Strategically Using Foresight To Audit Our Organizational Landscape

“This present moment used to be the unimaginable future.” -Stewart Brand via The Clock of the Long Now

Things have shifted in some very profound ways over the last few years, which are not blips to just be taken lightly. Furthermore, the speed of change is accelerating in some turbulent, and even awe-inspiring ways. We continue to see, both in our leadership and organizations, an aggressive increase in adaptive challenges as compared to technical problems. We also are seeing, in conjunction with the rise of adaptive challenges, an organizational repositioning from the complicated to the complex, requiring new mindsets and strategies in how we approach these growing dilemmas. And to make these challenges even more formidable, very often our context, as well as our times, is facing increasing polarization, in a time when communication and collaboration in many ways, are needed most.

Then to make matters more interesting, throw on top of that bundle, we’ve been witness to the Great Resignation, growing issues associated with Climate Change, and astounding societal shocks from the Digital Disruption. Not to speak of the growing concerns over the uncertainties we have to consider regarding the future of work, from what automation will be able to deliver as well as take away, and how quickly Artificial Intelligence is making incredible, and even concerning inroads into our professional and personal lives.

In many ways, if we were engaging in scenarios or scenario planning (a process to create considerations/narratives regarding an uncertain world by identifying assumptions for the future and engaging the organization and stakeholders in considering how they might respond) for what the future might be like, going back just fifteen, twenty or even thirty years ago, and were able to aptly postulate a scenario that described the future we are currently living in and experiencing today, it would have been, for most parts, considered inconceivable, or far-fetched at best. The thinking required to create that scenario would have required a deep sense of imagination.

And if you think that it’s difficult for adults currently dealing with these growing adaptive challenges and dilemmas we are facing, consider how much more challenging it is for students in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environments trying to find and see lights at the end of their futures tunnel? How are they considering the future with a sense of positivity and hope, not only for themselves, but for the world around them? And if that is not enough, how can and do they not only traverse this very uncertain and ambiguous future, but learn how to approach the future with some semblance and sense of anticipation? Of being able to see themselves in that future from a perspective and lens that provides promises of hope, expectations and well-being.

Which means that we not only need to support our students and stakeholders, but our educators and educational organizations in articulating visions that help them begin to anticipate the future. To seek out new narratives for the future, without being seduced by visions and narratives that have outlived their time and relevance, by stories that are no longer supportive of a world that has and continues to shift and change in some dynamic and exponential ways. In the midst of all these difficulties and challenges we are facing, we have to begin to ask, how do reframe our current context towards processes, strategies, and mindsets that allow us to find new and energizing possibilities and opportunities in the midst of these dilemmas and challenges?

Which means that we now have to begin to consider concepts such as imagination to be both an individual asset and organizational resource in planning and preparing for the variety of futures we possibly see emerging in the future.

While we will never be able to predict the future, having the curiosity and imagination to begin to create, construct and plan for a variety of scenarios for the future will necessitate not only a rigorous use of foresight in scanning the horizon for weak and strong signals of what is emerging, but in engaging the imagination necessary what many would see as the inconceivable, unimaginable, or impossible.

While it doesn’t take much cognitive capacity to plan scenarios for the predictable or probable futures that we see coming (which feeds into our internal want and reliance on certainty), it does necessitate increasing our cognitive bandwidth to engage in futures thinking about scenarios that we are yet to even consider or entertain (allowing us to lean into uncertainty and ambiguity towards possible futures that may emerge) as possibilities.

Or as futurist Dr. Amy Zalman puts forth in the article Maxmizing the Power of Strategic Foresight, “The individual who invests time in learning how to think like a futurist emerges with an appreciation for the cognitive barriers faced by the human brain when it attempts to envision the future and will be well-practiced in holistic, synthetic, analytic, and creative ways of thinking. Organizations that adopt foresight practices to help them identify trends at an early stage and adapt or innovate to leverage those trends are in stronger competitive positions than those that do not.”

Which is incredibly important, that ability to appreciate the difficulty of engaging in, “rigorous” foresight and imagination towards the future. As neuroscience reminds us that the same area of the brain that can consider the future, is also the same area that pulls up and recalls the past. Which can and does make future thinking a difficult proposition, especially when it requires us to move past those often entrenched mental models and maps of how we view and consider the world, from what is was, to what it is, and what we think it can be.

Or as Dr. Zalman states, “One of the key tenets of foresight is that it is imperative to explore not only the most likely future but also a range of possible futures.” Which is a key tenet of foresight and scenarios, that ability to engage a “range” of possible futures. Otherwise, leaders and organizations tend to ignore or miss what is emerging across the organizational or societal landscape that may have bearing on their future. Especially when that emergence and those signals disrupt their mental models and maps of how they view and consider the world and the future it is heading towards.

Very often, when we move into the land of new possibilities where linearity and certainty gives way to uncertainty and ambiguity, both leaders and organizations can disassociate themselves from those ‘considerations’ and treat them as less than ‘real’ possibilities or future fantasies. Which can not only limit, but make the future really difficult to imagine beyond current circumstances.

As Hardin Tibbs shares in Making the Future Visible: Psychology, Scenarios and Strategy, “Organizations tend to have an implicit theory of the future, even if they have not spent time consciously developing one. This existing “mental map” can be highly resistant to change, and must be acknowledged and articulated, before they begin to move to new and expanded levels of thinking.” Which both narrows and limits our considerations for the futures that we are able to consider. In many ways, both leaders and organizations tend to act and maneuver was if we are marching towards the same predetermined future that we all acknowledge. Which means, for both educators and our educational organizations to be able to provide visions and narratives that can elevate and consider more ‘possible’ futures for our students and stakeholders, it will necessitate uncovering and updating our mental models and maps that can and do keep us grounded in preconceived notions of what the future will look like and be. For which, futurist Sohail Inyatullah refers to as “used futures” (which he shares as those things that we keep doing but do not work but we continue to do or use), which can be and often are found to be pervasive in leadership and organizational thinking, even in the midst of these dynamic and exponential shifts and changes we are experiencing both organizationally and across all of society.

Meaning that today’s leaders are going to need to, as Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy put forth in A Survival Guide for Leaders, especially if we are going to become more proactive towards the future, of “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” Towards helping our individuals, our leaders, and our organizations to better determine, “What’s really going on here?”

Otherwise, our considerations, our thinking, our ideas, our decisions, and even our scenarios of the future become limited by not only our current context, but where we find ourselves spending the majority of our time within our organizational landscapes. What we often don’t realize is not only how we spend our organizational time, but where we spend that time has great effect on our thinking, considerations, perspective, and decisions that are made within and across the organization. It’s that ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ concept that we always hear being referenced. As Heifetz and Linksy share, “Taking a balcony perspective is extremely tough to do when you’re fiercely engaged down below, being pushed and pulled by the events and people around you – and doing some pushing and pulling of your own.”

Which means, especially as a leader, we have to find opportunity to spend time on the balcony. For the balcony is often where we gain greater awareness and understanding of the dance floor, and how we can then become much more strategic in how we move forward, as well as how we engage the thinking and decisions that will align and move us toward a more preferred destination.

