Futures & Sensemaking Series #1
Our Guild of 1,800 change agents recently pondered an attention-challenged, current state world where:
- people live day-to-day in shorter and shorter time increments
- a business environment operates quarter to quarter with more pressure on near-term results and,
- governments function from election cycle to news cycle, trying to West Wing their way through pundits & latest-breaking news to capture mercurial voter sentiment.
In this tornado of opinion, data chaos & false urgency, “flavour of the day” opinion, fake news & half truths and shortened sensemaking candlewicks, shouldn’t there be a function that tries to stay ahead of the game?
We say yes … and what follows is our list of 20 reasons “Why Futurism and Foresights Really Matter” … in these tumultuous times (use your own lens here — COVID times, VUCA times, Liminal times, Polarized times, Faster times, Inequitable times and conceivably many more). Read on and please feel free to comment or add your own.
Two weeks back, we discussed as an open group the benefits of exploring futures and minting foresights in Episode #1 of our Futures & Sensemaking Series.
Some of what follows was a reaction and summation to that discussion. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was our most attended Clubhouse session ever. Maybe there is a growing futurist tribe boring a hole in the crumbling wall of the status quo? Join us for our next time.
Before We 20/20 List, A Table Setter & Caveats…
We acknowledge readers of this post might need a primer on what we are passionately advocating for. For some — it may be a review and reminder, for others —some new information and context.
The Grey Swan Guild mantra is to keep things open and avoid overly handcuffing and prescriptive notions of what these schools of futurism thinking represent. As critical thinkers, we are staunchly big umbrella, futures and foresights advocates.
Three common academic descriptors or classifications we shy away from in defining our form of futurism :
- Providing one specific founder or inventor of either of these schools — what is quite clear is the iterative contribution of philosophers, sociologists, technologists, innovators, data scientists, academia and others all contributing to futures and foresights over the centuries advancing the disciplines, practice, learned abilities and set of tools. There really is no one father/mother of invention here. The march still continues to get better at the why and how of futuring.
- The definition of the future having to be 10 to 20 years minimum as an effective time frame — if we have seen anything over the last couple years, it’s that horizons can shrink to nothing in times of crisis and uncertainty. We find it slightly comical to suggest its not really futuring unless it’s a generation distant (and may also suggest a lack of short term accountability in the traditional futures practice), The future is here and now, tomorrow and next cycle, just as it is a generation from now.
- The need for futurism to be one thing — certainty (on one side) or open plausibility (on the other side), in how we define futures — a wide array of opportunities and an immense footprint exists for these futurism disciplines to: explain, explore, predict, quantify, consider alternates and provide action to a range of certainties, plausibilities, possibilities, preferabilities and wild cards of an unknown future. Why restrict ourselves? Some of our purist peers feel otherwise. For us, the futuristic arts and sciences can serve many masters credibly.
Defining “Futures” (aka as Futurology, Futurism, Futureproofing)
Futures are a broad category that have a more extensive range of objectives than foresights. Futures (and futures thinking) are almost always multi-disciplinary in nature and may be applied to a broad set of interests — e.g. how to build a better world? or very narrow ones — e.g. how various geographies, audiences or organizations adapt to the specific future?
Defining “Foresights” (aka as Strategic Foresights, Forecasting, Scenario Planning)
Foresights have many common traits to futures but always have, and require, an action-based component to them. Foresights telegraph how to decide, prepare and act on future change signals. Foresights have a stronger tie to innovation, transformation and redesign as the applied component of futuring.
There is an already established discipline of “strategic foresight” and even though we are fans of its work we have decided to lop the prefix off to ensure we avoid any constraints established by its academic adherents (e.g. University of Houston, Aarhus, Turku, Stellenbosch, OCAD and 60 other prominent programs around the world),
The 20 Reasons Why Futures & Foresight Matter:
Let’s profile our best 20 shots below at getting you to care more about this subject matter and understand why its time is now. To invoke a Yogi Berra-sism ”if you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up some place else.”
This is our campaign to make a strong futures & foresight practice just as important, credible and habitual as any financial, human resources, legal, operational, governance or self-discovery practice in our current lives.
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Why Futures & Foresights Matter #1. — Stay Ahead of A Precarious Accelerated World
We tend to overestimate the change that happens in the short term and underestimate the change in the long term. As much as we may all react rashly to this last week’s headline grabbers and trending feeds, it’s in the longer game that we know the world has sped up exponentially.
