Graphic recording by Emily Shepard and Anthony Weeks

Leading for the Long View

A conversation about futures and leadership with social impact pioneer Katherine Fulton.

Who shapes the future? How can we get more leaders to adopt more futures practices and processes that are inclusive of different voices and perspectives?

I was thrilled to explore these questions about the evolving role and importance of leadership with my colleague and friend Katherine Fulton at The Future’s Happening event, hosted at the Stanford on March 13, 2019.

Katherine Fulton founded and lead Monitor Institute — applying futures thinking and practices to the social sector — and has routinely been on the forefront of new ideas in the field, like those captured in her TED talk and report, “The Future of Philanthropy.” Today, she works with innovative social change leaders and organizations, pioneering new approaches to addressing intractable social and environmental challenges.

Katherine’s work focuses on addressing big, systemic problems that we have collectively created, which she believes continue to outstrip our ability to address them. “Addressing the challenges of how hard it is to get human beings to change, and to the barriers of doing future-focused work, is something that we all must get better at.”

According to Katherine, this starts with being open to questions and answers for which there is no data. “How,” she asked, “do we get people to hold an insistence on rigor, while at the same time hold an openness to hunches, intuition, and imagination?”

Her answer? “That’s all best done as a team sport.”

Even so, it’s still not easy to get busy or successful people to change their ways. Katherine shared her observations of working with at least 150 organizations during the course of her career and participating in over 20 boards. “In my experience, with just a handful of exceptions, organizations may start with the intention of working from the outside-in — whether it’s listening to customers, using design thinking to inform ideas, or doing futures work. However, the gravitational pull of the inside, of the day-to-day realities, makes it very hard. The human system is really difficult.”

During our conversation, I asked Katherine about what we can do to help more leaders take the long view, instead of over-indexing on the right now. Katherine shared the virtues of contextual intelligence–the ability to learn how to read our current environment while looking towards the future.

Referencing the book by Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, In Their Time, Katherine noted that emotional intelligence helps us develop the capability to better understand our feelings and those of others, and we can apply a similar concept to futures work, and learn how social, political, and economic environments are changing to create a different context. This helps us imagine and plan for the right innovation, activities and investments.

“Many of the underlying attributes of how to navigate uncertainty — imagination, great questions, curiosity, openness, co-creation — are true in design thinking and in futures work,” Katherine said. But, she added, it’s always been difficult to bring the same kind of concreteness and understanding to reading context. This creates an opportunity for design, a process that often starts with contextual understanding and problem framing. Design also involves prototyping, which helps give form to abstract ideas to make them more tangible and accessible.

Headlines from the Future from The Future’s Happening

Katherine applies a systems approach to futures, which includes looking at all of the elements that are causing a problem, understanding how they are related to each other, and then drawing pictures about how they impact the future. “Seeing the consequences helps make the future concrete,” she says. “But then we have to back into today and get really smart about what we can influence, and what kinds of things we can do. There’s something consequential about creating a skill set that combines contextual intelligence with visualizing change that neither the design field nor the future field have been good at — yet.”

Over the years, Katherine has become even more empathic about how hard it is for leaders to balance envisioning long-term futures while also helping the organization deliver on its present-day realities. As she explained, “Leaders can often see ahead — way ahead. In futures work, the art is the pace and the timing of how you get people to see — and also to learn at the edge of what they can learn — so that you’re pushing their assumptions. But not too far, or they just shut down. So, the art is always: How do you keep pushing into that next place that people can go, but not too far? The work with leaders is constantly asking the important assumption-testing questions at the same time as you’re emotionally supporting them to do the hard work.”

In the next article in this series, we’ll consider the role that values play in helping us design new futures. You’ll meet Olatunde Sobomehin — founder, CEO, and Lead Servant of StreetCode Academy, who works to equip a generation of underrepresented leaders with the skills to hack, hustle, and design the future.

Special thanks to Katherine Fulton, Nancy Murphy, and Peter Economy for their contributions to this article.