Hardin Tibbs talks about this as from the idea of the “strategic landscape,” which he separates into four elements, which are:

  • The Star: which provides the guiding purpose for the organization
  • The Mountain: which provides the strategic objective of what we hope to achieve
  • The Chessboard: which is the strategic environment, which includes opportunities, potentials, issues, and challenges that lie ahead
  • The Self: which is our strategic identity which encompasses our history, culture, values, and attributes as a strategic player

These four elements are also supportive in considering the “dancefloor” and the “balcony” from Heifetz and Linksy, but take it a more layered consideration. As Hardin Tibbs is asking, in regards to the “strategic landscape,” of how we are not only considering, but auditing how much time we spend on the Chessboard or (dance floor) as opposed to time that is spent in the Mountains and the Stars (balcony). Tibbs reminds us of the importance of that Mountains and Stars (balcony) “vantage point” and what we gain from that vantage point, especially when our thinking, considerations and decisions are made from a higher perspective. Which is why the audit of where we spend our time becomes important, as the “vantage point” has influence and impact on how we think, the considerations we entertain, and the decisions we make as leaders and organizations. Meaning that the context of the Mountain and Stars (balcony) and the Chessboard (dance floor) can expand or constrain our organizational possibilities and visions, depending on where we spend most of our time. From which “vantage point” we are coming from in concern to those considerations.

So, if we spend an inordinate amount of time on the Chessboard (dance floor), it will be more and more difficult to not only create new organizational narratives and visions for the future, it will become more and more difficult to ascertain signals on the horizon, of what may be emerging, and how these new possibilities will have real impact on the future of the organization. Or as Tibbs lays out, “When we are open to auditing our time and where it is spent on the organizational landscape, that we begin to be more open with our mental models and maps, our assumptions, our understandings, where our time is spent and where, what vantage points we are considering when moving forward and how those vantage points have influence on how we think, the decisions we make, and the visions and narratives we create for the future.”

It is in this space of awareness that we move from the urgent to the transformational. Where new visions and narratives are discovered as we cognitively explore new possibilities for a myriad of futures to emerge, which comes from intentionally creating greater awareness and understandings of our context and organizational landscape, and where spend our time within it. It is here, in the Mountains and Stars (balcony) that we find ourselves better equipped to challenge our assumptions of what we determine possible for the future.

“All strategic thinking and planning requires some notions about the future – even if they remain at the level of unexamined assumptions.” -Hardin Tibbs via Making the Future Visible: Psychology, Scenarios, and Strategy


How Are We Preparing For The Futures We See Coming?

“It was such a lost learning experience, because the pandemic itself has been a great opportunity for students to figure out who they are and to question their assumptions about continuity, their ideas about identity, what it means to be a citizen and how to take care of the elderly. There’s so many beautiful questions hidden in this crisis that could have been woven into curricula to provide meaning to what we are going through. The issue is that education is all about planning and preparing students for certain markets and jobs, and only to a lesser extent about exploration. And by closing our eyes to the present, we end up being not prepared for anything. To bring education into the 21st century, we need to let go of that path dependency, and create more space for failures, pilots, experiments, and explorations.” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures

In many ways, if feels as if we have worked very diligently to try and put the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, even at the risk of not learning the many lessons it has provoked and provided for us. We talk about a “new” normal, but that often serves as code for getting back as close as possible to some semblance of what we did or were doing pre-pandemic. To getting back to the “certainty” of the known. We talk about creating the individual and organizational capacity to lean into the rising complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of these current times, while spending our time chasing the illusion of and assurance of certainty. We continue to probe at solving the expanding, and often unsolvable, dilemmas and adaptive challenges of our times with veneer, ready-made solutions, when we need to begin to focus on building the fortitude and capacity towards learning how to “manage” these challenges more effectively.

It often feels as if we are intent on trying to forget and put the pandemic behind us, rather than engaging in reflection upon and learning from the myriad of lessons that the struggles of what we’ve gone through have uncovered, projected, catalyzed, and/or has shown and unveiled to us over the last few years.

Maybe what we have to realize, is that in many ways, the pandemic has changed our image of the future. How we now think about it? How we consider it? How we picture and visualize it? Even how we determine our dreams, hopes, and possibilities of and for the future? While it is not always readily apparent to us, what we have come to recognize is that our post-pandemic image of the future is quite often challenging our pre-pandemic view of the future. And unfortunately, in this age of extreme busyness and accelerated change, we rarely have or take the time to intentionally engage in considerations of how, why, and what that means for us moving forward, both individually and organizationally.

Which engages the thought from Kees Van Der Heijden for us, both individually and organizationally, which he shares in his book Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, “The prime question to be addressed is whether the organization is well-equipped for the futures we can see coming?”

Which is a much deeper question than we probably consider upon first glance, of what is well-equipped and what do we see coming? How are we equipping ourselves individually and organizationally for these emerging futures? What competencies and capacities have we already built up, and what ones do we need to engage and expand? How are we rigorously scanning the horizon, both individually and organizationally to determine the weak and strong signals of what is coming? What kind of processes and systems do we have in place to sustain that work, decipher what those signals may mean for us individually and organizationally, and then have the internal and external network aptitude to spread that information to better prepare for the futures we see coming?

For which Epamindondas Christophilopoulos, the Head of Foresight and Tools at the Foundation for Research and Technology shares in What Is Futures Literacy and Why Is It Important? “We need to give people this skill to deal with a future full of uncertainties, and to emancipate them by helping them understand how we can anticipate and how we can use the future in the present to provide hope.” Which is effectively pushing us to move those concepts of – complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty – from where we’ve hidden them in the rear-view mirror, and to place them out in front of us, in full windshield view for us to see and confront head on. To putting them right out there, front and center of where we are heading towards, knowing that in today’s VUCA world, they will be traveling with us anyways. And to add, this “skill” that Christophilopoulos is referring to, is our capacity to become more comfortable with the future and our ability to then anticipate the future in a way that is more futures literate.

Which, especially in discussing literacies, is not often a term that we are familiar with or have heard of in reference to literacies. And yet, we live in a world where the term “literacy” is expanding beyond what we’ve previously considered in terms of literacy. There’s digital, cultural, financial, and social, just to name a few. As well as futures literacy…

As there is not just one way to think about the future, just as there is not just one future.

It is when we consider the future or futures from a literacy perspective, we can find ourselves more open to visualizing how we approach the future and “use” the future as something that can be cultivated and learned. It is something that we can build capacity with, both individually and collectively.

As Riel Miller, Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO shares, “Futures literacy helps us understand how the future is created, how we imagine the future to be, and what the impact is of imagining the future? Our ability to anticipate future outcomes tends to shape our choices, our strategies, and our long-term plans.” To add, UNESCO puts forth, “Futures literacy is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being futures literate empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur.” To which Riel Miller adds, “Futures literacy helps us to be more sophisticated in how we use the future as a lens. It is a way of opening our perception and allows us to anticipate. Which provides us another way into resilience. To negotiating shared meaning. As we need to be more sophisticated in how the future is used by us. Uncertainty is a resource, not something we can eradicate.”

