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  • Writer's pictureGraham

Mastering the Three Aspects of Futures Thinking

How old will you be, on today's date, in five years?

Can you imagine what you'll look like? If you're like most people, you can conjure up an image only of what you looked like when you last looked in the mirror. So even though you know you'll look different, hopefully wiser as well as older, it's very difficult to imagine something different that you haven't yet experienced.

How about the rest of your family. How old will they be? How about your parents, if they're still alive. Your partner? Your children? Can you imagine what they'll look like? What they'll be doing?

When we try to think of the future, we can't imagine anything much different from today.

Research shows, in fact, that when you think of your future self, it activates parts of the brain usually reserved for strangers.

Although we're very good at thinking about the immediate-term future, we're lousy at thinking about anything beyond that.

Not only that, but we place too much emphasis on the experiences of the recent past, rather than think clearly about the threats of the more distant future.

For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, companies around the world spent billions updating their business continuity plans and establishing disaster recovery offices, in case their main sites were knocked out of action by disaster, natural or man-made.

Twenty years on, and the pandemic showed that this was all pointless. As one company executive put it: "This isn't the crisis we prepared for."

If 9/11 was "a failure of imagination," then the pandemic showed we failed again.

Why do our imaginations keep failing us? Why do we find it so hard to think about the future?

There are really only three aspects of the future you need to think about.

The first is the context of the future. These are the elements that frame the future, which are squarely outside your control and are reasonably predictable. Think cosmic systems, the weather, demographics.

The second is the unpredictable future. Think of all the technological developments, social trends, political shifts. Most of this will also be outside your control, but within the chaos will be your sphere of influence.

Third, and most important, is the future you want. For you to maximize your control over the future, no matter for you or your organisation, you need to have opinions about the future, and translate these into a compelling, motivating vision that will drive your action.

This is the foundation of decision-making with conviction.

Say, for example, you're a corporate lawyer, and you're wondering what kinds of decisions you should be making about you and/or your business to position yourself well over the next 3 years.

The context of the world in 3 years time will likely be framed by:

  • the legal/regulatory framework. This will tend to change only slowly, and changes will be well sign-posted.

  • industry dynamics. Depending on the industries you're involved in, it could be that relationships between buyers and suppliers are reasonably constant, such as in the oil industry.

The unpredictable future is usually analysed using frameworks such as PEST:

  • Political: Will politicians want to tighten competition policy, or restrict the big technology companies?

  • Economic: Will years of high interest rates start to break important parts of the economy?

  • Social: Will the public demand increasingly high standards of environmental, social and corporate governance?

  • Technological: Will AI take over the grunt work of contract review and negotiation?

Finally, what do you want from the future? How do you see yourself in three years? (A bit easier to imagine than five years!)

  • Championing the adoption of ESG standards in companies.

  • Advising AI startups on their corporate structures.

  • Out of work because your company went bankrupt from excessive debt servicing costs.

  • Running an AI-powered legal services company.

Thinking about the future three or even five years out will never be easy. Your mind would much rather just get through the day. Yet the concerns you have about the future extend way beyond dinnertime. By leaning in to the challenge of thinking about long-term possibilities, you'll find your sense of control over the future increases along with confidence in your decisions.

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