Future thinking

One of the things that people preoccupied with the 'day job', 'putting out fires', and the myriad things that besiege them in the present have difficulty with is preparing for the future. (I wonder how many organizations forecast the difficulties that would arise from the volcano erupting in Iceland?). Nevertheless future thinking and 'horizon scanning' are skills that managers should have high on their personal development agenda. Why do they need these skills? Because, as a paper from the International Futures Forum (a non-profit organisation established to support a transformative response to complex and confounding challenges and to restore the capacity for effective action in today's powerful times) put it

These are powerful times, in which the world we have created has outstripped our capacity to understand it. The scale of interconnectivity and interdependence has resulted in a step change where complex human systems now operate within other complex systems, often with modes of thinking and practice developed in simpler days. This is a new world, raising fundamental questions about our competence in key areas of governance, economy, sustainability and consciousness. We are struggling as professionals and in our private lives to meet the demands it is placing on traditional models of organisation, understanding and action.

Managers unaware of, or unable to deal with, this situation tend to

Strive to regain the comfort of control and coherence by reasserting old truths with more conviction and urgency, stressing fundamentals, ignoring inconvenient information, interpreting complexity in simple terms.

Behaving like this does not make for a successful organization. The International Futures Society has published several papers that managers would do well to read. For example, three of the suggestions the the authors of the document Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency make are particularly relevant to managers:

  • Try other worldviews on for size (making the point that a western view of what constitutes a successful organization is not necessarily the only, or best, view)
  • Give up on the myth of control – not an easy task for those measured on attainment of targets, key performance indicators, and so on – but another response is, rather than to try and simplify the complex to accept and acknowledge complexity as an inevitable fact of modern life and instead of trying to avoid or control it, participate in it. Relish diversity, surprises, look for the ineffable and appreciate the richness and the unique quality of all things

  • Form and support new organizational integrities: We are pushing at the limits of traditional organisation. The rise of partnering, alliancing, outsourcing, cross-cutting and 'joined-up' working creates organisations in which the density of internal transactions is less than the density of transactions with the external environment. The boundaries of organisation are dissolving – a shift critically enabled by technology.

A series of other papers examine psychological capacity in a global age, with an interesting one on the nature of the leadership challenge in powerful times and the role that the arts and cultural sector might play as a setting for developing 21st century competencies.

The International Futures Forum is one of many organizations specifically looking at developing future oriented thinking. Others include the World Future Society , the Institute for the Future and the Singularity University (an interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity's grand challenges)– regularly looking at what these types of organizations are reporting on/discussing would help any manager develop the capacity to think beyond the immediate and support their organizations into developing modesof operationg that are more successfully responsive to emerging situation than they currently are.