The Future is Unwritten

“The future ain’t what it used to be”, Yogi Berra, baseball coach

The Promise of the Future

What is the future? Is it simply whatever happens next in a linear timeline, or is it the idea of what is to come? Is it a dream, or is it a reality that has yet to have happened? Well, that probably depends on your philosophical approach to life in general. Exploring the future will never be an exact science – but understanding the past and the present – and keeping ahead of upcoming trends will help us understand it better.

“The Future is Unwritten” is stamped on a revolutionary-looking badge on The Clash’s 1982 album “Combat Rock”. Another punk legend, Nina Hagen, proclaimed “Future is Now!” the same year on her rather eccentric “Nunsexmonkrock” album. Of course, both of them have a point. The future hasn’t happened, and is thus “unwritten”, and the future doesn’t really exist (nor does the past), because there is only the now that we are living in. However, planning for the future has always, and will always be important for ensuring success in, well, the future, both for people and for organisations. And since the future is indeed “unwritten”, the organisation can take active measures to create the future they want – which requires a framework for detecting, mapping and executing innovative ideas.

A challenge with the concept of “the future” (beyond the fact that we don’t really know what the future holds), is that people think they have an idea what the future will bring. As humans, we have been given the gift of being able to take learnings from the past, and project them into the future – not just linear predictions, but more complex experience-based hypothesis about the future. We’ve become better and better at this, especially through the use of modern technology which allows us to predict certain events with fairly high accuracy – or so we believe. However, it is of course difficult to know exactly which events you can predict – as patterns may be clear, but random events can change everything. Therefore, as humans we, usually end up believing in two types of future – the obvious and the intriguing. No matter what will actually happen, those “two futures” are the most digestible to us. The obvious is believable, because it’s based on a somewhat linear chain of events, and the future becomes a trajectory based on that. The intriguing future is believable, because we are essentially dreamers and optimists who are always ready to believe that something better is “just around the corner”. That doesn’t mean those are the only possibilities that exist. The future could manifest itself in many different ways. Some of those ways are relational and temporal. 

The future is easy to believe in – especially if it’s delivered by experts or those in a position of power. As Dan Gardner writes in his book “Future Babble”; “We want control. We need control. And bad things happen when we don’t have it.” It doesn’t really matter if the predicted future happens or not, we need to feel that we understand it. That doesn’t make predictions irrelevant, quite the opposite, as tools like scenario planning are designed specifically to outline different paths – that may or may not come to fruition.

Therefore, perhaps rather than delving into the philosophical idea of the future, we need to focus on the future as a series of possibilities – that the concept of the future is seen as “sliding doors” (named for Peter Howitt’s film by the same name). The sliding doors represent small or large events that may influence the future. A global pandemic would be such an event – that has quite literally changed the future for people, organisations and nations. Of course, a pandemic had been predicted by many, many virologists, doctors and NGOs. Most people (and governments) just chose to ignore it. Still, major global events like a pandemic is definitely a “sliding door”. These “sliding door” events are, of course, not just the big macro happenings that uproot everything.  Events happen daily on a more micro-scale – and their impact can be more limited to a geographical area, an industry or a company. Planning around this requires an understanding of the temporal nature of such events – and how they can be random (occurring seemingly “out of the blue” with no warning or way to predict), reactionary (events happening as a chain reaction from other events, which are usually more predictable than random events) or planned (set into motion by someone in order to create the event). Peter Schwartz calls these factors “Driving Forces” (dominant factors beyond our control shaping the broader business environment), “Predetermined Elements” (factors that remain the same no matter what the future brings) and “Critical Uncertainties” (unpredictable outcome of known developments) in his book “The Art of the Long View”. All future mapping must take this into account.

For business purposes, this translates into future vision and forecasting. The vision is the ambition and the dream, pushing the boundaries, while the forecasting is the concrete estimation of what is likely to happen. A lot of literature tends to focus on one or the other. Either the literature shows how organisations can use strategic visions to drive the future, or how they can use data sets to forecast results. I believe that both need to happen in parallel – but that tends to be difficult, since different capabilities and competencies are required to reach the predictions. 

