How to think like a Futurist

leadership thinking during uncertainty

This summer I facilitated a virtual session with the Orlando Speculative Futures. We spent two-hours discussing, ideating, and considering — How to Think Like a Futurist, Even in Turbulent Times.

For those trained and working in the field of strategic foresight and futures work, we know the answer. But, for many outside the discipline, the work seems strange, impossible, or vague. I often get asked a similar line of questioning when working with new businesses, organizations, and teams. It goes a bit like this…

  • What is a futurist?
  • Can a futurist really help my company?
  • How can our team innovate?
  • How can you actually help us?
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Foresight 101

Foresight is a field of work that looks — not 3–5 years in the future but — decades into the future. By imagining futures that may exist in 20, 25, 30 years, present leaders create and shape a strategy that allows for their organization’s long-term sustainability.

Benefits of foresight include…

  • Improving business strategies
  • Leveraging innovation practices
  • Enhancing personal planning
  • Enriching an individual’s leadership style
  • Growing as an effective Futures-Minded Innovator

How do you become a Leadership Futurist?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

My journey to futures work is rooted in my disappointment in corporate America, as I had experienced it. Early in my career, I was unimpressed with the lack of fresh perspective, creativity, and big picture thinking that I noticed. I was unimpressed with the lack of engagement among my peers, and the lack of leadership I perceived existed. And this led me on a journey of pursuing a Doctor of Strategic Leadership.

During my doctoral program, I was exposed to and studied strategic foresight — a life-changing perspective for me. Foresight empowers leaders to create change and take action today, knowing that their influence is crafting tomorrow.

Troubling Leadership Data

Gallup research shows us that the estimated cost of poor management and lost productivity from not-engaged or actively disengaged employees in the U.S. is between $960 billion to $1.2 trillion, while globally is nearly $7 trillion (It’s the Manager, 2019).

  • In 2010, 28% of employees in the U.S. identified as engaged at work, and by 2018, only 32% identified as engaged (It’s the Manager, 2019).
  • Globally in 2010, 11% of employees worldwide were engaged at work, and by 2018, only 15% identified as engaged (It’s the Manager, 2019).

All the while, Talent Keepers (2019) shows us that in 2014, 71% of employers carved out some level of funding for employee engagement — but in 2018, it decreased to 54%.

Studies even show the differences in performance between engaged and actively disengaged business/work units (It’s the Manager, 2019):

  • 41% lower absenteeism
  • 70% fewer safety incidences
  • 40% fewer defects
  • 10% higher customer rating
  • 17% higher productivity
  • 20% higher sales
  • 21% higher profitability

Where Are All the Leaders?

So, the question is — Where are all the leaders? Where is the leadership? How can leaders impact their contexts?

Academic research, paired with consulting practice, inspired me to create Stronger People Leaders: A Leader Development Workbook. Stronger People Leaders is a pioneering leader development approach crafted around six critical roles for every People Leader:

  • Forever Learner
  • People Developer
  • Values Guardian
  • Futures-Minded Innovator
  • Strategic Thinker
  • Culture Creator

Did You Catch the Futures-Minded Innovator Role?

Being passionate about leadership demands that an individual leverages foresight within their context. Consider two insights, in particular, from Canton in Future Smart (2015).

“You cannot use yesterday’s tools, ideas, business models, or tech to deal with the changes coming in business. You need an entirely new mindset, tool set, organization structure, and supply chain” (Future Smart, 2015).

“Future smart leaders… they shape the future. They are inventors of tomorrow, pioneers of the future” (Future Smart, 2015).

Practicing Futures, Foresight, and Innovation

Stronger People Leaders (2020) dives deep into the role of a Futures-Minded Innovator with a chapter dedicated to principles and practices for current leaders to leverage in their context. And, paramount to a People Leader’s work in the role of a Futures-Minded Innovator is their understanding of the future.

“A People Leader knows that the future is not a randomly occurring event or outcome. A People Leader takes the opportunity to:

  • Influence their organization to understand futures.
  • Prepare strategies that can thrive in those possible futures.
  • Implement strategies to shape the desired future.”

(Stronger People Leaders, 2020)

Practices that Futurists Use

Stronger People Leaders walks through several exercises and practices for People Leaders to use in their context. Two, in particular, are the Change vs. Benefit Analysis and the Futures Wheel.

Change vs. Benefit Analysis

“The Change vs. Benefit Analysis is a futures-minded technique for an individual to use as they explore possible future impacts that stem from a decision or change. The insights gathered from the Change vs. Benefit Analysis are useful to decision-making processes” (Stronger People Leaders, 2020).

Futures Wheel

“The Futures Wheel is a tool for a People Leader to use when considering possible implications (both positive and negative) that may arise due to a trend, change, event, or decision. It is a proactive way to map impact. Insights from the Futures Wheel exercise are most valuable when viewed as an interactive exercise where diverse perspectives engage the exercise. The exercise produces both opportunities and cautions for a team to consider” (Stronger People Leaders, 2020).

Collaborative & Iterative Work

The value in these practices — regardless of which foresight tool — is the collaborative, iterative work. Foresight and futures work is not a solo endeavor — whether in-person or virtually. Much of the value is the perspective and feedback that individuals with varying backgrounds, roles, and connections offer during the brainstorming sessions. Leaders seeking to bring foresight work to their organizations or teams, often benefit from partnering with an Innovation Practitioner who can facilitate a space of safety, collaboration, and openness across the group.

Thinking like a futurist is ultimately about envisioning possible futures and making present decisions to bring out desired futures. This type of thinking is valuable in any circumstance — but especially valuable during turbulent times such as the global pandemic.

Think About Your Current Context

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

At this point, reflect for a moment. Think about your current context. What is an ongoing challenge you are facing? What is an ongoing challenge your team is facing? Have you considered how foresight practices may benefit your work?

What about your organization?