All of which is incredibly important to our current context and times, especially for our educational and societal systems, as we consider the future that is coming at us. The way that we’ve considered how the world works have become murky myths that are challenging our long-held assumptions. Especially as many of the rites of passage, rituals of change, even our mental models and maps that have guided us in our lives and within our organizations, systems, and society for so long, are either being reframed or are seen as crumbling pillars falling all around us. All of which are creating greater levels of uncertainty, broader breadths of unknowns, especially in how we view, envision, and anticipate the future. As Riel Miller shared previously, this will require us, both individually and organizationally, “to be more sophisticated in how we use the future.” That “sophistication” becomes more valuable, vital and important as these coming societal shifts accelerate change, expand complexity and ambiguity across our societal landscapes, and instigating a plethora of growing instabilities within our systems, as both the weak and strong signals on the horizon of our future increases the myriad of unknowns and scenarios that we must consider facing in both the short- and long-term.

So, if we are going to be able to support our students, families, stakeholders, educators, and educational leaders to anticipate the future, to be open to emergence and novelty in those futures, to lean into the complexity and uncertainty of our current context and times, then we have to be able to not only stretch ourselves cognitively away from our need and assurance for certainty, but to see this as a creative moment. An opportunity for imagination and innovation to take the front seat, especially if our images, visions, and narratives for the future are to be more preferable in realizing our collective hopes, than giving into our often dystopian fears.

Thereby, allowing us to use the future as a vehicle to drive us towards better decisions in the present, by being more “sophisticated” in how we consider and use the future, we can create new and more preferable images of the future we want and are willing to strive for, allowing us to backwards map those images towards improving the thinking, actions and decisions we are making in the present, both as individuals and as organizations. For it is that anticipation of, supported by a willingness to discover, explore, and experiment, driven by our individual and collective imaginations, that we see that there is no “one” future, but a myriad and diversity of futures constantly emerging, and the more “sophisticated” we are in using the future, the more apt we are to move towards those preferable futures we imagine and envision.

It is in this space that we are able to ask questions, challenge our assumptions, and embrace the learning that lies in that chasm between our pre- and post-pandemic world. 

As the world changes, often in accelerated and in unanticipated ways, so do our considerations and assumptions, much of which are grounded in the past. Shifting our mental models and maps from the rear-view mirror to the windshield allows us to release thinking we’ve entrenched in a world that no longer exists, so we can begin to creatively confront the uncertain and unknown futures that now await us. And the more sophisticated we can be in that journey, the more open we will be to the emergence of the diversity of futures that lie down the road.

“If you feel that you’re approaching the future with fear, you have to come to understand where that fear comes from. We tend to have this inherent fear of uncertainty because we simply don’t like it, and not knowing can make us scared. Mind you, that holding on to one scenario, one image of the future, may give you security, but it’s a false sense of security. I think it’s important to see that uncertainty is a friend. It’s not something to be scared of or something to eliminate, it’s something to embrace. Not knowing means that there’s still a lot of opportunities. Always try to accept more than one idea of what the future could be, and remind yourself that it does not exist. So, whenever you’re confronted by this, ask yourself: Whose future is it, anyway?” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures

Novelty: Moving Past Creative Complacency

“Surprisingly, novelty is even more important than stability. In a study conducted with a group of three hundred new employees, I found that the more frequently they experienced novelty in their work in the weeks that followed, the more they felt satisfied with and energized by their jobs, and the longer they were interested in staying with the organization. Stability, by contrast, did not seem to bring these benefits. When employees reported that their job felt “more or less the same every day,” their satisfaction suffered, and they were more eager to move on.” -Francesca Gino via Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life

What is really interesting, when considering the outcomes of this study, especially in regard to leadership, is that most leaders are focused on the exact opposite of creating environments where novelty is frequently experienced. Instead, seeing the necessity towards focusing on providing greater stability and efficiency serves as a key to their managing role, particularly in the context of current times and the pervasive chaos and unknowns that have entered our organizational ecosystems.

But, before we go any farther with this conversation, let’s give a bit of space here to making sure that we have a good grasp on what novelty actually is, especially if it is as important as the study relays for increasing both engagement and retention, and ultimately, how that then can feed into greater creativity and innovation through an openness to experience and self-expansion.

Beginning with Google’s definition of novelty as being “the quality of being new, original, or unusual.” Or as Francesca Gino shares in Rebel Talent, “Novelty compels both humans and animals to engage with the unfamiliar.” But goes on to add, “And yet, while we are born with a strong drive to seek novelty, this drive fades over time. As we grow older, other desires take over, like wanting more predictability. The organizations we build and join reflect this reality.” So, so far, we are finding concepts connected to novelty such as the new, the original, unusual, and unfamiliar.

The farther we dig into novelty, the more that we see that it is a core component of creativity, and ultimately innovation. Or as Schweizer adds in The Psychology of Novelty-Seeking, Creativity and Innovation, creativity is “a concept which comprises two processes: novelty finding and novelty producing.” As Francesca Gino adds in Rebel Talent, “Novelty increases our job satisfaction, our creativity, and our overall performance.” As Gino advances, “Part of the explanation is that, in our brains, novelty and pleasure are deeply entwined.”

Which means, that unfortunately, when leaders are not making the novel and new more familiar to their work and organizational environments, it becomes something that feels uncomfortable and is often to be avoided. When leaders remain focused on efficiency, stability, and the known, we ultimately allow our individuals, as well as our organizations, to fall into ruts of familiarity, allowing routine, familiar habits, and comfort to take over.

Which may very well be why many adults struggle with creativity and seeing themselves as creative.

If we are more honest towards the reality of our organizational environments, from education to government, to business and industry, we could honestly say that we have often failed to create consistent spaces where the novel and new promotes the engagement to move us past creative complacency. Thereby, and often, entrenching our organizations in the status quo by failing to consistently incorporate the unusual and unfamiliar to spark more creative and innovative thinking and doing. And not just in failing to spark that creativity and innovation, but losing both an individual and organizational anticipation for what is to happen next. Without anticipation for what comes next, disengagement quickly follows, and creativity is diminished. Without that spark of anticipation for the future and what is to come next, we find our organizational environments entrenched in familiar routines and set habits grinding into rote ruts of stability that ultimately lead to individual disengagement and organizational stasis. Meaning, that without any opportunity on the cognitive horizon for the novelty that disrupts processes of sameness, both individuals and the organization settle in to the status quo.

Which beckons the question, why is this important if our organizations are working fine?

