The nub of foresight work is conversation that lets people better understand what is happening 'out there' in the external environment so they can respond today to ensure their organisation survives in to the future. However, the conversation needs to be high quality, not the tick the box kind of conversation that often happens in organisations - you know, let's have a meeting and talk about this 'thing' that's likely to change our future if we don't respond. Oh, and let's do it in 30 minutes. I've said before that we have to make time for thinking about the future and to ensure that the process is collaborative - that is, ensuring that the thinking of individuals is shared through high quality, deep conversation.

Today, when doing my daily trawl through emails and RSS feeds, I came across three items that all talked in one way or another about deepening the conversation about the future.

1. Social, Progress and the Lazy Brain

The first was a blog written by Amber Naslund (@AmberCadabra). Here's the key message for me (my bolding):

The blogs being lauded as “leading” ... these days are the ones that are adept at the clever analogy or the frequently and arbitrarily curated Top Something list, or most especially the preachy, prescriptive advice that’s packaged as some kind of reality check about where we’re going wrong. The rearview mirror sure makes for easy writing fodder, doesn’t it? Drawing the uncharted maps is a heck of a lot harder.

Talking about what we do now is simple and easy, but doesn't help us understand what's coming. As Amber says "the simple is not always easy." To understand what's coming we need to have a difficult conversation, a deep conversation where we question assumptions and move into uncertainty. I know from experience that if you let yourself move into this space, you will have a challenging conversation and you will be energised by it. You will move beyond the status-quo.

Amber also talks about questioning data rather than just relying on it - I talk often about the perils of over-reliance on data and those multiplying infographics to inform strategic thinking. She provides the following questions to ask first before accepting data:

Where did it come from? How was it gathered? What assumptions were made when it was presented? How were the questions formed, and what kind of bias do they reflect? What information might have been left out, skipped, or even deliberately skewed (ever look at who sponsors a study, for example)? Were those survey responses from fifteen people on Twitter on Friday at midnight, or was it a statistically valid and representative sample? Was someone just presenting data that supports a conclusion they already wanted to make?

Yay, I say.

2. Developing new habits of participation and new habits of communication

The second is another blog post written by Esko Kilpi (@EskoKilpi). His site is about 'interactive value creation' and this particular post talks about value adding for economic growth in terms of transforming raw materials into a product as being generated by:

...different ideas and contextual, co-created solutions. The transformation process is also very different. In creative work, it is an iterative, unpredictable, non-linear movement, rather than a linear, sequential chain of predictable acts.  Knowledge-based value added is a movement of thought. Individuals should take part in the onward movement of thinking. People should know what the live, future-creating ideas are and how to take part in the conversation in a value-adding way. Thinking does not take place inside independent people but in continuous interaction between individuals. The richer the interaction, the more economic value added is created. The poorer the interaction, the more value is destroyed and waste created.

Again, we need to make sure that our conversations about the future matter - that they add value to what we have today, so that we can create our future. We need to change the nature of our conversations.

This requires us to learn new ways of talking about learning, education, competencies and work itself. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles that are still the mainstream. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier. The age of the (lone) expert is over. The process of communication is the process of knowing.

And we need to have conversations with many people to generate ideas that matter. The age of the person on the soapbox telling us how it will be is over.

Yay, a second time.

3. Be suspicious of stories

I smiled when I watched this TEDx video by Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) an economist from George Mason University. The title made me want to watch, and I realised while watching it why I've always been suspicious of stories. I dislike books which promise to tell me stories to explain a point, and I've always had the niggle at the back of my mind when I read presentation and web material that tells me the way to engage my audience is to tell stories.  This video went some way to helping me understand why.

Yes, we are biologically programmed to respond to stories, they are information rich, they connect us to people, and they have social power - but they are too simple. The detail is stripped away and the narratives are reduced to metaphor and sameness - eg the journey, the fight between good and evil, the conspiracy - but this means you are "telling yourself the same thing over and over again." We are telling stories about what's passed, not what's coming.

Now, future scenarios are essentially narratives about what's coming, and Tyler's words are a reminder that scenario stories need to push the boundaries to the unknown rather than relying on the known. We need to look at the margins for our stories, and be comfortable with the messy.

Tyler speaks about the attractiveness of stories that reduce our messy lives to 'easy' - they are not about "the complex human institutions which are the product of human action not of human design"; they are not about the mess that is reality. And, relying on simple stories can be a form of mental laziness that can lead us astray in our thinking and actions. We will not be able to avoid stories, but we can get better at responding to them, Tyler says.

Yay, a third time.

The Connections

So, what are the connections between these three items? The key message for me is about the need to find ways to deepen our conversations in organisations and to value those conversations so that we move beyond mental laziness and lazy brains.

Move beyond the easy answers - we tend to seek the easy solution - we simplify and reduce our lives and organisations rather than working with the mess. We look for the linear rather than deal with the divergent. So, avoid stories that reduce the present to easy and remove the need to think deeply. Forget the current never ending quest for certainty about the future, and accept that you will be uncomfortable when dealing with the uncertainty that characterises the future - remember uncertainty is messy. Spend some of those resources that go into analysing data now on building spaces for high quality conversation.

Question everything - seek to add value to the conversation about the future. Look forward as well as looking around and behind. Understand that ideas - lots of them - that generate difference in conversation are needed, not more agreement. Avoid seeking the quick and easy answer.

Embrace the unknown - look for what you don't know about the future to inform and deepen our conversations. Move away from the rear view mirror and build a map of the unchartered waters of the future.

Build collaborative understanding -  seek out ways to generate collaborative stories about the future - ones that challenge what you have today, avoid the metaphors, and make our brains hurt trying to understand the implications for our organisations today. Make them uncomfortable stories that will require you to ask 'why'. Spend time cultivating rich conversation as a strategic competency, rather than something you don't have the time to do.