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British singer David Bowie once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” This can be translated into the business world as “Those who imagine the future and use methods such as ‘futures thinking’ will be able to seize opportunities and be most prepared for upcoming challenges.” This article outlines the basic principles of futures thinking and explains the reasons why organizations should apply this approach to explore their own futures.

Research shows that design-driven companies outperform their peers.1 Besides the well-known design thinking approach, there is an alternative approach that helps you design a long-term strategy, futures thinking. Futures thinking helps overcome the shortsighted focus on the present and on short-term gains and is a method to “investigate and explore” the future in a structured manner.

Futures thinking is mainly a mindset and a set of tools and methods that organizations can apply to explore and reflect about the future. It is important to clarify that futures thinking is not a tool to predict the future – as there is not only one future but many possible futures. Nonetheless, it is a creative process that seeks to acknowledge uncertainty and provide a set of methods and tools to apply analytical thinking to assist in the strategic decision-making process.

Using futures thinking can help your organization:

  • Build up agency:
    Agency is defined as an “action or intervention producing a particular effect.” You are shaping and creating the future right now. Every transformation your organization goes through, and every e-mail you send, is creating the future. We all have agency, and we all participate in the making of our current reality. With futures thinking, you can raise awareness of this fact within your organization.

  • Become more resilient
    Analyzing possible and probable futures can help your organization prepare for upcoming challenges and opportunities. With futures thinking, you can anticipate, prepare, and respond to adapt accordingly to change, making you more resilient in the long term.

  • Foster an agile mindset
    Constant change has become, and will probably stay, the norm. Organizations must be able to transform quickly and adapt to challenges to seize the opportunities that change brings. With futures thinking, your organizations can create your own narrative, helping individuals to be more proactive – instead of reactive – to change.

  • Empower individuals and build a common vision
    Traveling to the future empowers individuals. You are all steering toward the future anyway, so you might want to try steering the organization by building a common vision rather than a personal vision.

  • Expand decision-making opportunities
    With futures thinking, you can expand the available choices for decision makers. How? By navigating into possible, probable, and preferred futures, a set of possibilities that you might not have seen before are unveiled, and you gain an understanding of the assumptions that support our current decisions.

The following lessons learned from prior workshops may be helpful if you are planning a futures thinking workshop in your organization:

  • Use experience design tools and methods to create “aha moments” and a holistic experience.
    Experiences are the way in which you navigate and engage with the world. Every meeting, every reunion is an experience, and any experience has the power to transform an individual and drive engagement. In your workshops, you can apply experience design methods, including the 5E Experience Design Model. This model creates an end-to-end experience journey for workshop participants – from the moment you “entice” participants to attend to the moment you “extend” the experience. This journey helps participants understand what futures thinking is and manages their expectations before the workshop even takes place.

  • Help the crew get into the “futures” mindset before going into specific exercises.
    To be able to “travel” into the future, you first need to build up the right mindset and train the “futures” muscle. Yes, it requires time. Try to introduce a guided meditation or visualization of the future before going into an exercise or diving into a method. This activity could be a short, interactive keynote to spark the imagination of your participants. This can also help to create a common context and give more “meat” to start a meaningful conversation with others during the process.

  • Foster curiosity and the openness and willingness to explore new possibilities just for the sake of it.Organizations often forget the importance of taking the time to “dream together,” to understand the system they are in and consider new possibilities on how to create value in the future, and just talk about it. You may start to hear comments such as “This is not concrete at all,” “This is too high level,” and “You are losing time.” In addition, even if a translation into specific actions to our current time is challenging, you may need to stop for a moment and think “Where will you be in 10 to 20 years?” And most importantly, what is the value your organization can create and how can you transform to deliver this value? You need to trust that each participant of a workshop is a professional who can find a way to translate their insights to their teams and support the transformation when the time comes.

  • Research and insights are key.
    All workshops need a theme. Pick an area you would like to explore and go deep into it. Some examples are The Future of Learning or The Future of Talent Management. In addition, you need to conduct research on trends, signals, and the past to understand the assumptions shaping your organization’s visions.

Futures thinking workshops can kick-start a conversation and empower individuals in an organization to explore new possibilities, build a stronger sense of agency, and drive the needed transformation to stay relevant in the future. To repeat what David Bowie said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” Are you hearing it?

What do you think? Please reach out and or share your thoughts in the comments below.
1. Jeneanne Rae, “The Power and Value of Design Continues to Grow Across the S&P 500,” DMI: Design Management Institute, Vol. 27, Issue 4.