Here’s my problem with trend watchers: They make you think in lines.
What I mean is that the language they use to describe their ideas about the future is rife with statements like, “. . . the continued increase of . . .”, “. . . the growing need for . . .”, and “. . . the decreasing value of . . .” The problem with these kinds of statements is that they don’t exactly spark your thinking. Were you ever shocked to hear that the future will entail “increased proliferation of technology in our daily lives?” Probably not.
Most business strategy papers suffer from the same problem. In order to prepare their readers for a future defined by different rules, authors virtually always decide to kick things off by listing a series of changes they foresee in the landscape of the organization. They inform us that “intensified pressure from newcomers will transform the business landscape,” “today’s business models will increasingly become outdated,” and “success in the future will depend on ever more flexibility and agility in our decision-making.” Shocked? Startled awake? I didn’t think so.
This trend-line language doesn’t really engage our minds. It makes us envision, subconsciously, a line that depicts a gradual change in our daily reality. As though tomorrow will be just a little bit more infused with technology, or transformed through new competition, than today. We read it, but then we rest assured, because the mental image of a gradual line tells us that tomorrow will not be that much different from today. The real change, the moment when the line will become cause for concern, is still way ahead; we can safely continue doing what we are doing today and will have plenty of time to mull this over before the landscape has really changed. Or so we think.
Some time ago I ran a master class on “the art of leading by looking ahead” with senior leaders of an oil company in a leadership development program hosted in the Middle East. These smart, well-educated professionals knew all too well that oil reserves are shrinking and that traditional fossil fuels will be on the way out eventually. They live in this reality; they were aware of these developments and trends. Intellectually, they fully understood. Emotionally, though, this knowledge had done very little in terms of creating serious discomfort. After all, oil will still be coming out of the ground tomorrow.
But then one of the guest speakers, an analyst from an esteemed bank in the region, proclaimed in his presentation that by 2025, Saudi Arabia would no longer be exporting any of its oil. He expected that the country would keep whatever oil would be left in the ground for its own consumption. This slapped the oil professionals in the face. It was a game changer (2025 is like tomorrow for an oil company) that startled them into the reality the trend lines had been telling them all along but had never gotten them to become truly concerned.
That’s the effect a powerful dot, an imagined future event, has on your thinking. It makes change more realistic and shakes up your assumptive framework. A concrete event description carries much more reframing power than generic language does. The prediction of an iconic news event, a description of a change that you could possibly find in future newspapers, sticks with us. Although the prediction is imaginary—we are dealing with the future here, after all—it wakes us up and challenges our deep-rooted assumptions of what the future might look like.
Because of this, I’ve been a long-time proponent of using the power of the dot when working with the future, and I hate when my work is confused with trend watching. A dot is a powerful imagined event that pulls the change from under the carpet. Such an event-oriented approach achieves the intended result: emotional impact, an alert audience, and serious reframing of the “truths” we have grown accustomed to. This is much more effective than lulling your audience to sleep with linear language.
To exploit the power of the dot, I developed a deceptively simple process to help you generate future events you should keep an eye on that I like to call FuturePriming, not for the sake of predicting the future, but for the sake of anticipating change in a way that alerts you to early warning signals.
Priming is a term used in psychology to describe the mental process of prompting particular associations in the brain. A simple way to understand how this works is to think of home painters. Painters first prime a surface so that the paint will stick. This is very similar to FuturePriming: By effectively priming your mind with specific ideas about changing realities, the peripheral signals of change that would otherwise have passed you by now have a mental place to stick. Your ability to detect these signals early significantly boosts your visionary and strategic leadership abilities.
Detecting the faint signals of change amid the daily onslaught of information that bombards us is not easy, but separating the signal from the noise directly enhances your ability to see change early.
Of course, there are no guarantees that you will always foresee change before others do, but it is probably the closest you can get to in the absence of a crystal ball.
The alternatives–do nothing or engage with unproductive trend-line descriptions–are certainly not going to help.
—Rob-Jan de Jong is a behavioral strategist and author of Anticipate: The Art Of Leading By Looking Ahead. He is (visiting) expert faculty at the Wharton Business School and Thunderbird School of Global Management and has taken eight years to demystify the leadership concept called “vision.”