Four Ways to Think About the Future

Do you ever think about the way that you're thinking about the future? Is the future something to be feared? Is it uncertain or clear? Does the future have a voice that you listen to? Do you see signals from the future that might have value today? 

Future-ready organizations and teams know how to think about the future. They are "future-minded," which means they understand their habits of thinking about the future, and they have tools for collectively harnessing lessons learned from the future. 

Some of you who are not future-minded are probably scratching your head thinking, "Huh, lessons learned from the future? How do you learn from the future?

Why Futures Thinking Matters

Futures thinking can help leaders, teams and organizations: 

  • Manage anxiety
  • Act in the present
  • Identify growth potential
  • Become more agile
  • Engage employees, and
  • Shape the future

These are hugely beneficial results that can come from learning how to think about the future.

Barriers to Learning from the Future 

Most companies, leaders and teams aren't maximizing the benefits that can come from futures thinking. Here's why:

  • Leaders aren't future-ready. In my book Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution I explain why leaders aren't prepared for meeting five demands of leading in the future. The solution? Improving our "Futures IQ." That is, improving how we think about and act into the future through investing in our mindset, skillset, and toolset. 
  • We lack frameworks and tools for thinking about the future. Where do you go in your organization to learn about futures thinking? Do you know where to start in improving your Futures IQ? Could you create a plan for developing future-mindedness? Do you have different ways of thinking about futures? Do you have tools for assessing your mindset, skillset, and toolset for futures thinking?
  • Our systems are brittle. Thinking about the future is hard. It requires time, strong relationships, trust, skills, creativity, honesty, and collaboration. Most systems are too preoccupied with speed in the present. Short-term thinking. Reactive "firefighting" and portraying the illusion of strength and certainty. "We're okay, just don't look under the hood or behind the curtain." Brittle systems (like a team, company, or economy) don’t fail slowly or gracefully. They shatter. Like a ceramic coffee mug that holds your piping hot Starbucks or the glass screen on your iPhone, brittle things look sturdy and reliable on the surface, but they're not. They’re fragile. 

Four Ways to Think About the Future

These are four ways to think about the future. If you're interested in learning more, I like these resources:

Way #1: Fear it

This mindset about the future assumes that the future is something to be feared. It's focused on mitigating those risks. It's focused on looking at data (most of which is from the past) in an attempt to protect what is, rather than envisioning what could be. It thinks about the future in one dimension--past performance is the best predictor of future success. 

Way #2: Hear it

This mindset about the future is opportunistic. It is willing to look and listen to what others have to say about the future. People who think about the future in this way want to learn how to get the benefits from the future, but they don't know where to start. They listen to what others have to say, but still--deep down--fear it. They listen and they calculate risk, most of which is too great to take, so they don't act. 

Way #3: Shape it

The "shape it" way of thinking about the future thinks about the future in multiple dimensions (past, present, near future, far future, incomprehensible future). It knows how to act and behave across multiple time horizons at the same time (see figure below). It knows how to collect and use data, speculation, abductive reasoning, and other tools to plan, forecast, innovate, and insulate. This isn't a bad way to think about the future. Not many teams can get to this place.

A model of how to think about the future

Way #4: Break it

The "break it" mindset assumes that systems today won't be the systems of tomorrow. This is truly the most future-focused mindset on the spectrum. This way of thinking about the future has no place in "big ole companies." Or does it? This way of thinking about the future tries to break current processes with future threats. It asks off-the-wall questions like those at the beginning of this article. It's patient. It listens for far-away pings across space and time. It observes outside its four walls. It reverse engineers from incomprehensible through impossible to viable. Most disregard this mindset, until they can’t. 

How do you think about the future? What's your futures IQ? Which of these four ways of thinking about the future do you find yourself in most often? How's it working? 

April 2, 2021

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Chris Groscurth, Ph.D.

Chris Groscurth, Ph.D., is author of Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For the past 20 years he has worked as a researcher and strategic advisor to leaders across healthcare, finance, manufacturing, government and education. In addition to his consulting work, Chris addresses thousands of leaders annually through speaking engagements and workshops. Throughout his career, he has held leadership positions with Gallup, the University of Michigan, and Trinity Health. Chris currently leads Stryker's global learning design and development team, shaping the future of leadership in a high-growth medical technology company. Chris received his doctorate in human communication processes from the University of Georgia and has bachelor's and master's degrees in human communication studies from Western Michigan University.

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