“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