Facing the Future Without a Map

By Jamie McDaniel, Canadian Management Centre


We know so little about what next month, or even next week, will bring to our communities and our businesses that the whole idea of formulating and following that 3-year strategic plan makes less sense now than ever before. 

Seriously, how much good is the one you (or your senior leadership) created in the Before Covid Times doing you right now? 

The alternative—facing the future without a map—is even scarier though. There are so many unanswered questions—from what skills we need, to where and how we should work, to how we will attract and serve our customers, and who those customers will even be—that leaving them unanswered essentially paralyses us at a time when moving fast has never been more relevant. 

Read on for a few fresh ideas on thinking about the future that can help you position yourself—and your organization—for wellbeing and success. 

  1. Forecast the future—but don’t predict it. As futurist Bob Johanson of The Institute for the Future (TITF) puts it in this interview with the Neuroleadership Institute, “it really isn’t a question of, does the forecasted future happen? That’s the way you evaluate a fortune teller. The way you evaluate a futurist is, does the forecasted future provoke your insight that leads to a better response?” So, when you consider potential future scenarios, your purpose should not be to get it right. Instead you should aim to get the kind of clarify that leads you to take appropriate action. The right action is that which will enable you to meet the challenges of the anticipated future, even if you are wrong about the actual unfolding of events. For example, few business leaders could have predicted the exact pandemic scenario we are living through in 2020. However, many could have anticipated that a global disaster of some sort (climate-related, perhaps) was possible and would produce wide-spread disruption in our interconnected economies. This insight could have led to various actions—strengthening remote working capabilities, among others—that would have positioned the organization to respond more effectively when disaster struck. 
  2. Don’t think present-forward, think future-back. The present is confusing, distracting, and emotionally-unsettling. There are plenty of pundits, experts and politicians arguing about what’s to come and what we should do about it, but they can’t all be right. The heightened sense of threat we feel about the present makes insight tougher to come by. It’s hard to get clarity while trying to imagine a path out of this mess to a near-term future we can count on. But look too far ahead and your forecast will be too imprecise to be actionable. According to Johanson, we should be looking at the medium-term instead. Look at the trends, the big threats and innovations on the horizon and work backwards. What are the different ways we could get to that future? What would that mean for the next smart steps we can take? The sequence then becomes 1) consider the Now, 2) consider the Future, then 3) consider the Next. This process enables you to calmly assess where you want to be, accept that you can’t know exactly how you will get there, and prepare for the journey anyway.   
  3. Use counterfactual thinking to break through mental rigidity. If you’re new to futures thinking, you may struggle to come up with anything you haven’t heard or thought of a hundred times before. Good insight comes from good mental habits and, according to another TITF thinker, Jane McGonigal, counterfactual thinking is key to responding creatively and resiliently to the curveballs the future throws us. Here are two exercises derived from her essay on the topic. 
    1. List everything you think won’t ever change. Then challenge those assumptions. What if Thing X did change? What else would have to happen to make this possible? How would this change impact you? What other things would change as a result? This exercise can help us “unstick our minds”; as McGonigal asserts, “To create something new, or make any kind of change, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different.”
    2. Think of a decision you made. It could be minor, like where to buy a cup of coffee, or major, like who to marry, which job to take, or where to locate your company headquarters. Imagine that a different choice was made and vividly picture the alternate reality this would have generated. This technique helps you to see that neither the present or the future is inevitable, and trains your mind to see how actions and decisions made in the present shape the future to come. 

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