My company’s (Futureproofing ; Next Hockey Stick Monitor) research would suggest that across a basket of 50+ factors, the world is 4x faster than just 15 years ago. Our change agents and innovators have sped up their work to keep pace too — they are 2.4x faster in plying their trade versus even five year ago.
Fuelled by unrelenting technology, with a more-than-accepting customer appetite for new, better and bolder solutions and business model agility, the world has quickened beyond recognition of a person from a generation ago.
In 2000, it would take us a full day to download a 3.5GB movie on a dial up modem, now it may take only a few seconds. The risk of staying put and not seeking new futures is greater now than it has ever been.
The average lifespan of companies has become crushingly short , buffeted by the tailwinds of progress and the headwinds of their next wrong strategic choice. In most industries, four out of the top 10 competitors will drop out of the top industry rankings over this decade. It really is true in the 2020s, if you’re not moving ahead, you really are heading backwards.
Futures & Foresights are a necessary practice and discipline for ensuring sustainability and survivability in this frenetic, hyper-stimulated era.
#2. Avoid Being Blindsided by Chaotic, Uncertain Shifts
It’s no longer a question of whether one company can work harder than somebody else (in truth, there is very little slack and effort found in private or public entities anymore). We know empirically more effort does not necessarily equal more reward. Work calories have a finite quality to them and the hue and cry of “mass resignations” we are reading about currently are a reflection of burnout and our collective hope to work less, not more.
Nowadays, when you perform post-mortems on companies that have been bankrupted, merged or acquired, it is not because companies got lazy, it’s usually because they have missed the future.
- Did traditional media firms anticipate the rise of social media effectively in the early 2000s?
- Have religions adapted to societal, gender and deep-seated value changes of the last couple of generations?
- Are firms currently postulating correctly what happens on the other side of this pandemic. or are they racing to a new normal that doesn’t look much differently than 2019?
Futures & Foresights don’t predict the future, but they do minimize the surprise, ward off the adverse effects and speed up our capacity to respond to these shifts.
#3. Detect, Monitor & React to Looming Grey Swans
We love the term “grey swan” so much, we named our Guild after it. Whereas Black Swans are entirely unpredictable, their Grey cousins are quite different beasts.
Grey Swans are potential significant global events and challenges, considered unlikely to happen but still possible, knowable and anticipatable. They can be estimated, probed and considered before they actually happen. Like hurricane weather fronts that may be tough to estimate in time, intensity and direction, we think there is important value in tracking and contemplating their eventual reality.
My company had evaluated the pandemic as a looming trend going into 2020, granted it wasn’t a top ten Metatrend but it was in the top half of the list. Similarly heading into 2022, our Guild believes significantly new dynamics exist for structural workplace change, cybersecurity and climate reckonings that have not yet been fully priced into our current thinking. The first to scope and react to these adverse or rogue events are also the first to benefit and scale.
Futurism & Foresights allow firms to consider unexpected wild card events and arrive at contingencies that status quo thinking simply can’t.
#4. Benefit & Take Advantage of Knowledge Arbitrage
It’s a competitive marketplace out there. Fortunes can be made in a matter of months, not years. Operating with forethought and foresight carries with it enormous, explicit value.
Companies used to take measured steps and build themselves into international company strongholds and brand icons over 50, 100, to 200 years. Now someone with a great idea and not many assets can become some of the most valued companies and people in our world.
- Barack Obama was a near complete unknown in 2006 and become President of the world’s largest economy and nation by 2009.
- Netflix was principally a direct mail DVD company in 2009, now it is a $250B media titan with over 200MM streaming customers.
- Peletons were invented in 2012 and have revolutionized how we do fitness and is worth $30 Billion now.
- NFTs (non-fungible tokens for those out of the know) were invented in 2014 and now they are on the top of every speculator’s mind and are valued at $25–50 Billion
- Nobody knew what a TikTok was in 2017 and now its is headed toward 1 billion active users and a $400B valuation.
Information is power. Future information is even better, leading to first-to-act and first-to-fast follow power.
With Futurism & Foresights, sensing and seizing opportunity before others carries with it enormous blitzscaling value and competitive advantage.
#5. Master the Complexity of Issues
In our march to progress, the world has become remarkably complex. As mentioned by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan “they say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian rain forest, it can change the weather half a world away.” Perhaps a small measure of hyperbole, but metaphorically very accurate.
The confluence of interconnecting factors in front of today’s policy makers, planners or corporate leaders are manifold. Our astonishing capacity for collective learning can also help us overcome to weigh the causal factors, understand the connectedness of impending problems and ensure that our descendants will live at least as well as us and perhaps even better.
