Thinking like a futurist leads to more flexible plans.

Remember ten years ago when you had that one friend who was convinced the government was spying on him? Leaning into the cafe table, he would whisper that national security was listening to everyone’s phone conversations. “Crazy,” you thought. “Why would the government be interested in anything I’m up to?” You tried your best to comfort your obviously disillusioned friend. Perhaps you even suggested a professional to help him get in touch with reality.

The trouble is that he was not delusional at all. It turns out the National Security Agency is listening to your phone. That crazy idea? Not crazy. Reality these days has become a series of accepting the once fringe as mainstream. And while this is evident to a large extent in our national political and social discourse, it is true also in your business.

Amazon warehouse

Photo credit: portalgda on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

In 2007, Amazon was still understood as a book retailer. Fast forward to today and it is a retail, technology and logistics superpower that is likely going to somehow take over your industry. The entire business world, your company included, is knit into our accelerated culture. The diffusion of innovations is growing at an exponential rate. If you look back over the last ten years in your company, you can likely see that what once was only a distant trend is now an integral part of your daily life. It is enough to make you feel crazy.

Both the good news and the bad news is that you’re not crazy. Things are accelerating at a rate that we could not predict. And that has, in turn, increased the chances that seemingly unlikely realities are happening.

The pain of this acceleration is felt acutely when you are trying to plan for your next year. Where will our biggest opportunities be? What kind of vision ought we set forward? How do we look forward together? These questions are exceedingly difficult when things feel uncertain and crazy.

Things have always been and will always be crazy. The future has never been certain. But you can find a fresh approach to looking forward with your team if you can incorporate ways to think like futurists.

Here is better news: Things have always been and will always be crazy. The future has never been certain. But you can find a fresh approach to looking forward with your team if you can incorporate ways to think like futurists. One way to begin:

  1. Decide on a timeline. Let’s say ten years in the future. It is 2028.
  2. Create a narrative about your company, your customers and your industry. This is generally where vision work stops. But we need to cultivate the crazy or unlikely scenarios as well.
  3. Share this narrative with your trusted advisors. Tell them to read your narrative and tell you three things: The worst thing that could happen next; the best thing that could happen next; what you are missing.
  4. Look for patterns in the responses. These patterns are what futurists call signals. They are localized ideas that could blow up into a trend.
  5. The frequency of the signal allows you to know its strength or likelihood.
  6. Use the present-day signals to create a more robust 2018 plan. They could influence your direction and give you a basis for decision-making.

This is not an attempt to predict the future. Don’t try that. Vision is less about predicting the future and more about your ability to articulate multiple futures. This allows your organization to have the flexibility to meet the new crazy realities.