Futures Thinking: Asking the Question

What do you want to know (about tomorrow) today?

In Futures Thinking: The Basics, I offered up an overview of how to engage in a foresight exercise. Today, as the next piece in this occasional series, I'll take a look at the first step in such a process.

"Asking the Question" is the first step in a formal futures thinking project. At first glance, it should be easy--after all, you should know what you're trying to figure out. Unfortunately, while it may be simple to ask a question, asking the right question is much more challenging It's easy to ask questions that are too vague, too narrow, or assume the answer; it's much more difficult to ask a question that can elicit both surprises and useful results.

Magic 8-BallRemember, the goal of structured futures thinking is to come up with a picture of possible futures that will help to inform strategic decisions. The answers you'll get from a futures exercise are rarely cut-and-dried, but ideally will help you make your decision more thoughtfully. Futures thinking isn't a Magic 8-Ball, a process where all you need to ask is "Should we do X?" (and getting "Ask Again Later" as a result is neither useful nor surprising).

It's a subtle point, but I tend to find it useful to talk about strategic questions in terms of dilemmas, not problems. Problem implies solution--a fix that resolves the question. Dilemmas are more difficult, typically situations where there are no clearly preferable outcomes (or where each likely outcome carries with it some difficult contingent elements). Futures thinking is less useful when trying to come up with a clear single answer to a particular problem, but can be extremely helpful when trying to determine the best response to a dilemma. The difference is that the "best response" may vary depending upon still-unresolved circumstances; futures thinking helps to illuminate possible trigger points for making a decision.

One important point about the difference between problems and dilemmas: with dilemmas, you will generally have a sense of the different possible responses, and have to make an intelligent choice between them. With problems, the solution is almost by definition hidden, and must be discovered. Futures thinking is much more robust when dealing with dilemmas.

That's because what you're doing with a futures exercise is trying to draw out the range of conditions in which your choices play out--the internal and (especially) external factors that will shape outcomes. You can then play your initial strategic choices against the different resulting futures. Bear in mind that this can sometimes have surprising results. Although a futures exercise asking "where should I build my widget factory?" may be too broad, the more narrow exercise of "should I build my widget factory in China or India?" may well lead to a determination that neither really provides the desired results.

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As I noted in Futures Thinking: The Basics, another aspect of asking the question is figuring out the time frame for the exercise. This typically comes down to two key issues: how long will it take to implement the plan you're pondering; and how long into the implementation do you want to test the results. If it takes three years to set up the widget factory, a five year target for the future exercise would be useful to think through initial operating environment, while a 12 year exercise will help to think about what things will be like over time.

One trick that I find useful in determining the target date is to think about political cycles in the operating environment. For something that looks primarily at the United States, for example, eight years out works well because it guarantees that whoever has the presidency at the moment will be out of power, so narratives about the current political leadership (pro or con) have less salience. A similar process works nicely for most regions with relatively predictable political cycles.

Another technique that can be useful is to think about two or three key drivers that you're already familiar with, and look for any upcoming inflection points in their ongoing evolutions. If you're looking at mobile technologies, you might target a point after planned roll-outs of 4G wireless networks. Regulations coming into effect, changes in resource availability or pricing, and demographic shifts can all play similar roles.

One last note: even if you're satisfied with the question you're going to examine through a futures exercise, don't be afraid to reconsider it as the exercise progresses. "Am I asking the right question?" should come up repeatedly over the course of the process. You may end up discovering that a better question is out there, or that you're on the right track. Either way, the practice of reexamining your own assumptions and expectations will inevitably prove a useful part of the process.

Images: Instrument of Evil? / CC BY 2.0 by Greeblie; Horns of a Dilemma / CC BY 2.0 by Symphoney

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