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What “thinking like a futurist” means – and why it’s so important for everyone to do

Futurists - or scenario planners, if you prefer - cannot predict the future. What we do is ‘intentionally build the capacity to see the implications and meaning of change’. There are tools that anyone can learn to help them do this; and these are tools that everyone in every organisation should learn to apply everyday in a fast moving, disruptive world.


Describing oneself as a ‘futurist’ has its risks! My colleagues and I have had some interesting responses to that descriptor when required to state ‘occupation’ on either a form of some sort or within the context of an informal conversation. There's some expectation that we can somehow predict the future. If we could, we'd be trillionaires, without doubt. Of course, no-one can predict the future, but it is possible to anticipate disruption, prepare for change and remove surprise from our systems better than the average person or company does.

According to a definition from academic futurist, Prof Jim Dator, what a futurist does is to ‘intentionally build the capacity to see the implications and meaning of change’.

Of course, there are more impressive definitions than this one but for us in TomorrowToday, this is the one that makes sense and is easy to both explain and understand. Let’s dissect these aspects in order to add further insight and richness to what ‘thinking like a futurist’ means:

Intentionally building capacity: This is a process, much like getting physically fit. It doesn’t just happen in one session and requires both discipline and perseverance. It is in essence getting ‘future-fit’. This is ‘intentional work’ and exactly how one does this will largely depend on constraints such as time, capabilities and the people involved. It is something that can and should be measured over time and although there is ‘always more than can be done’ it does promise a point where it is both natural and seamless. The correct starting point is to agree that developing strategic insight skills is necessary and important, and allocating time to do this during team meetings and work hours.

See: This ‘seeing’ leads to ‘understanding’. It is a seeing of something that previously remained hidden or was out of sight. It is helpful to understand that ‘we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are’. This means that identifying some of our own biases and lenses, the things that contribute to our ‘worldview’ is an important part of the ‘seeing’. Much like building capacity this is never-ending work and understanding the ‘subjectivity’ of our ‘objectivity’ is necessary and important in opening up conversations and discovering newer and deeper perspectives. Learning how to 'see' change therefore involves learning how to identify and overcome our inherent cognitive biases, and also developing skills to scan the horizon for disruptive megatrends that have the potential to dramatically change the ways in which our industry and business actually works.

Implications: The ‘implications’ can take two forms. One is a ‘connecting the dots’. In other words, identifying how seemingly random events connect in an interconnected world. Another form of implication is to see it as ripples that emerge from a single event or innovation. Ripples spread from the centre and there is a certain pattern and predictability to them. Implications can be in form of ‘random dots’ that need connecting or as ripples that need to be anticipated. One of the most important tools in a futurist's toolkit is ensuring an ecosystem of different worldviews and insights are available to look at and analyse the trends that have been identified. Learning to ask better questions - questions driven by curiosity, rather than mere clarification - is also important.

Meaning: This really is the ‘sense-making’ part of the process. Here it is helpful to have access to frameworks and models that can be applied. The ‘sharpest tool in the toolbox’ for meaning is narrative or storytelling. What stories (or maybe, in this context, you prefer the label 'scenarios') do is to provide context, content, coherency, connection and can be used as a catalyst for change.

Change: This is the overriding context for the futurist. Of course the pace and extent of the change and disruption can and does vary but context is always important in framing the ‘thinking like a futurist’ process or journey. Using helpful frameworks to better understand the context and the prevailing change is useful but learning to live with change and uncertainty is the overarching context for futurists and in essence forms the very air that a futurist breathes.

So what does it mean to ‘think like a futurist?’ The (very) short answer is: To understand the implications and meaning of change!

Given that, everyone ought to ‘think like a futurist’ and for those in leadership – it is simply not optional!

Co-authored with my TomorrowToday Global colleague, Keith Coats.

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