you to make things palatable to the organization and take out scary or sobering conclusions.

LESSON: The Organization Man needs reassurance. Understand their organization as well as you can. Be ready to ease concerns or even respond in the ways they crave. They may struggle to find a “safe” fit with something new and strange—futures. Though you may feel constrained by their worrying, they are doing you a favor; you can learn how to do a better job delivering insights to an inward-focused organization.

4. The Skeptic

The Skeptic is predisposed to fear or at least not have faith in the foresight process. They may say that it won’t work, or people won’t go for it. They may think it’s a waste of time. Often the skeptic will say, “We tried that in the 1990s, and it didn’t work.” If you are lucky, you’ll face a person who is Skeptic but still is willing to engage new ideas anyway.

LESSON: Be ready for cynics/skeptics. What can you do to respond? Work to get them to arrive at their own new insights. Work to build readiness for ideas about change. Be patient. Show the reasons, the power of new ideas about change. Winning over the skeptic can give you a strong advocate and will make your work stronger, clearer, and more compelling.

5. Big Foot

Big Foot will not allow an “out of control” process like futures to be as free as it should, if they allow it at all. “Big foot” is far more interested in order than discovery. Big Foot’s tendency is to subvert all parts of the process that lead toward unknown outcomes. They are not sold on the process to begin with. They may even be acting to unsure deniability if the process upsets anybody.

LESSON: Organizations want to protect what exists and avoid risk. Big Foot takes that to heart. You need to decide if you can work with this counterforce. Some potential clients are prewired for a bad fit. You are best off if you can find a true advocate that can endorse and guide the process, and get clear of Big Foot.


Do you see yourself in one of the five types? If so, I hope you’re a Booster or Enthusiast. Even then, you may need to give yourself some coaching, to be sure you are not in the way of the process of getting folks to explore the future.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to the people I’ve worked with over the past thirty years. Whether I liked how it happened or not you showed me what it means to introduce long-term thinking in organizations.

And of course I based my title on Mitch Albom’s novel: the Five People You Meet in Heaven. Thanks for the inspiration. 

Environmental scanning (also known as horizon scanning) is part of anticipating the future. It's done by systematically gathering information about current and changing conditions. Good foresight requires environmental scanning for understanding emerging change.

Scanning is a lot of work, but other people already do it for you. Being efficient means scanning the scanners.

How do you scan the scanners?
Find the bloggers, news sites, podcasts, etc. that cover the range of news and information you need to monitor. Online sources, including tons of free ones, do this work well. You can fine-tune what you look at to tap well-curated sources.

My interests flop all over the place, and I find value in a rich mix of places. It's an ever-changing landscape of sources, but some I find valuable these days are: Reddit Futurology, PSFK, Slinking Toward RetirementBoing Boing, and various of my savvy friends' twitter feeds. 

My colleagues are scanners who curate insights with a focus on the Future of Packaging on Twitter at @packfutur, and on the future of work at @50PlusatWork on Twitter and the Future of Work on Facebook.

Your best strategy is to find a manageable set of sources. "Automate" your monitoring by subscribing to email newsletters, using social media, or RSS feeds. That means information will flow to you. You won't have to remember to check multiple sources.

Keep fine-tuning your set of sources. Ditch anything that wastes your time. Add sources when you have a particular focus or project. 

One caution. You can be too tailored in your strategy. Allow in some variety, alternative views, and serendipity. You will make discoveries that way, instead of allowing confirmation bias to get ahold of you.

How often is foresight (or the lack of it) the weakest link in an organization?

There are always constraints that limit an organization’s progress. Eliyahu M. Goldratt brought this idea to management science in his “Theory of Constraints”. And one constraint is the “weakest link” for an organization. The bottleneck created when packaging equipment runs more slowly than the production line is a common example.

Constrained foresight is a bottleneck
Often the constraint is embodied in the organization's policies and paradigms (see: LINK). Engrained beliefs or habits restrict fresh thinking and thwart change. Foresight may be the victom.

What limits foresight? Low tolerance for talk about the future, a lack of awareness of its value, and insufficient time spent constrain foresight. People in organizations are busy and stressed. Leaders rarely reward people for breaking away from their “real work” to explore change.

Insufficient foresight harms an organization’s ability to change, its capacity for product/service/brand innovation, and the quality of its strategymaking. The organization flies blind into the future. 

