Trade Secrets in the Art of Futures Scanning

Recently a client marveled after I briefed her team on the preliminary findings from my futures scanning, “I don’t know how you do it.”

Honestly in that moment, I would have been hard-pressed to explain my techniques either. But her question stayed with me while I continued to scan for two different futures projects.  I paid closer attention to how as a futurist I learn quickly about the future in fields where I am not an expert.

One of my futurist colleagues used to describe the Holy Grail of scanning as that great synthesis article that gives you a reasoned analysis of a trend or issue. But like the Holy Grail, those articles or papers can rarely be found.  With persistent searching you can usually find these three invaluable sources:

Shared vision for new directions.  In every field there is a turning point in how people view what needs to be done.  In the past these visions were commonly issued by high level study panels or think tanks.  Lately they are just as likely to be reports from a summit of the most influential leaders and organizations.  Foundations are also into this vision-setting business in a thoughtful and well-resourced way. These reports give me a sense of the next big ideas in the field.

Futures scans by others.   Search for published scans by related organizations. This has long been one of my favorite tactics. The only downside to these reports is you can feel a bit like you’ve stepped into an echo chamber of the official future.  However, discovering the official future is powerful. If that many people believe in something, some part of it just might come true. 

Thought leaders who challenge the assumptions.  I love searching for the perspectives of people with either great imagination and strategic thinking talent or a very different world view.  The strategic thinkers have a talent for seeing the outlines of the future first. The contrarians can help you uncover your own blind spots.  They are more likely to see the potential for very disruptive changes.  Thought leaders are not always published, so I often factor interviews or thought leader panels into my scanning methodology.

I will confess. This learning never feels particularly efficient. Most of what I read quickly in scanning only proves to be useful context to understand the systems at work in a particular field. Clients experience the magic and see little of the struggle—except maybe reflected in my fees. My real trade secret as a futurist comes down to relying on these three learning tactics:  Find the shared vision. Read other scans for the official future. And use the outliers to challenge the assumptions.