To see your future examine what youre doing now
Driverless cars, drone deliveries, lab-grown meat, every surface a solar panel, gene technology that eliminates disease with a snip of our DNA, the future is everywhere, offering opportunity and threatening disruption – so why don’t we plan for it better?
I’m a futurist, and I’ve been teaching futures thinking to senior executives for over 30 years, including at Melbourne Business School, but I’m still surprised how strongly people cling to past practices in the face of change.
Sticking to what works is natural, but developing foresight is more useful for survival. Thinking, planning and creating the future can be confronting and provoke anxiety across any organisation. And if your organisation’s culture is resistant to change, it will eat any future strategy for breakfast.
Having worked with hundreds of organisations, I have found the best way to develop futures thinking is to frame it as a learning journey of four loops, some of which are negative and hard to break out of:
Zero-loop learning, where participants are so jaded, they give up on new ideas
Single-loop learning, where having a list of short-term, actionable objectives helps eliminate doubt and uncertainty
Double-loop learning, where, when confronted with the unknown, participants venture toward creating a learning organisation with the capacity to adapt
Narrative foresight, where having recognised the limits of old practices, participants see new possibilities and build new stories to support them.
The journey from zero to single-loop learning is usually the hardest. That’s because data about the future is often so overwhelming, and contingent on multiple factors and unknowns, that learning becomes difficult, especially for people who have experienced previous failed attempts to address the future.
To win over the disillusioned and get some buy-in, I start with single-loop learning, or specific technical fixes to immediate work challenges, which can restore their faith in the possibility of effective action and progress. But technical fixes no longer apply when the unexpected happens, such as a leader resigns, board member challenges strategy or new technology emerges.
Such unexpected events are opportunities to move to double-loop learning, where the current practices and future possibilities are questioned. The first task here is to unpack the core narrative that supports and justifies a business’s current practices.
I call these practices the ‘used future’. Every organisation uses practices that are based on worldviews and narratives that have worked in the past but don’t reflect the preferred future and can even negate it. Recognising this ‘used future’ makes alternative futures possible.
When an insurance company, I worked with, gave presentations on their current practices and changes in health care – the importance of diet, ageing, meditation and genomics – they realised that health insurance was no longer their best long-term strategy.
They could either go on listing how to optimise profits, based on their current business model, or move to a new narrative that saw them as health knowledge navigators, partnering with their customers to create a "healthier you”.
They realised their old strategy was passive – insuring individuals and then waiting for them to get sick. Their ‘used future’ saw sickness as the norm and health the exception. As my colleague and fellow future thinker Rob Burke suggests, they were part of the sickness not the wellness industry.
By working with customers to become active partners in health, they unlocked one of the Ps of health futures: participate, prevent, personalise and predict.
This move from single-loop learning – focusing on what you do now – to double-loop learning – questioning present behaviour to reveal other possibilities – creates the opportunity to develop a narrative that supports the future.
When viewed this way, you can see why culture must change to ensure it works with rather than against a new strategy for the future.
So, to begin the journey of identifying your future, ask yourself these questions:
What is your organisation’s ‘used future’?
What worldviews and narratives support it continuing?
What alternative future emerges from examining what you’re doing now, and what worldviews and stories can you create to make it happen?
About Sohail Inayatullah
Professor Sohail Inayatullah is a political scientist, futurist at the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University, and co-facilitator of our Futures Thinking and Strategy Development program. He has over 30 years’ experience as a forward thinker and, in 2015, was awarded the first UNESCO Chair in Future Studies. He has helped leaders all over the world create the narrative they need to shape their future.