Five things you can do about it: 

1. Acknowledge the value and unmet need for foresight. This means building a constituency for futures discussions and for including views 5 or 10 years out in strategic discussions.

2. Find forward-thinking people in the organization that can connect with each other, collaborate, and extend thinking into the future. They can meet ad hoc, or better, regularly for futures discussions.

3. Add futures thinking to your diet. Others are doing valuable work for you, free. Follow bloggers and news feeds that curate and interpret trends and discover leading edge change. And pay it forward—share what you find with your colleagues, and tell them why it’s important.

4. Harness the tools of foresight: environmental scanning and trend analysis and scenario planning, especially.

5. Convene cross-functional groups to assess the organization’s systems for their futures-readiness. An outside futurist can bring the tools and instincts you need to make sure these discussions keep to a longer view. (Call me! 202-271-0444 and jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz)

You can't innovate in a vacuum. Foresight opens new space for exploring change and discovering opportunities.

In product innovation, it’s essential to look beyond the boundaries of the current market for your products. You need to explore at least five or ten years into the future for fresh insights. And you need to test your assumptions about the marketplace and how it's changing. 

In brand innovation, a futures view tests assumptions about emerging change in values, attitudes, lifestyles, and consumption. It helps you fine tune your understanding of how consumers will understand and value a brand.

Without those enhanced views, you risk misunderstanding the patterns of change and missing opportunities. And you raise the risk of product failure or a mis-fire in marketing or brand development. 

What you can do

For the most robust innovation efforts, build foresight into your work. Innovation teams should discuss leading-edge change and where it may steer the marketplace. Making future outcomes explicit sharpens the view of emerging needs and opportunities.

A baseline environmental scan of the most critical forces and trends shaping society will fuel a team's creative thinking and fortify its understanding of the marketplace.

Scenarios help you test product/service ideas against a clearer view of the future.

Those are just two foresight tools among many that will enhance and enrich your innovation processes.


You probably need a futurist to help, let me know. jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

Humans are good at pattern recognition. But we see patterns based on personal experience and things that are close and familiar. This is called confirmation bias because that act of recognition typically confirms what we already believe. See also: Confirmation Bias in Foresight: Scanning to Find What You Already Believe. That is the biggest and most routine bias in observing change. It's more an instinct and even if people know better, they lapse into thinking that way. 

There is no "everybody"

Converse shoesA great example is our assumptions about Millennials. It's common to see them as tech-savvy, urban, Starbucks-frequenting, plaid-wearing, indie-band-listening. That stereotype is a shorthand we use for understanding and explaining them, but it's dangerously narrow. It has been fixed in our heads and gets reinforced all the time. Then we look for it in the world and say to ourselves, "there's another one".

In fact, we base much of our view of the Millennials on what is a few percent, total, of people born 1980 to 2000. There is no "they all" you can lump together. What's everyone else born between 1980 and 2000 doing?

The same is true for Baby Boomers, Gen X, Hispanics, immigrants, Republicans, etc. etc. There is no everybody.

What to do about it

1. Check yourself. To understand the world and how it's changing better, examine your assumptions about what's going on. Assess your biases and face them. Write them down, say them out loud. Say, "of course I am biased because I am _________."

2. Step away from your worldview. Do what you can to deepen your understanding of others. This means getting past stereotypes, and wholesale categories. Read and view stories told in others' voices. Talk to strangers. Listen.

3. Walk a mile in another's shoes. Immerse yourself in other communities where you can. Watch and listen. Read and view stories from diverse viewpoints. Follow Instagram or photoblogs from places and cultures and groups far and far different from you. Think of someone quite unlike you. Then, look at things with those different eyes. For example, if you are exploring change for a consumer product, go to a store that sells products like that, "wearing" a different persona. What would that person see and care about? You can't get 100% there, but you will move off the safe zone of things that are familiar and comfortable to you.

4. Be ready to be wrong. Assume your conclusions will often be wrong. This means, despite your hard work at trying to transcend your biases, assume you won't get there every time. Knowing you might be biased will protect you from relying too much on your "certainty" about what's true.

Take these steps and you'll stop just confirming what you think you know. You will start knowing new things.

Another post: Talk to the Frog, has a parable to tell that relates to this post.

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.