Yes, this is an article about foresight and futures thinking, I promise.
As Broadway slowly reopens following an 18-month closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, theater lovers have begun posting videos on social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram showing cast members spontaneously singing to exuberant crowds on the streets of NYC. The contagious excitement in these clips — I love a good Broadway play just much as anyone — inspired me to listen to the Broadway channel on satellite radio in my car during a recent trip to the grocery store. Hamilton, Chicago, Wicked, Oklahoma — each tune got me more and more amped up for a hopeful return to live theater, but one particular song also made me think about my role as a foresight professional and the work that I do for organizational clients around the world. The song comes from the famous play (and highly successful film adaptation) Fiddler on the Roof. If you’ve never seen this amazing story, I highly recommend it (alongside millions of other fans). The story’s hilarious, sad, joyful, devastating and loving themes will send you on a rollercoaster of emotions (if you know, you know), and the song I’m referring to — Matchmaker — does a great job of capturing the very soul of the play. So, before I tell you why this song seemed to speak to me about the successes and failures that I’ve experienced in doing foresight work over the past 20 years, take a few minutes to listen to the version from the 1971 movie.
Now that you’ve heard the original version, you can sing along to my adaptation that I have appropriately named Futurist, Futurist, Make Me A Plan!
Some perfect future,
And just the right trend
Use all your tools,
And tell me how all of this ends
I’ll bring the goal,
You bring the story
Of futures untold.
Bring me a vision I’m longing to hear,
Exciting, but not too bold.
For the C-Suite,
Fill it with data.
For our conference,
Fill it with tech.
For the org, well,
You must create-a
More plausible, useful scenario deck.
Listen, I’m not saying that Broadway will be calling me anytime soon, but you have to admit… not bad, eh?!
The question of my songwriting talents aside, the correlation between the Matchmaker magically finding each of Tevye’s daughters the partner of their dreams, and the desire for leaders to hire consultants that will work independently to create a product, strategy, service, innovation, process, or experience with almost zero input from that leader’s organization is a near perfect metaphor. All of this to make one powerful point: As a professional futurist, it is not my job to tell you and your organization how the future is going to unfold. That’s the job of economists, forecasters, AI fanatics and other hucksters of so-called predictability. Not only can I not offer you surety about the likelihood of a certain trend paying off or assign concrete numbers to any rising future landscape (and, despite what anyone may think, neither can the aforementioned lords of linear long-shots), but I can’t hide away in my prophetic laboratory and build you the future of your dreams. Sounding pretty grim? That’s only because you’re burdened by an outdated definition of success, one that doesn’t apply in a world of open connectivity, unsiloed industries, novel capabilities, disruptive technologies, reframed disciplines and redefined territories. Today’s professional futurist — an organizational, governmental and societal idea whose time has come — is not meant to be the old matchmaker that marries you off to a singular idea, but rather empowers you discover your own true love… I mean your own story of the futures (you get the idea!). So what do these new, future-oriented matchmakers do, and why is it exactly what you need?
- Activate Shared Ownership of the Future. The professional futurist hasn’t spent years honing the craft of environmental scanning, trend-spotting, value-identification, pattern-making, scenario building, transformation mapping, speculative designing and multi-faceted strategy/innovation developing to create insights and outcomes in secret, but rather acts as an expert guide that teaches you and your organization how to fish (i.e. how to challenge your biases and assumptions, and construct robust, rigorous and useful images of the future for yourself). This is a critical skill in our volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and novel environment, as leaders and organizations — who am I kidding, EVERYBODY — needs to wield this way of acting on a day-to-day basis. If this doesn’t become a priority for you, then you will not be able to respond, react and rethink in our fast changing world. If you don’t have ownership of this skillset and the subsequent pathways to action, then someone else will be creating the future for you. (And you’re not going to like that at all!)
- Challenge Mental Models and Create New Mindsets. Futurists have the experience and expertise to challenge organizational, governmental and social biases about how the future will unfold, what forces are at work in altering the course of our collective future, what expectations we have about the future that may be very different in both the short and long-term, what unseen threats and opportunities are staring us in the face, and what voices are missing from our vision of the future that can no longer be suppressed and ignored. Every good leader knows that biases and assumptions are a deadly poison when it comes to the success of our strategies and plans, but we often ignore them in hopes that our organizational machines will have the power and impetus to overrun any momentum that change might bring. History has taught us that approach is doomed to failure. The “futurist mindset” aids us in overcoming those assumptions and biases, and provides us the mental tools necessary to recognize change, employ resilience, adapt to shifting landscapes, develop transformational ideas, and co-create through emerging realities.
- Construct Alternative and Multi-Faceted Visions of the Future. In our short-sighted, serve-me-now, lightning-fast, quick wins environment, organizations love to skip straight to action whenever remotely possible, consequences be damned. If the only way to make that happen is by devising a strategic plan on the back of a napkin over a cocktail lunch, then they will grit their teeth and create a one-pager with bullet points. Today’s world will not tolerate such a lazy approach. Leaders must be leaders again, devoting quality time and effort to envisioning the future of not only their organizations, but the impact on society and the planet. Those are long-term ramifications, and skimming by is no longer an option. Those who plan on leading in the 21st Century must learn to think and act in simultaneous multiples — what alternatives lie ahead, how can we create empowering maps and stories of those possibilities, how can we leverage those visions to build a better future? Futurists are skilled in developing those deep and broad narratives around various organizational, governmental and societal focal issues, but the best among them know that their job is to pass on that skill to the entire world. Exploring future possibilities and provocations across a plethora of diverse perspectives must be seen as a necessary human trait in our rapidly changing landscape, not a practice that we silo among a few trained minds. The futurist must work alongside you, not apart from you. (P.S. It isn’t the job of the futurist to be the smartest person in the room either, teaching other experts about the details of a certain subject. The futurist may have knowledge of fields and disciplines after years of scanning and research, but her main job is to facilitate challenge and discovery – but that’s a subject for a different article.)
If you began this article by listening to Matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof, you know that Tevye’s daughters saw the dangers of being paired with the wrong match, and decided to take matters into their own hands. I hope every leader, organization — every person on planet Earth — learns to sing the last verse of my retooled version. It goes something like this:
Plan me no plans
I’m in no rush
Maybe I’ve learned
Playing with matches
We all can get burned
Bring me no data
Don’t tell me what’s next
Find me no future
Latch onto no tech
I must learn to “future” for myself!
Frank Spencer is the Founding Principal and Creative Director at Kedge, a global foresight, innovation, and strategic design firm that empowers organizations to seize aspirations, transformation, and growth. He also co-founded The Futures School — a foresight learning ecosystem that empowers participants with a tangible mindset and framework to discover the future and create it today. Frank is a prolific speaker, having delivered presentations to groups and conferences around the globe over the last 20 years on topics surrounding the future of various industries and how to successfully leverage a forward-looking mindset.