It is with an element of despair and mild (well OK…not so ‘mild’…more like boiling hot mad) frustration that I write this article. Why? Well, I have been asked to write something on ‘thinking like a futurist’ and it is a topic that has been spoken (and written) about – by many, only to be applauded and then routinely ignored.
Because of this intellectual and behavioural malaise, the pandemic came as a shock and surprise (to most) and the issues it forced us to confront and engage, brutally exposed our lack of readiness and ability to do this work (confront and engage). Alvin Toffler, author of the 1970 book Future Shock proposed the idea that society occasionally experiences a period of profound and sustained change that was previously so unthinkable that those who live through it suffer a kind of ‘future shock’.
We become disorientated and as futurist Jane McGonigal succinctly puts it in her wonderful book, Imaginable, “our strategies for being happy, healthy, and successful no longer work” My fear is that now that we know that the world has forever changed, we will neglectfully slip back into the same complacent comatose that characterised our pre-pandemic behaviour. A window of opportunity lost. We need to acknowledge that there is no ‘back to the future’…and then act accordingly! That will mean rethinking much of how we build our businesses and practice leadership.
Now that that is off my chest (and having resisted the urge to type with my caps lock on full throttle) let me not waste our time by dancing around ‘how to think like a futurist’ and why it is essential. Here are five straightforward bullet points for you to think about – really think about, and then find appropriate actions within your specific context – your team and/or your business.
1. Let’s start at the very definition of what a futurist is and does. It is someone who, ‘intentionally builds the capacity to see and understand the implications and meaning of change’ (note the italics). If you don’t believe that is exactly what it means to lead, then maybe you shouldn’t be in leadership. Leadership is helping others make progress through their toughest challenges; change is usually the domain for such challenges.
Think about this definition. Really think about it…you don’t need more words from me to unpack what this definition is and leads too.
2. Throw away your ‘strategic plans’…better yet, burn them! They are useless in the face of unrelenting change, uncertainty, and complexity…in fact that they are worse than useless, they can actually do damage given how we cling onto them long after their redundancy. Max De Pree said that the first responsibility of leadership is to ‘define reality’ (the second being to say ‘thank you’ – I have always liked that one!).
According to a recent four-year study of 286 companies that forced their CEOs out, 23% – almost one-quarter, were fired primarily for ‘denying reality’ and refusing to recognize the need for change. The underpinning rationale for this is what is known as ‘normalcy bias’ (something most of us have to some degree). Normalcy bias is defined by psychologists as, “the refusal to plan for, or react quickly to, a disaster which has never happened before”.
Most of our strategic plans serve as bulk wards against unpredictability and change and that is the problem. We need a new way to ‘think the future’ and embrace the certain uncertainty and change we face.
A recent United Nations report, aptly titled ‘Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives’ said this: “There is a nagging sense that whatever control we have over our lives is slipping away, that the norms and institutions that we used to rely on for stability and prosperity are not up to the task of today’s uncertainty complex…for many, getting from point A to point B in their lives and in their communities feels unclear, unsure, hard – harder still when persistent inequalities, polarisation and demagoguery make it difficult to agree on what point B even is and to get moving”.
It was General Eisenhower who said, “Plans are foolish, but planning is essential”. Ponder that for a while as you think about your own ‘strategic’ plans in the context of uncertainty. Have those matches at hand.
Sounds so easy but of course, it isn’t. And yet, these are the very tools that we need to get a grip on the future and use if we are the do the kind of thinking that leads to intelligent action.
Tip: Find a way to measure such behaviour/effort. If you don’t, they simply remain as notes taken and lie dormant on some forgotten wish list. Measurement will ensure they become the focus, are practiced and in time will translate (with no small amount of perseverance) to become habitual practice.
4. Stop worrying about ‘what is around the corner’ and work bloody hard at being ready for whatever that is – just being certain that there is something around the corner is enough! What I mean here is that it is a useless endeavour to try and be predictive and exact about the monster that surely awaits around the corner, so best be able to change shape, adapt and be agile for whenever that monster first is sighted. Build adaptability into your own DNA and that of your business. Develop the ‘Proteus’ superpower (Proteus was a Greek god of the sea and son of Poseidon in Greek mythology).
What superpower is that you ask? Well, Proteus could ‘shift-shape’ at will. He could, in the heat of battle, become anything he needed to be to defeat his foe. That understandably made him a formidable adversary. So instead of trying to always anticipate the ‘what’ why not simply (well it isn’t that simple, but the good news is that it is entirely doable) build the capacity to ‘shift-shape’ in the face to the next challenge you face? What will it take for your business to be a ‘Proteus organisation’?
We become fixated on the ‘day-to-day stuff’ (important as it is) at the expense of stretching our imaginations and deliberately building the capacity to ‘think the future’. It is hard (think of going to the gym for the first time when badly unfit) and so easy to give-up or write off as not ‘the work we should be doing’ or as being, ‘frivolous’, ‘a distraction to what is our main agenda’.
Imagination is the first act of pulling the future into the present and the best tool for doing this is questioning. Every question creates space for new ideas and thinking. Questions become the midwives to new possibilities, and we need to be willing to be braver, more creative, and less fixated with being certain and right when doing this essential work. To begin to imagine the unimaginable and to identify your place in that unimaginable future is to ‘be a futurist’…it is the essence of leadership.
Tip: Count the number of questions – good ‘what if’ type questions, asked at your next leadership team meeting. Should you be worried with that number?
Go now and lead. Grab hold of these five points (there are many others) and engage the difficult but essential work of digging a cave into the future. You won’t regret it!
About the author of today’s Tuesday Tip – Keith Coats
Keith Coats is a founding partner of TomorrowToday Global and leadership specialist. He is now based in Cape Town, South Africa having relocated from London towards the end of 2021. Keith works with blue chips companies and in multiple business school leadership programmes worldwide helping senior leaders prepare today for the challenges and threats of tomorrow…and sometimes, the ‘day after tomorrow’.
Recently Keith’s travel has included working throughout the UK, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and of course, South Africa.