This is the time of year when we’re primed to look ahead. In recent weeks, you’ve probably laid out personal and professional goals, plans, and road maps for the next 12 months. And if you’re doing it on behalf of an entire company, you’re thinking even further into the future. Or at least you should be.
Even a year can feel like a lifetime away, especially when it’s hard to predict what will happen in the next quarter. But futurists, people who think and write about what’s to come, advise that CEOs need to be thinking years or even decades down the road.
Remember that the future doesn’t just happen — we shape it every day.
I interviewed three prominent futurists — Alexandra Levit, a partner at the consulting firm PeopleResults and author of Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future; Mahrinah von Schlegel, executive director of the technology-focused nonprofit Embassy2.0; and writer Richard Watson, a lecturer at Imperial College London and author of the What’s Next report — about how business leaders can get themselves into a more future-oriented mindset.
Below, they explain how companies and the people running them can learn to predict the major shifts that could affect their operations — in technology, workforce, social trends — and how to adapt accordingly. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MEDIUM: Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to be a futurist?
Alexandra Levit: I’m not sure there’s an official consensus on the definition, but to me, being a futurist means paying attention to new patterns and trends that are slowly percolating up through the market or society that have the potential to catch on in a major way. It’s about coming up with possible scenarios for the future given these developments.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: A futurist is someone who aggressively predicts future trends, modes of operation, and ways of being, as opposed to people who are more focused on understanding present conditions or past histories and lessons. While I believe people can learn to think in a more futurist fashion, I also feel that everyone is naturally inclined to their own temporal focus — past, present, future — and we can all learn from one another in this regard.
Richard Watson: The dirty little secret here is that, most of the time, I’m not thinking or writing about the future at all. I’m using “the future” as an excuse to think deeply about what people are doing right now and to get others to question what they are doing and where they are going.
What is the right time frame for futurist thinking? How much energy should go into considering scenarios for the next month, year, decade, century?
Alexandra Levit: For me, the ideal time frame is five to 10 years, because although no one can successfully predict the future, in this window you’re more likely to be able to clearly see where things are going according to current operating models. Now, in 2019, I think anything beyond 10 to 15 years is reasonably futile, because we bump up against the technological singularity — the time when machine intelligence becomes so sophisticated that it causes currently unfathomable changes to human existence.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: The right time for futurist thinking is yesterday. One needs to constantly be planning for the future and adjusting for updated hypotheses. Futurism fails when we hold on too strongly to specific potentials that are proven nonviable or when a better potential is possible.
Richard Watson: Anything more than the next quarter is great, and more than 12 months is fantastic. However, I like five to 15 years for most things. But to really test people’s thinking, 15 to 20 years is about right in my view. You need to get far out to escape the gravitational pull of the present.
What are some specific tools leaders can use to imagine and prepare for the future?
Alexandra Levit: Read a ton, and consult experts in your field about what they’re seeing. Futurists use tools that systematize these recommendations, including scenario planning, environmental scanning, Delphi surveying, and individual software programs like Fibres, Futures Platform, and Athena.
Scenario planning is developing a group of potential realities about what might happen in the future of business, and your organization specifically. It takes into account uncertainties as well as major disruptions that are likely to affect your business, a discussion of the implications for each potential reality, and how strategy should be appropriately adjusted if certain realities come to fruition.
Environmental scanning provides a holistic view of the world that involves extensive research and reporting on global, societal, economic, and demographic trends that are likely to impact your business. It drills down further to your industry and your competitors and how the world in which your business operates is likely to shift over the next several years. Many environmental scans also incorporate a review of your organization’s opportunities and challenges in the years to come given the larger factors you’ve uncovered.
The Delphi surveying method relies on expert opinion to devise a group of potential future scenarios. After identifying a panel of experts in your industry, you go through at least two rounds of inquiry. In the first, you ask your panel to list developments that will most greatly impact your business in the near future. Based on the ideas that come in, you might develop a survey to gain consensus about these on a larger scale, or you might go back to the panel to get some synthesis of opinions. The goal is to leverage a structured group to converge on the most likely scenario.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: Global news from a variety of trusted sources and data inputs are critical for quantitative predictions. What also becomes very important is understanding intersectional industry potentials. For example, what is the potential for A.I. and telemedicine to revolutionize the health of wider distributed populations?
