“The future is already here. It is not evenly distributed yet.”
William Gibson, an American-Canadian fiction writer
The Black Mirror series and some other movies paint a sinister picture of our future. They offer the audience an array of ways humankind will collapse – people will be enslaved by robots or artificial intelligence, killed by an ecological disaster, or murdered by nuclear bombs. People love such stories because the fear of tomorrow is natural for human beings. We would rather believe in the future scenario in which an insidious algorithm destroys our world than in a plot in which everybody is happy. These movies are created for ordinary people willing to tickle their nerves. But strategists need to think clearly about tomorrow’s world, and there is a valuable tool for that – foresight.
We are Inferior Future Thinkers
Many years ago, I noticed that the future was the most challenging topic to discuss at strategic workshops. And it turned out that there is a scientific background behind that. Hal Hershfield, Associate professor of marketing, behavioral decision making, and psychology at UCLA Anderson School of Management, found the explanation.
Hershfield noticed that the longer generations of Americans live, the less they tend to save money for their retirement, which becomes longer and longer over time (though it would be logical to expect the opposite trend). And he conducted research. Hershfield and his team scanned study participants’ brains, asking them questions about their “current self”, their “future self”, and a “current other”, or a “future other”. Hershfield’s team recorded which parts of their brains were active as participants answered. Unsurprisingly, participants’ brains were most active when thinking about their current selves and least active when thinking about a current other. We like to think of ourselves most of all, don’t we?
But when Hershfield’s team started asking questions about people’s “future selves”, their devices detected that participants’ brain activity was approximately the same low as brain activity while thinking about a “current other”. So, our future life paradoxically interests us not much more than the well-being of a complete stranger. Saving money for retirement psychologically equals giving it to somebody on the street.
People didn’t need to think about the future during evolution. Our ancestors were born, lived, and died at the same conditions. The pace of changes in their lives was slow, and they didn’t hear about “retirement” until the XX century. Their ability to influence their future was limited by many external factors. So, human beings didn’t learn to think about the future, which means that it requires cognitive effort and concentration.
Future is unpredictable
People unfamiliar with foresight techniques often think they let us “predict the future”. And if they see an old forecast that didn’t come true, they use it as proof that the “forecast doesn’t work”. But forecast methods are not the way to “predict the future” because the future doesn’t exist. Many of us think about the future in our everyday life as a series episode that has already been filmed but hasn’t yet been uploaded to Netflix. But there is not any scientific evidence that tomorrow’s world exists or, at least, has been somehow blueprinted beforehand.
So, if the future doesn’t exist, any attempts to see it are doomed to failure. The world created by people is too complex for themselves. Have you ever seen a weather forecast service that doesn’t make mistakes? But it is far more easily than foreseeing, let’s say, the future of the stock market. Any event that happens to us, even an insignificant one, results from numerous previous events and many other factors. And there are so plenty of them that no algorithm could predict the future precisely, taking all of them into account. But it doesn’t mean that thinking about the future is worthless.
Experts from Institute For The Future (IFTF), California, where I studied foresight techniques some years ago, also don’t believe that the future exists. Neither do they think that a person or a company is a passive participant in the process of life. They suppose that we all influence our future by being active actors – even though we are not the only ones who affect it. We need to think about tomorrow’s world to imagine a plausible future scenario in which we would like to live and work because it will help us change our life or market to be happier or more successful. And the foresight tools are created to make this thinking more efficient.
We need to be aware that these scenarios also may not come true. But it is a case when thinking itself, as a process, is even more essential than the possible results. If we take the trouble to think about tomorrow’s world regularly, our skills in doing it will improve, and our forecasts will be more accurate. I have conducted many foresight workshops and saw how it works. Moreover, as we are inferior future thinkers, a foresight workshop can make the team shift their attention from day-to-day operation to long-term thinking, and that itself can be fruitful even if they won’t foresee all the future changes.
Signals of change
Some strategists watch trends to make long-term forecasts. Trend watching is a valuable tool, but if a notion is already called a trend and mentioned in media, everybody, including your competitors, has heard of it. So, I teach the teams I work with to see so-called “signals of change.” They are minor changes in the environment or human behavior that may (or may not) become major shifts in our world. Collecting these “signals of change”, exchanging them, and discussing them is not only useful but also exciting. If team members try to find and identify them it systematically, it may give them a chance to discover something that their competitors will learn much later.
About the Author
Svyatoslav Biryulin is a former CEO and general manager of several large enterprises. Since 2016 he has been working as the founder and CEO of his own consulting company. The company focuses on strategic consulting helping organizations devise, formulate and implement new strategies for a successful future.
Svyatoslav is the author of many articles on strategic management, foresight, strategic analysis, and several books. Lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.