Six More Ways to Prepare for the Future

In the last issue of MindPrep, I presented six ways to prepare for the future. They were:

  1. DECLARE YOUR MAJOR
  2. USE GAME FILMS
  3. PLAY WAR GAMES
  4. EXPLORE
  5. BUILD COMPETING EXPLANATIONS
  6. PROBE

I told you that I’d give you another set of six. Here they are:

  1. PLAN THE PROJECT: Project planners prepare a budget and timeline for their projects and then sit back and think about what might go wrong. Then they consider how to mitigate the impact of something going wrong or what contingencies they will employ if something does go wrong. Experienced project leaders know that every project has a blend of technical, organizational, behavioral, and business factors that come into play during the life of the project. Then they look at the risks associated with this blend of factors.

Getting to the future is the ultimate project for leaders. Look at your strategy (your “big” project plan) and conduct a risk assessment. For which of the following families of risk should you try to mitigate or plan contingencies: economic, informational, physical, human resource, reputation, or natural disasters.?

  1. TELL A STORY: Scenario planning came to the fore in the 1970s when Royal Dutch Shell created a scenario of the impact of high crude oil prices and how they might respond to it. The OPEC oil embargo put those conditions in place, and when the other oil companies were starting their response thinking Shell leadership was already modifying its preconceived scenario and moving into action.

Consider the critical success factors for your business and what assumptions you are making about each of them. Unfortunately, plans are often built on the assumption that our assumptions are correct. However, to refer to the U.S. Marine Corps, we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. Spend some time preparing a scenario in which one or more of your key assumptions about the future is flat-out wrong.

  1. LEARN FROM THE PAST: Can we prepare for the future by studying the past? The answer, when viewed through a systems-thinking lens, is Yes. By studying the past we have been able to discern a number of patterns that seem to replicate themselves when similar conditions arise. Think about the pattern (archetype) called The Tragedy of the Commons. What happened in the 1700s when too many sheep were allowed to graze on the village common ground? Overgrazing. What happened in the late-1900s when more and more fishing trawlers swept the fertile fishing areas off the coast of New England? Overfishing. What happens when any common resource is overused? The common is destroyed – and all of this happens while people are doing what is absolutely right for them.

Want to predict the future of drinking water in the Southwest United States? Think about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Our particular future may be unique, but patterns leading up to the future tend to repeat themselves. If you want to improve your chances of predicting the future get a book about systems thinking and learn how to see and intervene in the following systems archetypes: accidental adversaries, fixes that fail, limits to growth, shifting the burden, and tragedy of the commons. There are more, but this is a good starter set.

  1. ACT!: People responsible for managing future crises spend a good amount of time thinking about what might go wrong and how to deal with it if it happens. The key here is actually doing something with the result of all the thinking. Consider the Florida panhandle and the devastation caused by hurricane Michael. Was a storm of that magnitude predictable? Absolutely yes – we might not know exactly when it might occur, but we had enough data to know that it would occur. Storms are neither good nor bad – they just are. The failure was not in our human ability to think about the situation, it was in our leadership courage to do something in advance of the occurrence to mitigate the impact of the storm.

Consider this emerging reality. Computer hackers have already hacked into our national electrical grid and experts warn of the possibility of massive outages. What are our leaders doing now to prepare for that inevitability? What is an emerging reality for you? What action should you take NOW to prepare?

  1. SHAPE: Peter Drucker, the late management sage, often spoke and wrote about the “futurity of present decisions.” His position was simple – leaders never make decisions in the future; they only make decisions in the present that affect the future. We hire people today who may, or may not, be future leaders. We install large systems today that may, or may not, make us more competitive in the coming years. So, one of the ways we predict the future is to shape the future with our present decisions.

Back in 2013 (yes, a few years back, but not ancient history) the Economist Intelligence Unit conducted a survey of 587 global executives about the implementation of strategy. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said that executing strategic initiatives was essential or very important. However, 61% said that their firms struggled to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation. Furthermore, 27% said they “didn’t know” if it was important or not.

What actions, if taken today, could position your organization for the future?

  1. ENGAGE IN ANTI-ZEITGEIST: Why are so many predictions about the future wrong? All the smart people in the 1950s predicted flying cars, and robots in our homes, and all of those Jetson cartoon things. Were they dumb, or was something else going on? No, they were trapped by the Zeitgeist bias – that is, they looked into the future through the lens of their current reality.

In the 1950s we assumed that technology would cure all problems. In the early 2000s we assumed that the price of housing would rise forever. Today half of our politicians assume we don’t need or want immigrants. (BTW, I’m the son of a poor immigrant.) We don’t see the world through rose-colored glasses – we see the world through today’s glasses.

Don’t assume that the future will be like today. It may be better, or it may be worse, but it won’t be a carbon copy of today. Here’s the challenge. Make it what it needs to be, not what we want it to be. What’s the right thing to do for our future?

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