Futurism & Foresights provides a multidisciplinary approach simply not available to to us with other hard edged sciences and fields of study.
#6. Deal with Trajectories of No Straight Lines and Lack of Predictability
In times of low change, stability, trust, certainty and high probability scenarios are well entrenched. Medieval times had relative stabile centuries and millennia-old monarchy, nobility and theology at its core. Caste systems generally kept movement of people within their birth classes. Technology advancement was glacially slow.Sure there were wars, famine and conflict, but most of the world operated in straight lines. Not so anymore.
Who would have thought the global stock market and real estate market would have experienced two incredibly strong boom years in the face of a pandemic that has eliminated 255MM jobs globally and had 220MM of our populations contract a potentially deadly virus. Some enlightened people obviously did.
Futurism & Foresights allow us to consider plausible, non-linear scenarios and chasm jumping rather than straight line forecasting and projection.
#7. Navigate the Multiple Avenues of Emerging Technology
Emerging technology, AI most notably, and our march toward singularity has thrown a curveball into many thoughts about the future. What was once considered science fiction has now become real world fact. We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the moral and spiritual demands of our human race. It’s what separates us as an intelligent soulful species.
Universal translators, tablets, androids, mobile phones, tricorders, bionic limbs, 3D printing and space stations were once considered inconceivable by 1960 minds but are all now in use. Some of this can be predictable (e.g. Moore’s Law), some of this can be navigated (e.g. Gartner Hype Cycle) and some of this can be influenced (e.g. the current billionaire fascination with space exploration and travel).
Not only does technology arrive more quickly than ever, it also produces fundamental knock-on effects to how we live, how we work, how we learn, how we play and what we aspire to.
Futurism & Foresights allow us to loosen our constraints and consider the impacts of the fourth industrial revolution and its resident technologies.
#8. Provide Personal Value and Hope
It was noted by a recent study, people who look toward the future vs. feeling married to the past are more optimistic, happier and productive. In times of big shifts and attacks on conventional norms, being able to critically think and have a longer view allows many to stay engaged in and not paralyzed by the spectre of their current afflictions. Future-based rituals and mechanisms can help people cope with some of the most challenging periods of their current lives.
Futuring allows us to experience new beauty, innovation & creativity. It permits us to process intelligence, diverse perspectives and gluts of information. It grants us better empathy and fuller, more holistic understandings of the universe and our place in it. Beyond physical and mental health, it allows us to access the vitality of future wealth, equity and security. It also empowers us to play with truths, myths, order and our rational brain in a disciplined way, vs. merely throwing darts or praying for the best.
Futurism & Foresights provide us the ability to have optimism for the future and envision a better world for ourselves and others.
#9. Overcome the Near Term Focus of Organizations
Jeff Bezos, founder of the world’s top 5 most valued company Amazon once said “I ask everybody to not think in two-to-three-year time frames, but to think in five-to-seven-year time frames.” Despite this apparently effective practice, CEOs are still driven by short term agendas. Fully 70 per cent of executives surveyed by McKinsey last year believed that their CEOs would sacrifice long-term growth for short-term financial objectives.
Peeling the layer a little further on the numbers. The CEOs that drive more profit & performance, make bolder moves and are generally more experienced and equipped to lead, tend to eschew short term targets for the pursuit of greater long term focus.
Futurism & Foresights are a strong answer for the most successful organizations to keep their eyes focused on the larger, more-value driven long game vs. a short term metric & cost management focus.
Why Futures & Foresights Matter #10. — Take Agency and Domain over your Future
Foresight, in contrast to fatalism, gives us increased faculty to shape our futures, even in the most turbulent of times. People who can think ahead are prepared to take advantage of all the new opportunities that rapid social, industrial and technological progress are creating, opposed to people imprisoned by their past beliefs or decisions.
One of the reasons entrepreneurs have been so successful over the last few decades is this very belief that ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’. Now that the means of delivery have caught up to their mind’s capacity, 600 million entrepreneurs globally have taken up the banner of startup life to create a new self-deterministic future of their own. Larger organisations, scaleups, causes and public institutions can apply this attitude too, if they let themselves.
Futurism & Foresights changes the rules of the game, allowing the disrupted to be the disruptor, the frustratedly waiting into the zestfully acting, and the powerless into the powerful.
#11. Holding a Perpetual Focus — Always a Moving Target
Candidly, futurism should be everyone’s “second profession.” It is difficult to imagine anyone in any profession who would not benefit from adopting the tools of futuring. Beware though, much like the game of golf, mastery is never possible. Getting ahead of the future has no finish line.
