No Futurists in Foxholes

In Moving Past Survival, Institutionalizing Imagination is Indispensable  

For this simulation, you can still imagine that you are you. But instead of now, the year is 1916. And, instead of a mobile device, you are holding a rifle with bayonet. Instead of your home office, you are crouched low in a trench in Northern Belgium. About 100 yards to the East, your enemy is doing the same exact thing – hunched over and staring forward. Both you and your enemy dare not leave the seeming safety of the hole.

And so, you sit. And wait.

This posture should be familiar to you. During our recent crises, leadership of our structures, our policies, our companies and communities are prone to a collective survival mode. Survival mode looks like this: everything is urgent; no one can help you; decisions are reactions; everything is risky; good enough is good enough.  

Given the present-day stress on families and communities, this survival mode is understandable. The issue is that, for leaders, there is little hope for change if you are resigned to entrenchment.

A Strategy for Getting Out of Entrenchment

To shift the collective consciousness of your internal or even external stakeholders, you can embrace a common futurist practice. If you can – even for a week – do this for yourself, you can begin to see possibilities that are not so hopeless as a trench. This technique is inspired by the archetypal scenarios of futurist Andy Hines at the University of Houston. 

  1. Write a story about what the future looks like ten years from now. That trench story, the inevitable, is what you are going for here. Based on all of the assumptions and knowledge you have, write the story of your organization / community ten years from now. Then make a note of as many assumptions as you can identify. Examples: Growth of your industry, increase in viral pandemics. This story is your baseline vision. 
  1. Rewrite two assumptions. Take at least two of the assumptions you made about the future and reverse them. The simplest form of this is to convert an increase to a decrease or vice versa. So, if one of your assumptions is a trend such as “housing prices increase,” then reverse it to “housing prices decrease.” 
  1. Rewrite the story. Using your new assumptions, write an alternative future for your organization ten years from now. Make it interesting or resist the urge to jump to outcomes. Think through what could have happened to get you to this state ten years from now.  
  1. Live into that alternative story. In this alternate reality, who is most impacted? How likely does this future seem to you? How plausible does this future state seem to you?  

If you earnestly implement such a practice, you will be actively acknowledging the existence of alternative futures. That event on the horizon that seemed an inevitability is only one of multiple possibilities. It is an academic effort to understand this in abstract. It is a leadership effort to live into alternative scenarios and gather insight. In enfranchising your constituents, you can ask yourselves at least these two questions: 

  1. What must we be doing now to enable the future we would prefer? 
  2. What must we be doing now to reduce the impact of plausible futures we do not prefer? 

On this basis, you can begin an action-oriented strategic plan with other stakeholders. The foundation of your plan will be from a position of very intentional imaginative work about the kinds of worlds we could see. You can begin to institutionalize imagination as a critical competency for facing what will be a world of increased uncertainty. 

If you want to dig deeper and expose greater possiblity space, there are as many techniques for futuring as there are plausible futures.

Note: The headline is a phrase from Harvard Business Review author and futurist Peter Scoblic.