Attempting to forecast 50 years into the future is a daunting and somewhat outrageous assignment for most association executives unless you understand that your assignment is really about learning how to identify and lead change and not about getting the forecasts right.
In an educational event June 22 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the certified association executive (CAE) designation, I introduced about 130 association executives to the idea that anticipating and leading the future is an essential competency for effective leaders. I’ve been an association executive, I am a CAE, and I became a professional futurist 10 years ago. I passionately believe associations can choose to be a powerful force for shaping a preferred future. This belief shapes my practice and the work of Signature i, LLC.
The CAE planners for this event recognized that this time of celebrating past achievements is a perfect time to turn everyone’s attention to the future. Their bold idea was to look ahead 50 years—something even professional futurists are rarely asked to do. It’s often hard for us to convince leaders they need to care about what could happen in 10 years.
On the advice of my colleagues in the Association for Professional Futurists, I organized this learning experience as a timeline exercise. I looked retrospectively at changes from 1960 to 2010 and then forecast changes we might see in our external environment at 2020, 2040 and 2060. With such a large span of time to consider, it proved easy to demonstrate a few key concepts that can make leaders better strategic thinkers and leaders of change, such as:
- Probing the future using big questions to frame the possibilities.
- Using exploratory forecasts to hypothesize what might happen and provocative forecasts to challenge our assumptions.
- Looking systematically across the external environment to identify different kinds of changes and their implications.
- Leading effectively across three horizons of time to keep organizations aligned with their best strategic fit for changing conditions and on track to achieve a preferred future.
- Puzzling over what the rate of change will be since some problems prove more challenging than their advocates believe and major transformations in areas like infrastructure can take decades.
When I reviewed what the teams posted as their forecasts and implications on the timeline, I was struck that many groups offered as many forecasts for what might happen in the world as what might happen to associations. At first I questioned whether my instructions had been clear then realized, no, their insights were exactly right. Associations are intimately involved in their external world and there really should be little distinction between the big issues of the day and what associations are doing.
A number of teams forecast a future that is highly distributed and networked and some challenged the future of centralized association headquarters. I joked that a lot of people would be leaving the session to put their buildings up for sale.
I recognized and applauded one team’s forecast: We will have vastly different ways of affiliating. This exploratory forecast gets right to the heart of what associations are about and we all need to continue to explore and anticipate how affiliating will change in 2020, 2040 and 2060.