When the future is uncertain, how can organizations design and innovate boldly but responsibly? Futures thinking is an approach to strategic design that considers what is likely to change and what is likely to stay the same in the future, as a means to be more reflective in strategic planning. Considered by some to be more of an art, and by others to be a science, futures thinking gives us a framework to talk about our current world, and how the world may look in the future. Futures thinking reveals what could happen as a result of decisions, actions and issues occurring in the present. It includes all of the future scenarios that are likely to happen in order to make the best choices for everyone involved, which is known as the preferred future.
To quote futurist Dr. Sohail Inayatullah, “With futures thinking, we use the future to change the present. “
Futures thinking is not an effort to predict the future, but rather a means to illuminate unexpected implications of present-day issues that empower individuals and organizations to actively design desireable futures. The emphasis isn’t on what will happen, but on what could happen, given various observed drivers.
It’s a way of gaining new perspectives and context for present-day decisions, as well as for navigating the dilemma at the heart of all strategic thinking: the future can’t be predicted, yet we have to make choices based on what is to come.
Futures thinking helps us create a vision for where we are headed, and create alignment across teams and organizations. To do this, we ask the right questions to ensure we understand the history of the issues we face today.
Here are the key points of reaching a preferred future:
- Understand the history
Futures thinking requires having a set goal and then taking the necessary steps to fully understand the history of it. You and your team cannot reach an understanding of the future of a specific topic or issue without first understanding its history.
- Look at the near future
You need to know what the current forecasts and trends are and how they relate to that topic. In many cases, this includes recognizing the political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental factors and how they can impact your goal.
- Realize assumptions
Futures thinking has to go beyond just the voices in the room. Consider the people who will be affected by your future. It is important to make sure there are opportunities for diverse thinking in order to better understand the assumptions you have made.
- Think about alternative futures
After reviewing those assumptions, you can create future scenarios. It’s likely that you and your team will have multiple scenarios based on different factors. Consider all the possibilities when you think about what the future could look like.
- Identify the preferred future
The preferred future is the scenario that is chosen based on how it positively impacts the majority of the people involved. This is why it’s so important to have diverse voices throughout the process.
We are designing for a future based on a world that is constantly changing. Though we can't predict the future, we can be empowered to activate the future, and use it to our advantage. Even when the unexpected happens, futures thinking can help guide our path forward into the preferred future.
Futures thinking in action
Mad*Pow recently worked on a project for a large insurance company in the wake of the pandemic. As the company’s workforce shifted from being in the office every day to suddenly working from home, our team was asked to re-envision what the future of work could be for the employees.
First, we looked at the history of the company’s workspace and expectations. Prior to the pandemic, most employees worked in-person in the office. The floor plan was structured to support this work style with 80% of the space dedicated to independent work (individual offices and open cubicles), and 20% dedicated to working collaboratively (meeting rooms with whiteboards). Everyone was expected to go to the office to work.
Next, we wanted to research the near future. We studied the current forecasts and trends as they related to the future of work. Big companies like Twitter and Microsoft have decided to allow for a fully remote workforce going forward. This was a result of data showing productivity rates of remote employees, which included noticeable increases in productivity for employees who work remotely. Some of the data showed employees sometimes working an extra three hours per day and up to an extra day and half a month. Although increased productivity seems like an advantage of remote work, it also creates the possibility for potential employee burnout. Therefore, it was critical to consider the pros and cons of fully remote work.
We then examined our assumptions. One of these assumptions was about staying competitive. As big tech companies decided to maintain their remote work status, other companies would do the same. In order to attract and retain the same level of talent, companies were going to need to offer the same flexibilities around remote work. We also assumed that the office space was no longer going to be a primary work area.
Our next step was to create three alternative future scenarios – returning to the office, continuing with remote work only, and creating a hybrid workforce. Each of these scenarios offered its own set of advantages and drawbacks.
Finally, we presented these future scenarios for the client’s input. The hybrid workforce was chosen as the preferred future because it provided both the benefits of working from home and in the office. We provided a plan to help guide the client to this preferred future with a dual focus of redesigning the office spaces and strengthening remote work. Both need to incorporate the best ways to support a cohesive workforce.
This example shows how our client chose a preferred future based on how it would impact employees. Futures thinking has far-reaching implications. It is a way to look at a situation holistically. It’s about thinking beyond what is possible and building a shared vision of the future.
Additional Futures Thinking Resources
Places to learn more about futures
Futurists to learn from