Richard Watson: First, just stop and think once in a while. Switch off those blinking devices and go for a walk or look out a window. Reclaim weekends and holidays as distraction-free thinking zones.
Beyond this, trend watching is generally a worthwhile defensive play. And practice scenario thinking as a way of challenging “inevitable” futures. One of the biggest traps when thinking about the future is not separating what’s probable — conventional wisdom, in many instances — from what’s possible.
I developed a tool called the three Ps—for past, present, and probable futures—with Alex Ayad at Imperial College London to address this. Start with some broad categories that impact you. Then consider the present drivers or megatrends. Space is limited if you are mapping on a simple sheet of paper, so you cannot waffle or have a huge list that’s all-encompassing. Next, probable: We use 50 percent chance or greater, usually 10, 15, or 20 years into the future. You can agree on this with the group or seek external expert guidance. Lastly, possible: What’s hugely impactful, highly improbable, but not actually impossible?
For CEOs, a big question in the coming years will be shifts in corporate structures and financial markets. How do you see those shifting, and what will be the drivers of that change?
Alexandra Levit: Generally speaking, corporate structures will become flatter and more specialized, with fewer full-time employees and a network of virtual and contract workers who move in and out of the organization fluidly (including boomers who work fewer hours but still contribute, unlike prior generations that were forced to fully retire at a certain age). The widespread use of flextime and remote work means that your success and productivity in a job will be judged by your results, not where or when you accomplished them.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: As we move to a predicted 40 to 45 percent freelancer economy in 2025, top-down structural hierarchies no longer make sense. New and distributed ownership structures must emerge to accommodate. This is driven by continued wealth redistribution and a need to grow middle-class stability, which current structures no longer service, as well as the growing need for highly skilled technical labor in the workforce above traditional four-year degrees.
Richard Watson: In very general terms, we will see a shift away from the pyramidal structures of yesteryear toward more fluid, open networks. For example, why do we insist on people going to the same building, with the same people, every day to go to work? If you are fundamentally paying people to think, why does it matter so much when and where this happens?
With regard to financial markets, I’d like to think there will be less emphasis on short-term financial results, but I think the only way that will happen is if the whole thing comes crashing down again. Also, broader definitions of “profit” and much wider definitions of “costs” — to society at large, future generations, the environment, etc. I think we might see a slight shift toward smaller firms, employee-owned firms, and, I’d like to hope, ethics and integrity becoming more important than short-term profit.
As it becomes increasingly challenging for employees to make a living in a typical 40-hour workweek, how do you see the relationship between the employer and employee evolving in response?
Alexandra Levit: In a general sense, employers will probably not “take care” of people the way they do today. Most employees will work in a contract capacity, meaning they have to continually sell themselves and their value to organizations. One area of specialty won’t last very long, and individuals will be responsible for continuously reskilling and upskilling to ensure they’re providing what the market needs. At the same time, demographic shifts mean that employers may not have the local talent they require and will have to become more flexible about building virtual teams so they can employ the best people for the job.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: Employers no longer need to maintain standing offices and can significantly reduce overhead costs through outsourcing work. This allows for extreme skill-set specialization and the rise of specialized agencies and competition for talent among them.
Richard Watson: There’s a shift toward working on multiple projects and working for multiple employers — free agent, part-time working from anywhere. However, while this might appeal for a while, and to younger people, I think this creates uncertainty and anxiety, and we might see a shift back toward more stable and permanent employment. For one thing, how do you create a corporate culture if nobody stays for very long and half the people are never in the office? Work is fundamentally social, and I think physical presence really matters. As to where the power sits, people talk about power shifting to the employee, but I don’t see that except in exceptional circumstances where an employee has a skill that’s very valuable.
If you had one piece of advice for a CEO looking to get into the futurist mindset, what would it be?
Alexandra Levit: Be proactive. Instead of insisting on a laser focus on your immediate business priorities tomorrow, keep your head up, your eyes open, and your mind curious. Take responsibility for identifying disruptions in your industry and training your workforce to cope with them. Remember that the future doesn’t just happen — we shape it every day.
Mahrinah von Schlegel: If the understanding of future shifts and market potential aren’t your natural way of thinking, find futurists you like and respect and follow their social media accounts, set Google alerts, and follow their work.
Richard Watson: Very simple. Think further ahead! And one more: CEOs should always ask themselves what assumptions they are making, especially the ones they don’t know about.
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