The questions is, are they? Are our organizations operating effectively, efficiently and just fine? Whereas, in fact, most research and studies show that many if not most of our organizations are struggling with engagement, retention, creativity, and innovation. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shared that, “According to a 2017 Gallup poll, three out of ten employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.” For which CCL adds that the rise of remote work combined with the COVID pandemic has only done more to worsen the problem that had already existed. Furthermore, it is not just engaging and valuing opinions that is struggling through remote work and our current context, as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft shared in a conversation with Adam Grant, “An internal analysis of Microsoft showed that when 60,000 people had to shift to remote during the pandemic, their networks got more siloed and static, and decades of research have shown that is bad for creativity and innovation, as you end up with redundant knowledge rather than fresh perspectives.” Another example that novelty and creativity are an organizational struggle. However, it does not end there, as a 2020 Gallup poll shares, “Currently, 36% of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace. The percentage of actively disengaged employees is up slightly in the U.S., from 14% in 2020 to 15% through June 2021.” Disengagement is on the rise, organizationally. And it doesn’t end with engagement and retention, as Inc. magazine shares in Research Suggests We’re All Getting Less Creative and Scientists Think They Know Why, “A researcher at the University of William and Mary found that creativity scores began nosediving in 1990. She concluded that we’re now facing a creativity crisis.”

A creativity crisis that we can ill-afford to ignore or avoid…

The research and studies show that we are struggling, especially in the current context and times, in creating environments that spawn more openness to experience and self-expansion in an effort to not only increase engagement, but to move us out of our creative complacency. To create spaces and environments that expand our cognitive boundaries and lead us into novel opportunities that can instigate and amplify creative and innovative thinking and risk taking. As Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire share in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “The drive for exploration, in its many forms, may be the single most important factor predicting creative achievement.” Which takes leaders willing to intentionally create spaces and organizational environments where exploration, experimentation, and discovery learning can not only occur, but are encouraged, even when the outcome may lead to a failure. For, what we often forget is that is where the greatest opportunities for learning are garnered, both individually and organizationally.

Unfortunately, ideas of exploration, experimentation, discovery learning, and risk taking are seldom aligned to environments focused on stability. But that is the very place where creativity is spurred forward. But too often, those concepts come face to face with leaders and organizations focused on building steady environments of stability and equilibrium, focused on exploitation of the known over exploration of the unknown. And far too often, we are more than willing to feed this need for efficiency, sameness and rote routines and process. It is easier, more comfortable, and less messy. But in the end, do little more than to create cognitive ruts that play themselves out in organizational habits and processes that ingrain creative complacency.

However, while these opportunities towards openness to experience and self-expansion opens us up to more novelty, creativity, and innovation, it does not occur without intentionality. People have to feel safe to willingly disrupt creative complacency and ignite pockets of innovative thinking and doing. However, this does not happen without infusing our organizational environments with higher levels of psychological safety. It is difficult enough to lean in to self-expansion and an openness to experience in safe spaces, but it is exponentially harder in environments where fear and judgment are pervasive. Which makes trust and psychological safety that much more important to creating these creative and engaging environments. Or as Organizational Behavioral Scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard shares when providing a definition of psychological safety as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

And without that shared belief, status quo prevails.

To further promote novelty and creative environments through an openness to experience and self-expansion, Psychology Today puts forth three practices in How Openness to Experience Boosts Creativity and Well-Being to “Jumpstart” Creativity that can be considered as starting points:

Nudge the Edge of your Comfort Zone: Too often, when we avoid having an openness to experience and the new, we never find ourselves leaving our own comfort zone. We have to be willing to determine what our cognitive boundaries are and also then be willing to step over and past those boundaries. For it is in those spaces of the unfamiliar, unusual and unknown that we learn to allow ourselves to explore and experiment. Which move us into discovery learning that ultimately expands those boundaries and pushes us past stability and where we feel comfortable, and into new growth and learning.

Prototype over Perfection: Too often we wait and wait and wait for perfection to come, which it never does. So we wait until it is too late. We wait until action is now no longer a viable option. Rather, sometimes we have to put our thinking and ideas out on the table and let them find their own legs. In psychologically safe environments, we can be open with our thinking and ideas and allow for positive conflict to drive that thinking and those ideas to become even better, more creative and innovative.

Follow your Curiosities, Not your Passions: Curiosity is a catalyst, and a curious mindset provokes us to continually evolve through ongoing learning that leads to new knowledge, new thinking, new ideas, bending us to new possibilities. Curiosity takes us to places where passion doesn’t. It is curiosity that provokes us to move beyond our cognitive borders and dig deep into self-expansion, igniting our creative spirit. 

In the end, it falls to leadership to intentionally create the spaces and environments that not only allow for the ongoing introduction of the new and novel, and with that, invokes not only deeper individual and organizational engagement, but stokes greater levels of creativity and innovation.

Which often begins with the questions that leaders are willing to consider, ask and explore:

How do we determine to create spaces and environments infused with novelty, that allow for openness of experience and self-expansion that lead to more creativity and innovation?

Have we lost the anticipation for what is to happen next? If so, how do we actively reengage this?

Have we created environments that are creatively complacent? If so, how do we utilize openness to experience and self-expansion to engage the creativity to move us out of our cognitive ruts and status quo ways?

How do we create psychologically safe spaces where self-expansion and openness to experience can flourish, overcoming both fear and judgment?

In closing, when leaders introduce the novel and new, it pushes individuals and the organization out of their cognitive ruts, to not only invoke greater creativity and innovation, but a deeper anticipation for the future.

“Openness to experience – the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds – is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” -Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire via Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

Considering The “Default” Future

“You have a chance to reinvent the default, to make it better. Or we can maintain the status quo. Which way will you contribute?” -Seth Godin

  • How often do you consider the future that you are facing?
  • How often do you take time to question that future?
  • Do you consider the future from a singular or plural lens?
  • How often do you take time to imagine new futures?

The future is an interesting consideration, in that it is the future. It is not something that we can know, predict or count on. Rather, it is both uncertain and unknown, constantly evolving, emerging, and changing. But even in the midst of that ambiguity, without consideration, curiosity, imagination, we become much more accepting of the future as an unmanageable inevitability, rather than something we can have influence upon and design towards for even greater impact. If not careful, how we approach the future can do more to entrench us in the status quo than evoke new possibilities.

In other words, the future can become an accepted default…

And it is that default that we need to become much more aware of, both as leaders and as organizations, if we are going to effectively move towards the consideration of more preferable and possible futures. To add to the idea of the default, shares, “In computer technology, a default is a predesigned value or setting that is used by a computer program when a value or setting is not specified by the program user.” For which the definition continues, “To the program requestor, to default is to intentionally or accidentally allow the reestablished value or setting for an item to be used by the program. Default pertains to something that is used when something else is not supplied or specified.”

More than we realize, that very same technology “default” definition can just as easily be applied to how leaders and organizations can often view and approach the future. Those “established value or settings” can very easily become the “default” specifications for how accepting we can become towards a preordained future. Unless we are intentionally taking a long-view, unless we are taking time and space to imagine new and more preferable and possible futures, and then proactively doing something each and every day that moves us towards achieving those visions for the future, we often find that we are living into that “default” future, both individually and organizationally.

Or as Jeff Hittner shares in What You Ought To Know About The Default Future You’re Heading For, “Your default future is what is likely to happen if nothing unexpected comes along. It lives at the level of your intuition, rather than at that place where you daydream about what’s to come, so it is rarely discussed or analyzed.” For which he adds, “The default future is one you have already written, without even realizing it. It’s the track you’re on, the automated treadmill that continues unless something drastically changes.”