Planning for the Long Term

“Plans are worthless; planning is everything.”, Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. President

Taking a long view on the future is not easy for people, and certainly not for organisations. We are driven by what’s achievable and controllable, and that usually means looking a few years into the future. Of course, both as people and organisations, we can “dream” about what is to come, and hope that these technologies, societal structures or business opportunities come true, but it’s more in the “hopes and dreams” department than really looking at what is to come. Truly looking at mapping the future in a more accountable way requires a lot more resources and tenacity. When Shell started their scenario planning in the early 70s, they wanted to create plausible and stretch possibilities of the future, in order to better understand what was to come. It is a great tool for management to look at different outcomes – not just their “gut feel”, but based on a number of parameters that can reveal where the world might be heading. Of course, scenario planning is complicated, and it’s not given that the management will know what to do with scenarios when they see them. The uncertain nature of scenarios does not appeal to management simply because everyone is focused on delivering outcomes for the next financial year (or the next quarter). That’s not to say that no one is interested in scenarios, but they require high involvement. An additional problem with scenarios the way I see it, is that they are static in nature.  Yes, companies will roll out different scenarios over time, but there is rarely any adjustment or reality check of the scenarios when “sliding doors” moments happen. I believe that future scenario planning can be greatly improved with technology and collaboration.

Shaping the Future with Innovation

“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.”, Gil Scott-Heron, poet

Science fiction writers have managed to create self-fulfilling future predictions throughout the past two centuries. Ideas that were first presented in sci-fi have since become reality. Jules Verne predicting submarines as well as lunar expeditions, Star Trek predicting mobile phones and tablets, The Minority Report predicting gesture-based interactions, etc. etc. It is, of course, sometimes hard to know if sci-fi really inspired the idea, but it is what intrigues people. In an episode of the AppleTV+ series Mythic Quest, one of the characters says (about science fiction) “It is not enough to propose a future where things are just different. They have to be unexpected and inevitable at the same time”. This approach of “unexpected” and “inevitable” is equally interesting in planning for the future – or rather, creating the future. An innovation strategy is crucial in order to truly understand why we are innovating, what we are aiming for, how we will involve stakeholders, and what we will do with the outcome. But just as with scenario planning, innovation strategies tend to end up as static documents that are rarely updated with new technology, new concepts, new customer needs etc. Innovation work, even though the output may in itself be innovative, seems to be quite stale in many organisations. 

Pushing boundaries for innovation requires strong leadership, focus and the right data – and then the ideas have to be organised so that they can be realised. Using the Innovation Landscape Map below, allows companies to really find where the innovation should happen and turn it to an integral part of the corporate strategy.

The future of Corporate Planning

So, the future is not only determined by random events (passive change), but by active change. These active changes have to manifest themselves through new ideas, new technologies, new consumer patterns, new regulation, new business models etc. Therefore, it is up to the business and its employees to drive the change that’s within their control. Harvesting ideas internally in companies is difficult. Old school solutions like suggestion boxes and intranets get little usage, there is no motivation to contribute transformational ideas for the company. So, the companies either hire external consultants to run innovation programs, or they set up an innovation department internally, where they hire “Entrepreneurs in Residence” and keep the innovation team detached from the daily operations of the business. That can be good for sitting down and thinking long term, but it detaches the idea of the future from the customers – and in many cases, innovation becomes a running joke or at least a meaningless buzzword.

 Collaboration has to be key for future planning and innovation processes to work. In his book “Collaborative Innovation”, which mostly deals with companies working with external partners, Tony Morgan outlines 5 corporate challenges with innovation; Time resources & Funding, Sponsorship & Leadership, Innovation Understanding, Service Provider Related Challenges and Culture & Motivation. The idea of not only involving one service provider, but actually working with multiple external partners opens up for very interesting innovation work – but also a number of pitfalls. I do believe a combination of great future planning/mapping and innovation tools is crucial for businesses to be future-ready and more adaptable to change. However, the challenges with traditional methodologies make a lot of this work impractical – even for large corporations. The key is, therefore, working with someone who understands human-centricity and creating great customer experiences.

This article is a reworked and shortened version of a paper, called “Demystifying the Future”, written for my Masters of Art in Digital Management from Hyper Island in the module “Future Planning”.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo from Adobe Stock]