Four Views to Improve Our Understanding of the Future

While strategic organizations may make a solid effort toward researching and understanding what might happen in the future, too few organizations or individuals also take time to reflect on how they think about their future.

This is a shortcoming that invites blind spots and missed opportunities. As constructivist theory explains, we construct our meaning out of our experiences, assumptions and mental models about how the world works and that influences what we see. I credit futurist Sohail Inayatullah for articulating two views of the future that I hadn’t explicitly considered in his six pillars for thinking about transforming the future. They are the used and disowned future. From my work with the Institute for Alternative Futures, I also came to understand how powerful alternative futures and the preferred future are in leading change.

So before you examine another set of trends and issues or conduct another strategic planning session, keep these four views of the future upfront in your thinking. At least run through this checklist mentally—better yet commit to do it formally if you want a clearer-headed view of your future.  

Used Future:  Is your image of the future yours, or have you unconsciously borrowed it from someone else?  Before you adopt someone else’s view of the future, try to discover what they have learned about the limitations of their choices. Maybe they have locked into systems, programs and investments they cannot easily undo now. Who is most vulnerable to adopting a used future? All of us who read the stories about the leaders in our field, those who subscribe to best practices and benchmarking, and even the not so subtle peer pressure of thinking this is how smart organizations and people act in our world. They could be very right or they might be very wrong for you.  

Disowned Future:  In choosing to pursue a particular vision or goal, we abandon or neglect other aspects of ourselves that can be important. We over-rely on what has made us successful and fail to integrate goals, values or capabilities that are also important. Yes priorities are important but they are rarely unchanging. The pendulum always swings back. What we neglect for the next few years will someday require our attention and correction to restore our wholeness and effectiveness.  The disowned future may be the root of many unintended consequences.

Alternative Futures:  By focusing on a range of alternatives, we can better prepare for uncertainty and design resilient organizations that are mentally rehearsing the possibilities before we are required to react. This is the purpose of scenario thinking. Every decision should be tempered by our awareness that the likely future is rarely certain or arrives on schedule. Even without surprising changes, we can find that the future requires different priorities or capabilities than we had anticipated.

Preferred Future:  This is your vision of what will exist if you and others perform at the highest potential for leading change and shaping the future. The preferred future drives your priorities and determines what you pay attention to. But the difference between a vision and a fantasy is a strong awareness of the forces of change that are working against or for you. Too often we see our challenges as tactical: what will it take to execute this vision? If we choose our preferred future after first understanding the used, disowned and alternative futures, we stand a better chance of anticipating where we will face resistance and where we might gain momentum.

In every choice you make about leading change, these four views will be influencing how you think whether you are conscious of their power or not. You can have far greater clarity about what your future does hold if you make the time and the processes to answer these questions:

  • Is this a used future or a future I should pursue?
  • What are the implications of what I have disowned in pursuing a particular future?
  • What else could happen in alternative futures?
  • What do I want to have happen in my preferred future?