When leaders and organizations become aware of how easily the “default” future takes over, it comes with the realization that those very settings and values that move us into the “default” need to be disrupted, through an act of creation or imagination. Or as Logan and Saffron share in The Three Laws of Performance, “The act of creating a new future displaces whatever default future was already there.” But that necessitates leaders building in the spaces and environments where that thinking and work can have room incubate, percolate, and develop. Where new narratives and visions can come to life. It requires asking, as Logan and Saffron share, “Does your default future have any space in it to create something new, or is all filled up? Rewriting your future alters how situations occur in the present. Doing so requires that we fully create a blank space and then make declarations into that space.”

Once awareness of the “default” is achieved, it will be in our willingness to question that future, that individuals and organizations can begin to disrupt the status quo and the “default” that we are often unconsciously moving towards. We can no longer readily accept the “default” future, if we are going to create new narratives and visions for the future, if we are going to create a better way forward.

We will have to be willing to disrupt the “default” future, if we are going to create new futures…

Or as Adam Grant shares in the Originals, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” More preferable and possible futures often arise out of the curiosity to explore whether “a better option exists.” Just know, disrupting the “default” and the status quo is not as easy as it seems. It is often met with deep levels of resistance. Or, as we all know, being original is very often closely aligned with with a willingness to serve as an outlier.

However, it is only when we are willing to disrupt and discover beyond the “default” that new futures are able to be considered and imagined.

“Learning and innovation go hand and hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” -William Pollard

A Parable For Systems Awareness

“To understand a system it is not enough to consider first-order consequences. We should wonder if the people who created the system were using second-order thinking. That is, we should think about the consequences of the consequences. The reasons for making certain choices may be more complex than they seem at first.” -via Decision-Making and Chesterton’s Fence

There is this parable, which may or may not be widely known, referred to as Chesterton’s Fence. Chesterton’s Fence can be considered as a principle for creating greater awareness and approaching change in our systems, organizations, and even as individuals. Let’s begin by building some understanding to just what is this parable known as Chesterton’s Fence? Below you will find a quotation from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, shared by Wikipedia, which provides some insight into this parable…

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly. won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

So, the question then becomes, what importance, if any, does this parable have for today’s modern leaders, systems, and organizations?

We can begin by digging a little deeper into the Chesterton parable from another frame. Brave New Work author Aaron Dignan shares his thoughts on Chesterton’s Fence in an interview from the article, Misunderstanding Innovation, We Create Systems That Inhibit Randomness and the Beauty of Serendipity“The impact of that knowledge gap can be explained by the Chesterson’s fence parable, where people come upon a fence in the middle of nowhere and see the fence is not holding anything. They look at it, wondering: “What is that fence for?” They weren’t there when the fence was built. They don’t know to what reason it was built, but there definitely was an intent, because no crazy person makes a fence for no reason.” For which Dignan adds, “So, there is this gap of knowledge about the reasons why certain policies exist in organizations.”

Knowledge gaps that abound, as our organizational ecosystems are often littered with a plethora of these fences, from policies to procedures. We see them, we know they exist, we just don’t know where they came from, why they were created, and the mindset that was behind their construction. And in most instances, a why isn’t even necessary. These fences have been determined to be an obstacle and their removal or deconstruction and dismantling has already been determined moving forward.

Many leaders and organizations, don’t consider the intent of the fence as a necessary consideration, especially if it seems an unnecessary obstacle to progress. Meaning that the knowledge gap is seldom acknowledged or, if ever, closed.

Which can possibly have unintended (second and third level) consequences far into the future for the leader, the organization, and the system in which the fence was created. This is not to say that the fence should not be removed, but rather, the fence should not be removed before an understanding is created and consideration to knowing why or how the fence came to be.

Was there was some reason for why the fence was created and why it is there?

This is not to go against the idea that a policy or procedure has outlived its usefulness or has rendered itself irrelevant under the current context or circumstances, but what effect and impact will its removal have on the system? The parable is asking leaders and organizations to incorporate a deeper understanding, a more reflective stance, and a greater systems awareness towards change and decisions that are made.

Of how the understandings of the past and considerations for the future, will intersect in making better decisions in the present.

It is also in realizing that the parable of Chesterton’s Fence not only resides in the external, such as organizational policies and procedures, but internally, in our mental models and maps that we’ve each created towards how we view, frame, and approach our work, our organizations, and our world. The more aware and reflective we are towards these models and maps that we’ve created, the clearer we become towards our assumptions, behaviors, and bias’. For it is at that level of understanding that we can more effectively notice, consider, deconstruct, construct, and revise those models and maps to not only parallel pace the accelerating rate of change, but to meet the context and conditions that are continuously evolving under these current circumstances..

Whether, internally (individually) or externally (organizationally), the complexity, volatility, and speed of change in today’s world will often require ongoing systems interventions and disruptions.

So, any fence seen to be standing in the middle of the field with no rhyme or reason, serving as an obstacle, often does not qualify for the time to understand the underlying reason(s) or intent to why the fence is there, before determining to dismantle or remove it. It is that lack of awareness and understanding that can create unintended systems consequences from fence removals. Which can often be alleviated through reflectively and intentionally creating those deeper levels of awareness and understandings, be that internally or externally.

The article, Assessing Legacy Code Using Chesterton’s Fence, ushers forward a variety of questions towards determining why some fences were created and why those fences exist, which include:

  • What did they know at the time?
  • What couldn’t they have known at the time?
  • What were they trying to accomplish?
  • What constraints were they dealing with?

Questions allow us to play with the “what if” and engage the “rationale” behind these fences, as well as the level of complexity and considerations that were evaluated in erecting those fences. Thinking which can then alleviate often unforeseen or unintended consequences as decisions are made within our systems. Which also then builds better systems understandings and awareness for leaders and the organization.

For, far too often, fences are removed without knowing the intent to why those fences were constructed in the first place.

The parable of Chesterton’s Fence reminds us that deepening our understandings of the past allows us to better engage change for the future, thereby allowing for better decisions to be made in the present.

“Whenever you remove any fence always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.” -G.K. Chesterton

Moving Into “Futures”

“Futures shape our perception. When we perceive through too few kinds of futures – such as goal-oriented project visions or probabilistic projections – we tend to pay closest attention to the phenomena and transformation occurring in our world that fit with those futures. However, when we stretch ourselves to look through several different kinds of futures generated for different purposes, we can see more aspects, pathways, and potentials of transformation, and opportunities for experimentation.” -Riel Miller via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill For Climate Innovation by Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh

When you think of the future, what do you think of? When we think of the future, why do we consider it in singular, rather than plural terms? Rather, why does it often seem that we’ve come to some forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future that exists and we are all moving towards it?

While we may consider that there are many offshoots, there also seems to be this forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future we are all striving towards, and we all seem to be on the same train. We tend to think of what we are all moving towards as “THE” future.

