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

The Two Types…

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”  –Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress

There is something about that quote that I just love, it stirs something inside.  It is also incredibly fitting for our current circumstances in education.  Especially, in regards to “we must think anew, and act anew.”  And most importantly, we must “disenthrall ourselves.”  It is really an outstanding quote for the 21st century mindset.  However, most of you will be less familiar with this quote as it extends from Abraham Lincoln, than from Sir Ken Robinson’s famed TED-talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution.”  If you haven’t watched “Bring on the Learning Revolution,” it is truly worth taking the time.

Besides his moving use of Lincoln’s Message to Congress, Ken Robinson references Jeremy Bentham, an English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer.  And to quote, “It was Jeremy Bentham, I believe who said there are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who don’t.”  For which he replies, “Well, these days I do.”

Though I have watched this TED-talk a number of times and referenced bits and clips for a variety of presentations, I never really gave that comment much thought.  Until now.

And actually I believe he is right, in its simplest of forms, reflecting on the educational landscape, as a teacher, a principal, or a district level administrator, there basically are two types

As educators, we have a tendency, for all intents and purposes to fall into two camps or two types (for which I have taken the liberty of naming)

1. The Twistovators

and

2. The Blockstacles

Over my twenty years as an educator, in its rawest and simplest form, through every meeting and training, always seems to boil down to us falling into one or the other of these two camps whenever any new initiative, program, policy, or procedure is unveiled.

To get a clearer picture, let’s define the two types.

First, let’s look at the Blockstacles, which are those educators who immediately hit the stop button at the first sign of any new idea, initiative, or change effort.  They are so named for their ability to quickly block any change effort and immediately begin erecting a myriad of obstacles to throw in front of the process.  They have an uncanny ability to provide an endless tirade of reasons why something can’t or won’t work.

The second group I will refer to as the Twistovators, which tend to be a rather quiet group.  In contrast to the Blockstacles, they usually have little to say because their minds are racing in an entirely different direction.  Before the initiative is entirely rolled out they have already internalized the concept and are now running with it.  They have taken the idea, added their own twist to the initiative, and are now considering a multitude of ways to innovate the idea (beyond what you may have considered) to fit their circumstances and needs.

As instructional leaders, our focus should not be caught up on whether one type or camp is better or worse than the other, or even how frustrating they can be rather, it is to utilize understanding of both camps to increase our leadership capacity and influence.  Acknowledging the two types exist requires deeper preparation for moving any change effort or initiative forward.  For example, knowing that the Blockstacles will be ready for you demands clarity from your leadership to the ‘why’ and not merely the ‘what’ and ‘how‘  for the initiative.  Without true clarity to the ‘why’ the Blockstacles will undoubtedly plow over the initiative before it ever has a chance to gain traction.  And they will most likely do it in a public manner.

Knowing that the Twistovators exist requires you to determine the loose/tight (autonomy) approach you are willing to take with the change effort or initiative.  You begin with the end in mind and directly attend to expectations at the beginning of the effort.  Whether that be tight alignment or full autonomy to run with the idea.  Either way, clarity will save a lot of wasted time and backtracking for all involved.

So rather than being frustrated with the two types, use this knowledge to build and strengthen your leadership capacity.  Determining the ‘why’ of any initiative and/or change effort and being prepared for the two types not only strengthens your understanding of the initiative, but requires you to reflect deeply on whether the initiative is in alignment with the goals and core values of your organization.  And even more importantly, allows you to determine whether the timing is right to move forward.  Remember, very seldom are there do-overs, you get one chance to make the impact and impression.  Be prepared.

And as Lincoln stated to Congress in 1862, “we must think and act anew.”

Blindsided by Complacency

Complacency is not a new phenomena to organizational leadership in society or the 21st century. Whether in a business, medical, sporting, or educational organization, complacency is a lingering “inhibitor” to many a change effort or initiative.

Understanding these growing concerns, today’s leaders must promptly equip themselves with a deeper understanding on how to best lead change efforts and challenge complacency in our professions. Leading change in our present-day organizations requires a perceptive barometer for determining the cultural atmosphere.  To advance organizational goals and alignment, a change agent must acquire a strong grasp and familiarity with their organization’s culture, vigilantly monitoring the “temperature” of the cultural waters.  Leadership must discern and determine the why that necessitates the what and how of change, acknowledge the patience needed for implementing with appropriate timing, and creating the necessary urgency and momentum behind the initiative.

Business and thought leader, John Kotter, asserts in “Leading Change” that eight steps are necessary to leading sustained change efforts within your teams or organizations. However, the inability to gain traction with step one, “creating a sense of urgency” deflates and defeats most change efforts before they ever get out of the gate.  Kotter notes that,  “establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. Transformation is not possible when complacency is high.  Without a sense of urgency, momentum dies before the change effort can finish.

The inability to create a “sense of urgency” in your people, teams and organization will usually lead you down a path to complacency.  In today’s rapidly changing and evolving technological environment, the overabundance of data and information has been the demise of many a complacent organization as those they serve seek out better service and products when that complacency fails to deliver on expectations.  Unfortunately, most realize the consequences of their complacency after the damage is done and the window for corrective change has closed.

To paint the picture in a different light…

I truly enjoy the sport of hockey.  During the years that I was privileged to play, the game time bench was the center of activity, filled with wise cracks and taunts.  One of which I remember fondly, which was usually applied just after a player was steamrolled by a hit…

…”better skate with your head up.”  Meaning that many a player has found themselves caught up in skating and puck handling when they need to be aware of their environment and the hit that may be bearing down on them.  Playing “head down” takes you out of the play and opens you up for real disaster on the ice.  When your attention is feverishly focused on the puck, awareness of your environment is constrained, opportunities are missed, teammates are frustrated, and the intensity and collaborative efforts on the ice are hampered.  Not to mention opening yourself up to a possibly devastating and/or game ending hit.

Players that refuse put in the necessary time and effort to increase their skills are often the same players that continue to “skate with their head down” oblivious to the game unfolding around them.  Those are the same players that are often blindsided by hits that they should have seen coming.

When teams, organizations, and their leaders let complacency set in, disregard the necessity to continually invest time and energy towards new skill-sets and learning, they find themselves blindsided by a hit they should have seen coming.  When we allow our leadership button to default to “cruise control” and keep skating “with our head down” then we should not act surprised by the consequences of our actions, or inaction…

Consequences…finding yourself laid out on your back, blindsided by a hit you weren’t prepared for.  Consequences…instantaneous increase in the urgency meter…being blindsided has a way of immediately tearing down the walls of complacency.

We live in a world of constantly evolving technology and endless streams of data and information…there is no reason for us to “skate with our head down.”  We must seize the opportunity that innovation has provided us to grow our skill-sets and knowledge and increase our ability to “skate with our head up.”

However, many of today’s leaders will choose to “skate with their head down,” complacent and unaware, often at the peril of the organization and those that serve within it.  When the hit comes, will they be able to get back in the game, or like many of today’s organizations, will the hit eliminate you from the game?  Unfortunately, many individuals, teams and organizations never fully recover.  While some players are able to come back even stronger, building new skill sets and knowledge, determined to avoid the next hit.  Others may get back in the game, but they are never the same and spend the remainder of their career tentative and scared of being hit again.

The question is…are you playing with your head up or will you find yourself blindsided by complacency?  And if you already find yourself laying on your back…can you get back in the game and learn from the complacency that put you on your back?  Or will you play the rest of the game in fear?  Either way…

The puck is on your stick…