Futures Friday: Do Planners Make Good Futurists?

Or, If You Give a Futurist a Trend…

Friends and coworkers know me as a “planner”. I like to have a solid understanding of what is going to happen AND how to get there. It makes me a good consultant, client manager, and strategist. Over the years though I have come to realize that I am not really a planner, I am a futurist.

First of all, futurists do not “plan” per se. Although we may create future timelines that look a bit like a plan, these are actually tools and stories to help visualize possible futures and what the path to a particular future might look like.

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Game Theory

A good chess player does not “plan” three moves ahead, they “think through” three turns ahead. There is a big difference. A plan is a course of action based on a series of events. If part of that sequence is altered based on events (internal or external), then there is “plan B”. There can always be a backup plan, but in essence, it is just a hard coded series of options. It is a brute force way of managing the future. When we operate tactically or reactively, we often use planning techniques as it helps us manage and prepare, and most people prefer to see a “fixed future” even if it rarely plays out that way. It’s much easier to manage to one set of expectations than to a multitude of possible outcomes.

Thinking ahead, however, is an entirely different tool. Instead of a playbook of actions, thinking ahead takes a wider scope and allows us to be more adaptable, agile, and able to take advantage of events as they evolve. Futurists use many tools (such as scenarios and futures wheels) to “think ahead” and to help others see the possible futures.

A plan says, this is how it will be and here is how we will get there. A scenario says, this is how it might be, so let’s think through this implications, see what actions we can take, and be prepared.

The Power of a Plan

Plans are exceptionally useful for getting anything actually done. Certain tasks require more planning than others. A large wedding for example, or getting humans on the moon (both astounding achievements), require managing lots of moving pieces to get to a very specific outcome. The ability to plan (and follow a plan) is a crucial skill in the evolution of our societies. We need to be able to see a very clear goal and then have a path to get there.

Traveling Through the Desert

Imagine you are on a desert highway with large mountain ranges on the horizon. The highway stretches through the flat lands in a long line that seems to never end as it meets the mountains. In the distance, you also catch glimpses of other roads that go into the mountains.

The mountains are of course the future, and the road is your current plan of getting there, with rest stops, gas, and lodging along the way. Your plan is based on one thing, the steps you need to take to get to your destination. It is tactical and allows you to focus on achieving your goal (getting to your destination on time).

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Before you took this route, you likely looked at a map to see the best way to get there and looked at alternatives based on time, sites to see, services, and other considerations.

However, as a futurist, our work arguably stops just before the planning. We may offer insights and strategies to a client on steps they should take, but ultimately it is up to the client to plan and execute using the value of foresight. If a client simply receives a series of plans at the end of a foresight project, then it is really not much better than any other consulting team providing a plan. A foresight project should empower the client to be able to strategize and take action better based on the insights, trends, implications, and drivers of various futures.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

One of my favorite books to read to my kids was “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”. If you have not done so, read it. Basically, it walks through extended implications of our actions. “If you give a mouse a cookie, chances are he will want a glass of milk to go with it…and if he has a glass of milk, chances are…” This is essentially what futurists do when we go through the implications of possible events in the future.

If we go to a flat tax system, thousands of tax advisors will be out of a job. If thousands of tax advisors are out of a job, the government may step in and offer financial subsidies to get them new work. If they have no work and government have income, they may spend their time playing more golf. The golf courses will be full. If the golf courses are full, country clubs will create more golf courses. If there are more golf courses, there is less space for housing. If there is less space for housing, then house prices and rents will go up. If house prices and rents go up, then there will be more homeless.

OK, that is a but extreme and for plausibility and sanity, we do not usually go to that order of magnitude when thinking of implications, but you can see how there are cascading effects. And it is clear that this is not planning, it is thinking.

Most human systems are complicated, when we fix one thing, we create change in many others. It is not about stopping change, it is about being able to see that change before it happens and be proactive on its effects.

Plan for the Future

So, do planners make good futurists? Both need to be able to think ahead, see potential outcomes, and make adjustments. Both need to think about strategy and actions. Planners however tend to look for solutions, while futurists tend to look at possibilities. Planners tend to stay closer to the here and now, while futurists often remove all constraints except plausibility (and even then sometimes plausibility has to hold the futurists beer).

Planners can make good futurists, but foresight and futures work is not about planning and that can be a pitfall. As futurists, we want to help our clients get to that preferred future. We want to plan the solution and take them there, but when we go too far, we loose sight of the unique value that futurists bring. As futurists, we are able to push the boundaries of thinking for our clients. We are able to see things that they would have missed otherwise. We are able to help our clients define what they thought was undefinable. More than a plan, more than a vision, we show them the futures.

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