However, when we really begin to consider how we think about the “future” in this singular manner, we begin to see how limited the scope of that vision truly is. We begin to realize that this lens towards the future is loaded with our own internal premises, assumptions, speculations, perceptions, and visions of what that “official” future is going to be, without much consideration or question of what others think about that future.

In many ways, what thinking we do about the future, tends to be and stay an internal process.

And while it seems as if our organizations and leaders are ceaselessly creating new visions and vision statements for that future, it still, and may always feel a bit nebulous and uncertain. However, at the same time, for some unknown reason, it also tends to feel a bit known. Maybe that is because we expect the future to be just like the past. And maybe that is because, as Schacter and Madore share, “Recent studies have shown that imagining or simulating future events relies on many of the same cognitive and neural processes as remember past events.” Or episodic memory. For which they add, “Future simulations are built on retrieved details of specific past experiences that are recombined into novel events.”

Which means that many of our thoughts and ideas for the future are often retrieved from the past.

In many ways, by how we approach the future, it feels as if we expect it to be an ongoing iterative loop of upgrading the past, towards some idea of a “better” future. We tend to approach the future much like an iPhone; the basic function and feel of the phone remains similar or the same, while at the same time the phone itself and its iOS are receiving ongoing upgrades and improvements.

But how often do we question this assumption of an “official” future? How often do we turn a critical eye towards how we accept that one “official” future we are apparently destined for? How often do we open ourselves up to a wider array of possibilities for the future? How often do move our thinking from one future to the consideration of a variety of futures? Of realizing that there is no one “official” future and that a plethora of futures are emerging all of the time.

When, as leaders and organizations, we engage a diversity of voices in considering “THE” future, we realize that “future” is not, and cannot be sufficient, for the considerations and narratives that emerge from those conversations. Too be sufficient, future must become futures, if we are to realize the full potential of the possibilities that exist. It necessitates that our individuals, leaders, and organizations begin to become much more acquainted with and aware of being “futures” literate.

Especially if we are going to create a future that is much more inclusive, equitable, and hopefully, much more preferable.

And just like building up other forms of literacy, building up our “futures” literacy abilities will require engaging in processes and scenarios that allow the organizational community to consider a much wider variety of futures, from the probable to the improbable, if new possibilities are to be pondered, contemplated, and examined.

Which, as was touched upon previously, in regards to episodic memory, will necessitate deep reflection upon and consideration of how the past constantly influences the future and how our mental models and maps may need updating and reconfiguring moving forward. Or as Nicolas Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy, “In parallel, developing an interest in exploring less comfortable kinds of futures such as strange futures, improbable futures, and radically transformative futures is helpful to developing futures literacy. These more unusual forms of futures help us move beyond preparation and planning purposes for suturing to also engage change, creativity, and novelty.” For which he adds, “Futures literacy is a capability about expanding how we engage with our models of the future. It invites us to use different conceptions and ideas about the future as lenses for interpreting, understanding, and seeing anew our world and ourselves in it.”

Which is an incredibly important and salient point in how we approach futures literacy and becoming futures literate. Futures literacy is a capability and/or competency. It is something that we acquire and build up when we spend time with and in it. It is a literacy, and like any other literacy, requires time and effort to build up that futures literacy muscle. And it is also in understanding that is needed more now than ever in the midst of our complex and often volatile times to better prepare us for the non-obvious futures that are emerging and coming at us, in an often accelerated and unexpected manner.

Which is why it is essential for us and our organizations to lean more into using and building up those futures literacy muscles in our people, our leadership, and our organizations if we are to gain greater capacity in using this literacy to better prepare us for anticipating and using the future for better outcomes. As Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy:

Futures literacy calls for:

  • Paying attention / being conscious when we use futures;
  • Being reflective about the futures we use (our ideas, images, conceptions, and sentiments about the future);
  • Being able to switch between different types of futures (e.g., probable, desirable, strange, transformative, etc.) for different purposes (e.g., preparation/planning or making sense of emergence);
  • Most importantly, it involves looking at our changing world through these many futures – for future and for emergence – and spotting opportunities to try something you didn’t realize you could try before.

When we raise our awareness towards the understanding that we are no longer marching towards one “official” future and, in fact, a variety of futures are constantly emerging around us in expected and very unexpected ways, we become much more open to searching out the diversity of thinking about those futures that exist in our organizations. Bringing that diversity of thinking to the table allows us all to become much more aware to that variety and new possibilities of futures that could and should be considered in preparing our organizations for the future. By building up our individual and organizational futures literacy capabilities, we can begin to lean into those voices and explore the possibilities it will bring forth.

“This plural form, futures, carries in it the idea that at any given point in time there is potential for many different futures and people today have a role to play in creating which one ultimately materializes.” -Nicolas Balcom Raleigh via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill for Climate Innovation

Will We Need To Rethink Better?

“If organizations continue to reference paradigms and social stories from the past during a time of rapid change they fail to grasp what really matters to the society that is emerging.” -Helen Halford via “Build Back Better” – Used Futures as the Cornerstone for the New Normal

In many ways, today’s leaders are having to create a new vocabulary, new understandings, and come to new realizations to not only comprehend how the world is changing, how quickly those changes are coming, but also in realizing that what worked in the past no longer necessarily works or is even relevant as a lens and frame for how those changes have shifted our systems, our organizations, and our world as a whole.

What we are learning is that the past is no longer serves as a sufficient guide, model or map to effectively lead us into the future that we see evolving and emerging…

And yet, the question then becomes, are we ready to determine a new narrative? Are we able to create a new story? Can we make the mind-shift as leaders and organizations to move from pushing incremental reform in order to quell the current wave of growing uncertainties, to holding space for the thinking and ideas needed to provide exponential visions of change that can move an organization towards transformation?

Which will require leaders and organizations to begin to distance themselves from the idea of “Building back better” towards shifting to the thinking that allows us to consider how we can “Build back different.”

As Helen Halford shares in Build Back Better, “In a context of significant disruption, an organization’s failure to use strategies for deepening before making decisions about the future can lead to reactive behaviors and a missed opportunity for lasting change.” For which she adds, “Adherence to the story of building back better instead of creating from the future makes long-term social transformation unlikely. With well-meaning intent organizations unconsciously revitalizing an old story could respond to the litany of crisis by building back familiarity and stability…creating a recognizable version of the past.” As she continues, “As we go about creating a new, equitable, diverse and resilient society we must ensure we have untethered ourselves from status quo.”

Which is not an easy proposition, be that for leaders or organizations…

As returning to status quo, especially in the midst of a crisis, such as a pandemic, promises feelings of comfort, of progress, of returning back to some semblance of “normalcy” of what existed before everything became much more complex and uncertain, both professionally and personally. But what we often fail to realize, the assumption that we continue to make, is that if we return back to how is was before (pre-pandemic), that these heightened levels of complexity and uncertainty will fade away and “normalcy” will return.

Unfortunately, complexity and uncertainty aren’t going anywhere, and what the status quo and “Building back better” instead of “Building back different” only promises leaders and organizations a future that has already been “used” up, one that is no longer relevant, viable, or in the current context, even preferable for the future that the organization is moving towards.