By its very nature, the future is always shape shifting and allowing new lenses, new tools, new inspirations and new observations to be explored. This is consistent with the mandate for leadership in the future. My company looked at 65 different skillsets, and based on a battery of inputs, landed on “Adaptive Intelligence” as the #1 skill for futureproofing leaders. The world of the future belongs, not to the certain & obstinate power broker, but to the introspective, critical thinking and malleable leader.
Futurism & Foresight Thinking create a constantly moving compass and changing dashboard for staying relevant and current to movements, dynamic trends and shifting factors.
#12. Leverage a Human Instinct — The Ability To Explore and Ask What If
Change is not merely necessary to life — it is life itself. Getting ahead of the future harnesses human’s basic instinct to explore. The Inventors — Tesla, Ford, Edison.Dyson — all restless for what’s next. The Explorers — Cook, Shackleton, Watson, Amundsen, Anker — always racing for the next frontier. The Rainmakers — Disney, Jobs, Branson, Winfrey, Musk — ceaselessly chasing new avenues of interest.
Besides helping us make decisions and reach our goals, there is evidence that futuring may improve psychological health more generally. Targeting negative beliefs on, writing optimistically about and anticipatory savoring the future can all be helpful to our human psyches.
Practising foresight holds many natural facets of positive day-to-day breakthroughs : a sensory representation of things that are not yet present, a feeling of what may be and a mental vision that connects past & previous experience with the future in a fused what-may-come-to-be.
Futurism and Foresights are an exceptionally human behavior that drives progress across a range of endeavours; we are hard wired, conditioned and find relief in performing these efforts.
#13. Envision Plausible & Preferred Mindsets that Allow for Innovation
When people hear the phrase ‘innovator’, two images come to mind. One is the disparaging impression of someone who’s reckless and unpredictable, sometimes succeeding and at other times crashing out. The other is a more positive connotation of a fearless maverick who takes risks when others nervously stand back. For centuries the former view was the incumbent point of view. The 21st century now holds the latter view in much higher regard.
Futuring expands our understanding of the kind of world we want and can create. By bringing into focus both the scope of connections, potential impacts and implications on the horizon, futures thinking allows us to begin to see the path we’d need to take to get to a better world–or, at minimum, the destructive manners we need to avoid in order to forestall a worsening situation. Structured thinking about the future, clarifies the responsibility and capacity to create a tomorrow worth living in.
Futurism & Foresights help change agents and others envision, plan for, and work toward their preferred futures tangibly.
#14. Longer Term Orientation and Planning Lead to Gold
Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it. Perhaps one of the most fundamental functions of futurism is that it helps us decide how to act and lead. Thinking about what the future likely holds helps us decide what course to take in the here-and-now. Numerous studies have examined how thinking about the future shapes our decision-making positively.
In general, average people tend to choose smaller but more immediate rewards over larger rewards that they have to wait for. It’s a concept called “delay discounting”. Visualizing a specific possible future effectively counteracts the allure of delay discounting and helps us make more prudent decisions now.
Studies have found a very strong future preparedness and performance correlation to foresight. Future-prepared firms outperform their average peer set by 33% higher profitability and 200% in higher growth, while firms with deficiencies face with a performance discount of 37%
Futurism & Foresight and delaying short term conveniences for longer term rewards is simply smart business and effective return on insight.
#15. Elevate The Future to a More Pressing Concern — Horizons Thinking is Wrong
Even in the last few years, people were happy to place their bets into three time-based buckets — the near term, mid-term and long term. It’s a hangover from too much big consultancy training. Unfortunately it usually relegates future ventures and thinking to a never quite here tomorrow. It was foolish then when it was invented in the early 2000s, and even more foolish now. The future is today, and everyday.
Case in point, the world’s health care systems went from 98% live and in-person to 98% digital and remote service delivery in a span of a month during early 2020 COVID. See you later ‘horizons’, what do we do now?
Futurism and Foresights creates the capacity and intelligence to act now in the face of shocks and not wait for an indeterminant future.
#16. Ecosystem Plays Take Time To Develop
The term ‘ecosystem’ shows up 11x more frequently in annual reports than it did versus a decade ago. There is a realization that the magnitude of opportunities and challenges in front of us take a coalition of partners to effectively deliver and capture its value and impact.
Being able to ponder what the right challenge, best potential solution and strongest partner scenario takes boldness, time and a future-oriented mindset. Being strong at ecosystems requires the Monets & Shakespeares of futures thinking.
