Let’s be honest: Most companies don’t spend time gazing into the distant future. But that may be changing. Companies are learning that to stay competitive they must be more strategic and more effective in anticipating important market changes.
Imagining the future is one way to make that happen.
To some, though, becoming a futurist sounds more theoretical than practical, especially in a corporate setting. Producing an action plan based on such thinking sounds even more daunting. But with a few relatively easy techniques, you can quickly turn theory into good business practice and make certain your company doesn’t lose sight of the grander scheme of things.
To begin, it’s important to understand the role of the futurist. It is not, as many might think, to predict the future. Instead, the role is to foster a conversation about plausible, possible futures. That is correct, futures with an “s.” It’s more effective to think in terms of not one universe, nor one possible future, but instead of what one might call multiverses. Already you can feel your mind brimming with possibilities.
Being a futurist also means there is no magic involved. Think of futures as your imagination informed by data and science. Armed with that information, you can begin scouting for what futurists describe as “weak signals.” Think of these as indicators of change that are so weak you wouldn’t even call them an emerging trend. When we imagine a weak signal becoming mainstream, we begin to develop a canvas on which to depict possible future outcomes.
To get your mind ready for futuristic thinking, create sufficient distance between today and the future. In cognitive science this is referred to as psychological distance. Studies have shown that psychological distance, specifically temporal distance, helps us think in more abstract terms and more creatively.
For example, in one study two groups of participants were asked to categorize and group a pre-populated list of objects one might need for a camping trip. One group was asked to do this for trip in the near future (say next weekend) and the other in a distant future (one year from now). The group planning for a near future created significantly more categories from the list than the group planning for a distant future. That is because the “near future” group tended to think about the trip and the objects more tactically. In other words, they focused more on what the items do. The “distant future” group created more abstract categories for the items. They focused on the bigger why behind these items.
This process works the same way with physical distances. That’s why certain artistic work can only be fully appreciated at a particular distance. Many astronauts who returned from space reported an indescribable visceral experience from seeing the Earth below. This is referred to as the “overview effect,” a new level of appreciation of Earth, life, and space because of that experience from a great distance. Greater distance truly does help us see things differently.
In your strategic planning process, rather than looking out a few months or even a few years, try to imagine at least 10 to 20 years in the future. The fact is that if you are looking at a future only a few years out, you are practically thinking about the present because your company already has some planning and budgeting in place for a few years from now.
So try to insert enough distance between today and the future you wish to imagine. This will allow you to see the bigger picture, and when you see a bigger picture you can ask better questions. Also, the further out you think, the more conceptual and creative you become. By utilizing temporal distancing, you have primed your mind to think more abstractly and creatively.
It isn’t enough to simply imagine the future. The future should include people with emotional stories. That’s what gives it a real-world context. There are many levels of detail you might think about. I recommend at least the following three:
This is where we explain what the world we have imagined would actually look like. These are usually broad generalizations about what the future world is about. Is it utopian? Is it dystopian? Is there peace or war? What is the overall setting and mood of this world?
Here, we go even deeper, describing how the future world plays out in terms of political, social, ethnic, religious, and economic systems. It is not enough to just imagine a future world; we need to have some idea, albeit imaginary, of how the world might work in those dimensions.
This is the most emotional and personal level. Once we have imagined the world and described how it works, we now need to place a person in that world and tell a story about him. What does that person care about, what objects does he interact with, what does it mean to have a daily routine? For a full effect, create artifacts, sounds, and videos of what it means for that person to live in that world.
Constructing a functional forward view of the future using these three levels of thinking provides you the mind-set with which to think holistically about the future. It also helps you spot sensitivities, weaknesses, and dependencies with other alternatives, including predictions by others.
There are also some traps to avoid on the way to becoming a futurist. One of them is making predictions. Prediction is overrated and ineffective, so don’t paint yourself into a corner by making them. Instead, provide your audience with the tools to discover different possibilities of the future.
All of this probably sounds time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. A good futurist can provoke an imaginative conversation and produce results quickly.
Follow these steps and you will be well on your way to becoming a futurist. In doing so, you can push your company toward making future-gazing a business and strategic planning tool as well as an imaginative activity. It should not be mutually exclusive. Peering into the future can settle anxiety within your company and produce better results in both the short- and long-term.
—Sandjar Kozubaev is senior manager of strategy and execution at Sparks Grove, the Atlanta-based marketing strategy and creative division of North Highland. He fuses design, economics, and futures to help companies create meaningful experiences that produce business growth.