Think of it like this…

“Building back better” is comparable to remodeling an old house (reform), whereas, “Building back different” is comparable to deconstructing that house in order to construct a whole new building (transform). Which is a whole different level of thinking, requiring new models and maps.

As Maree Conway shares in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “When we plan for the future, however, there is an often unspoken assumption underpinning thinking that the future will be an extension of the present as that type of status quo provides a level of certainty that humans crave. Thinking beyond the status quo is essential if organizations are to develop strategy that truly prepares us for the future that our strategic decisions today create.”

Which will require leaders and organizations to not only be strategic in their thinking about the future, but also the assumptions that are being made about that future, how those futures are being anticipated, and how those assumptions and anticipation will have effect on the decisions being made in the current context, in the present.

Part of this strategic thinking will require a deep reflection of how the past, the models and maps that have been constructed over time by both leaders and the organization, can and does influence that thinking, and can constrain and control how the future is framed, limiting opportunities for being open to what is emerging and what affect that emergence may have moving forward towards determining if deeper levels of learning, change and even transformation will be needed and necessary.

Which makes strategic thinking and reflection a vital part of the process towards “Building back different” for both leaders and organizations.

As Conway puts forth in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “Strategy is about the future, not today, so the thinking that underpins strategy development needs to be futures focused, not stalled in the status quo of today. Because the future is highly uncertain and cannot be predicted or known to a degree where data can be produced, the human proclivity for certainty means the value of thinking about the future is dismissed, and the focus of strategic thinking remains on the status quo.”

If we are going to be able to move from reforming to transforming, to move from “Building back better” to “Building back different,” we will have to become much more aware. Aware of how much of what we consider for the future, of the ideas that are informing that future, are often projections pushed forward from the models and maps that have been constructed from both the past and the present.

Most organizations are very adept at utilizing the past to guide present efforts, but struggle to engage the organization in deep and expansive thinking towards not only the future, but futures. Reflecting upon and updating our mental models and maps allows leaders and organizations to ensure that their expectations for the future are not grounded and entrenched models and maps erected from thinking grounded in the past. Or as is shared in Foresight for Challenging Environments, “The imagined future was only possible once the reality of the past extended had been acknowledged. A new present could be created.”

Awareness and reflection allows leaders and the organization to determine the disconnects between the past, present and the future, especially towards what is emerging, both internally and external of the organization. Being strategic, allows leaders and the organization to hold space for the openness to determine how that emergence will have impact, both in the present and future, and what that means in transitioning towards towards those futures.

“Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide for the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change arise.” -Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers via Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future

Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky

Becoming Futures Literate: Updating Mental Models, Maps And The Cognitive De-Colonizing Of The Future

“The question is not how to cope with a universe that seems to be getting more complex, but how to improve our ability to take advantage of the novel emergence that has surrounded us.” -Riel Miller via Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future

It is difficult to deny the amount of complexity that has risen and been levied down across society and our systems over the last year. This was not a disruption, it is much deeper than that. In many ways, it was a widespread societal shift that affected everyone, both personally and professionally. It not only changed how we look at the present, it cast a long shadow on how we would visualize and approach the future.

We went from preparing for, to being thrust into the midst of VUCA.

Or environments that had become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex and much more ambiguous. And yet, it wasn’t just the vast VUCAness of the last year, but the disequilibrium of the unknowns and veiled future that the last year brought with it. An all encompassing disequilibrium that spread virally across all areas of our lives, which will continue to linger and ultimately have long-lasting effect on the future for all of us. For it is far easier to talk about finding the opportunities that exist in the midst of the disequilibrium created from crisis and chaos, than it is to actually discover and engage it positively and productively. Meaning that, especially as the arc of a crisis extends, both individuals and organizations slowly turn away from the tipping points of transformation and the unknowns that accompany it and begin to look furtively for a return to the safety of what was, of what felt comfortable, of what was known.

But no matter how we try, what we now find is that the mental models and maps that have accompanied and taken us up to this point, are seemingly no longer effective to take us forward effectively on the next leg of this journey, of our next steps into the future. When we really take the time to reflect, we find that those very same models and maps are grounded in a past perspective that is no longer viable or even useful to move us forward through the futures that we see emerging. Much like our technology and their operating systems, our mental models and maps require updates to remain relevant and effective.

It will remain difficult to parallel pace the accelerating rate of change using cognitive operating systems that have become outdated, or even obsolete.

The more we are willing to update our operating systems, and those models and maps that are often entrenched in the past, the more prepared we become to “use the future” to better prepare our individuals and organizations in the present. Too often, we do more to “accept” than we do to “use” the future. The narratives and design of the future that we are engaging in within the present, will ultimately have bearing on whether we become “accepting” of what we’ve determined to be probable or plausible futures, or if we will determine to “use” the future in ways that move us towards working for more preferable and possible futures.

Futures that our students will one day inherent…

Which will necessitate that we become much more aware and literate in and of how we determine to “use” the future, if we are going to then create futures that are more inclusive and inviting of multiple narratives and considerations of the futures that we want for our future generations. Which will require a diversity of voices, a diversity of thinking, a diversity of lenses, and a diversity of input, ideas, and visions of and for those futures.

Rethinking and reframing of how we approach our processes will be needed and necessary…

As Jim Dator shares in De-Colonizing the Future, “The crucial difference, then, between a better-or at least livable-future and one of catastrophe and chaos seems to be the ability of people to make appropriate decisions in sufficient time. We need people who are motivated, informed, sensitive, to the values and perceptions of others, and within political structures which facilitate relevant action.” For which Dator puts forth as part of the Futures Project, which was, “(1) To alert people to “the future” as an area of necessary and proper concern to themselves; and (2) To encourage people to gain greater control over their future by providing them with: ideas and metaphors; information; access to information; channels of communication; opportunities to unlock their imagination and creativity concerning desirable and feasible futures; and political structures which facilitate their realizing their desired futures.”

Which is incredibly important, for if we are to begin to look at de-colonizing the future, we have to be much more open to the diversity that was previously discussed and much more open to hearing and engaging multiple truths and perspectives towards the future. When voices are limited, so is our imagination and openness towards the future. Which ultimately limits our ability and willingness to gain a greater awareness of what is emerging, be that internally or externally of us individually, as well as our organizations and our systems.

When imagination is limited, so are our visions towards these futures.

As the Futures Centre shares, Decolonizing the Future would include some of the following considerations:

  • Challenging cultural definitions of time and “the future”
  • Challenging our mental models and unlearning cultural norms that benefit a hierarchical worldview
  • Accepting that we don’t have all of the answers
  • Redefining who is an expert and defining expertise in a more inclusive way
  • Creating spaces for marginalized and underrepresented people and voices
  • That this is an ongoing journey that requires both learning and unlearning, as well as acknowledging the roles we play and privilege we bring in our exploration of futures

In many ways, beyond what has already been shared, we have to engage in what Riel Miller puts forth in Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future, which is the idea of engaging in “rigorous imagination.” As Miller adds, “The challenge is to find practical ways to use the future as part of the process of discovering and creating the present.” It is in this space, a space open to discovery and creation, that we can begin to consider not only better futures, futures that are more possible and preferable, but that we find ourselves and our organizations becoming better prepared through (foresight) to make the decisions in the present that support intentional design towards those more preferable and possible futures. It is in this space that we begin to become more futures literate, emerging both as a skill-set and as an action-orientation.