Futurism and Foresights acts as the front end spear to strategic planning, paving the way for organizations and their partners to make stronger on-faith moves together by painting and storytelling possible scenarios and bringing early signals forward.
#17. Emphasizes Learning vs. Knowing — Adaptation to Uncertainties
Learning about future possibilities challenges prevailing assumptions. The cost in dollars and effort to be absolutely certain about something in the future is just too prohibitively high. Even if you could, whose truth are you proving might be the next question. Prospection with good evidence (not iron-clad truths) is the prudent way now.
As we perceive a range of plausible futures, we can minimize uncertainty by preparing for best, worst, and mixed outcomes. By performing this act and considering these different trajectories, we can be far more certain about how to respond than if we had never explored the possibility before.
Futurism & Foresights is the beginning of strategic thinking and building a learning organization, that can help stickhandle through the unfamiliar terrain ahead.
#18. Bring the Best Range of People & Disciplines to Bear on a Challenge
Futurism and foresight is different than strategic thinking — it is more imaginative and innovative, considering a variety of futures. There is an action-orientation in foresight, which strategic thinking doesn’t require, along with creating participatory ownership and consideration of a variety of alternatives. It is an inherently collaborative mission bringing different expertise and people into the mix.
Although the distinction can be subtle and academic, futurism & foresight are forerunners and aftercomers to vision & strategy. To illustrate the difference from the turn of the 20th century “it was vision that inspired the invention of the automobile. It was foresight that assumed we needed something faster than horses and anticipated inevitable traffic jams, accidents and pollution.” Most organizations do strategy decently today, it’s what they need to do for tomorrow, that’s the missing skill.
Futurism & Foresights recognizes that is is more likely that an organization or entity will be outmaneuvered on future direction than it will be out-produced tactically; futurism provides that special rare sauce, without it, leaving organizations struggling to handle what is next.
#19. Promote Resilience and Responsiveness.
We have seen an abrupt rise in mental health and anxiety in this COVID era so far. The old ways of anchoring ourselves have been pushed to the margins — religion, nation, community, family, or profession —all have been found wanting in some aspect.
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic and it won’t be the last by any stretch. We’ve also studied how pandemics can devolve into infodemics, Articulating new futures and potentialities can trigger us positively to act and defend against this stress.
For example, the COVID vaccines created for our world at breakneck speed all required the sharp minds of the medical, biotech and scientific community to consider a fundamentally different response than normal vaccine and drug development — intuitive & counterintuitive actions, non-traditional alliances and sped up solution possibilities.
Futurism & Foresights allows a society & individuals to establish a set of pathways and meanings through which people can relate themselves to the world and get past “treading water”.
Why Futurism & Foresights Matter #20. — Tackle Social Innovation and the Ability to Get at Pervasively Problematic Issues
As we’ve seen over and over, it’s all too easy for actions that seem reflexively correct to lead to far greater crises down the road. Plastic was hailed as a breakthrough material until more than half a century later, we realize its impact on our oceans and landfills. The world’s challenges and wicked problems now require a different way of tackling them.
In today’s culture dominated by short-term panaceas, reactionary likes, cancel culture retweets, and superficial comments, we desperately need a balance which tips our minds to think more in terms of years, decades and sometimes even generations. We need analysis & evaluation that: separates metatrend from microtrend, microtrend from fad, overcomes the “profit now, worry later” faith and repairs the societal roof while the sun is still shining.
Futurism & Foresights adjusts our field of vision away from the news cycle, industry hype train and social memes to care about and solve things that are bigger than themselves.
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This post represents the first of a series of long form posts entitled The Futures & Sensemaking Series. We have canvassed a leading group of passionate and talented people who think a lot about the “why” and the “how” about our current and future state. We hope you enjoy our outputs and decide to join our Guild to participate, collaborate and contribute.
Sean Moffitt is the co-founder of Grey Swan Guild — Making Sense of the World’s Biggest Challenges and Future Grey Swans , Managing Director & Author, Futureproofing ; Next Innovation You Can Take to the Bank . Sean spends equal amounts of time navigating the now, and getting ahead of the future. A great majority of his efforts are spent building out global networks of leading thinkers & doers, fielding foresight ventures, authoring reports on the future, hosting innovation masterclasses, conducting futureproofing sprints, producing change workshops and providing strategic & innovation counsel for corporations & scale-ups. His new book Futureproofing ; Next — The Future Beyond Innovation launches this Fall. Feel comfortable getting in touch with Sean and his team here.