“The danger is that formal, preconceived sources of inspiration, intended to enable discovery, are all too often exactly what snuffs it out. By insisting and imposing the patterns, words, and ideas of the past on the present, the new and not-yet-meaningful cannot be invented and brought into our sense-making processes. Exploration is not about the paths not taken – which are only the possibilities of the past brought to life by the present. Instead, it is about futures unimagined and hence a present that does not yet make sense.” -Riel Miller via Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future.

Strategic Foresight: Anticipating And Preparing For Emerging Futures

“But our paradigms are changing, it has not gone unnoticed. Some people call it a Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are other names for it, but we appear to be in a transformative moment. Where are we prepared for this? Where are we not prepared? What do we need to develop? Who do we need to network with?”-Dr. Amy Zulman Strategic Foresight and Shifting Paradigms via The Convergence

The consideration of a variety and diversity of emerging futures, in many ways, has not and continues to not be a mindset that we currently embrace. We tend to be locked in to the linear, very often to an antiquated map that keeps us marching towards one, often ill-contemplated future. We have a difficult time disrupting that internal model. We tend to perceive the future as something that happens to us, that comes at us haphazardly, rather than approaching it as what we do in the present, the design of the decisions we make now, will having utmost bearing and shape on how those futures eventually evolve and unfold.

Which will require us to replace short-sighted perspectives in favor of embracing the long view…that we may disengage “event” thinking towards accepting the endless journey of “continuous” learning.

It will require a greater sense of awareness, anticipation, and imagination, as well as deeper levels of foresight if we are to effectively begin to equip ourselves with the vision, learning, understandings, and capacities to strategically design our way forward. For, it is with that awareness, anticipation and imagination that we are able to become more introspective and reflective of moving past linear thinking and incrementalism, to being able to consider a diversity of futures emerging. Thereby allowing ourselves the willingness to initiate a variety of scenarios, from probable to possible, that allow us and our organizations to better prepare for what will emerge from a context that is continually contending with growing levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the need for constant and ongoing adaptation.

Which means that strategic foresight can no longer appropriately serve us well as “event” planning, but must integrate itself into our organizational thinking and processes. Especially as the deep work within our organizations continues tip the scales from the complicated toward the complex.

As Dr. Zulman shares in the opening quote, it will require many more questions from us and our organizations, and not just veneer questions. But the willingness to ponder, engage and wrestle with deep and difficult questions, without defaulting to the quickest or easiest answer(s). We are in a time when we must willingly lean into our most challenging spaces with an openness to learn and grow. We can no longer use ambiguity and uncertainty of outcomes as an excuse to default to the safety of the known. Rather, we must determine how to allow ourselves as individuals and organizations the space for discovery and experimental learning to drive us through the ambiguity and uncertainty that is littered across those spaces, if we are to move towards better outcomes, towards better futures.

Foresight, when used strategically, prepares us to loosen our etched in mental models and maps that entrench us in linear perceptions of how the world works and how we believe it will continue to work. We have to be willing and open to the provocations that the current levels of ambiguity and uncertainty are asking of us to tolerate, both as individuals and organizations, if we are to begin to navigate these dynamic environments in a much more meaningful, effective and relevant manner. Which will require us to let go of the past, to let go of overlaying those outdated models and maps of how we see the world upon the present, thereby distorting and often hiding new possibilities of what can and will emerge in those future spaces.

  • We have to let go of the idea of one future, to recognize emerging possibilities.
  • We have to let go of the idea of certainty, to recognize the need for clarity.
  • We have to let go of the idea of the future happening to us, toward a willingness to anticipate and design our way forward.
  • We have to let go of models and maps that keep us entrenched in the past, for updates that open up new possibilities for the future.

We can no longer think in incremental ways, in a world of exponential change.

We have to be much more open to scanning the horizon to determine what the future is trying to tell us, of how it is looking to inform the present. But it is also in understanding that foresight is not about predicting the future. This is not crystal ball work. Rather, it is about rigorously studying and searching out both the weak and strong signals and determining what those signals are telling us? How those signals can support us in making better decisions in the present?

As Joern Buehring shares in Foresight and Design: New Support for Decision Making“Strategic foresight is about scanning the environment for new events and drivers of change, and then applying appropriate techniques to anticipate the evolution of change, their consequences on the organization, and the responses, or decisions, most suitable in dealing with uncertainty.”

Foresight will not only open us up to those signals, it will require us to reframe, reset and create new maps and models for the future that is unfolding before us.

As we are seeing, when our mental models our grounded in a historical context of the work we do, of the services and support we provide, and when that context is confronted by the disruptive changes we are facing in the present, we find ourselves and our organizations moving from complicated territory and into deep complexity. From which, we can either choose to hide ourselves in those models and maps of the past, or determine ourselves and our organizations too much needed updates for an exponentially changing world. But sometimes, we choose to close the curtains to these changes, pretending that they don’t exist. Choosing to hide in the familiarity of the past, over the growing uncertainty of the future.

However, Dr. Zulman shares in Strategic Foresight and Shifting Paradigms a historical perspective about the military that is very important to all of our organizations moving forward, and especially education. Dr. Zulman asks this question of the military, “What is the proportion of war-fighting that the military has done as compared to the amount of disaster-relief and other work it has done in the past year?” For which Dr. Zulman adds, the point of the question is that the discourse and the narrative of what the military has historically done, what has been their purpose from the beginning, has that in some ways changed? Is that actually what the military is actually doing most of the time now?

Which means, that if the primary activity of what an organization has historically done is actually changing, does the organization itself realize that change? Do the individuals in the organization realize that change? Or does it push forward unrealized and unrecognized of this shift?

Which is incredibly important for education in this moment, is taking stock of where we are, what we provide, and recognize or realize if we are in the midst of a paradigm-shift? Or better yet, has that paradigm-shift already occurred and we have not recognized how our work has and will continue to change?

Which are questions that educational organizations and educators are going to need to ask of themselves moving forward, if we are to effectively remain relevant as organizations and institutions in support of our students and stakeholders. We are going to have to determine if we are in the midst of or have already undergone a paradigm-shift, and strategically speaking, if so, how can engaging foresight then allow us to determine what the signals of this paradigm-shift is it relaying to us from the future, that we may better prepare our students, parents, stakeholders, educators, educational leaders, and educational organizations for this non-obvious and exponentially changing future we are heading towards?

“The future, rather, is as yet unformed. It is open to our creative imagination, to our ability to innovate and to design new things, not only open to technological innovations but also to the invention of new human character, new ways of life, new social arrangements, and even new cultural values.”  J. Rudkin via Designing Foresight and Foresighting Design: Opportunities for Learning and Collaboration via Scenarios