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Being a professional foresight practitioner

crystal ball glowingMy blog posts often  emerge out of a convergence of events over a few days. This time it was getting annoyed - again - with our fascination with prediction, being asked the same day to speak to a newspaper journalist about why predictions don't come true (gladly I said!), and then today attending my last Board meeting of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), where we talked about principles of good practice for professional futurists. The operative word here is 'professional'. First the prediction issue. I do believe that we should ban the word prediction - I've written about it here and here. When I see this year's round of predictions for 2013, I wonder again about how we can go about reframing our brains so that we can see beyond the status quo and stop wasting time and energy on pointless predictions.

Predictions assume that you can extrapolate from today into the future with certainty - that  assumption is flawed because trends are based on data about the past and present, not the future. There are no future facts and there is no guarantee any trend trajectory today will continue unchanged. We are apparently hardwired to like certainty (and comfort zones) but when it comes to the future though, there isn't much of either, and to cope with that, we respond by trying to explain them away with predictions.

My other issue with predictions is that they are usually an extrapolation of a single trend - for example, 3D printing will continue to grow in viability. It probably will (based on my scanning and assumptions), but what trends are influencing and shaping the development of 3D printing? What other trends and changes out there might derail its progress? What would happen then, and how would you respond? That sort of thinking approach creates a very different view of the future than one where the trajectory of a single trend is assumed to be linear and unassailable. Instead of trend lists then, we should be identifying our watch lists for the next year and think about how the trends connect, collide and redrail each other - then we might be paying attention to what really matters for our futures, without the pressure to get the future right.

Second, the APF meeting. The draft document we looked at around principles of good practice was based on strong intellectural thinking and rigour. It wasn't all that easy to read, but it was an excellent piece, and highlighted all the major issues the APF faces in trying to contextualise and define what being a professional futurist or foresight practitioner really means. A couple of comments were around making it easier to read, and while on the one hand, I do understand this, on the other hand, if we are going to be professional futurists, we need to understand the intellectual and theoretical basis of our work - and no one ever said that would be easy. Nor should it be. Furutists work with change that is complex, and understanding complexity requires new ways of thinking not predictions.

Troubled with QuestionsThe processes a professional futurist uses have nothing to do with prediction and everything to do with moving people to new thinking spaces where they can deal with depth of change confronting their organisations and explore what's possible. This thinking shift is often difficult and time consuming, but without it, you'll have an interesting and fun futures workshop, and people will go back to work and do what they have always done, continuing to assume that the future will be more of today.

Without a professional futurist in the room, you risk status quo thinking, prediction of single rather than system trends that have very little value, and superficial scenario work. In other words, more of today and a surprised look on your face when the future arrives.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][Postscript: the newspaper article I referred to in the first paragraph has been published here - it has my comments plus the counter views of Ian Yeoman, a futurist now based in New Zealand (@tomorrowstouris on Twitter).][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]



Connecting Minds 2: APF Professional Development Day

The professional development day of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) was held on Saturday, 7 July at the Vancouver Public Library, which makes an architectural statement in its own right. . The Day opened with a welcome from Mary-Jane Naquin and Jennifer Jarratt, followed by introductions - we each answered the question "we had a good day today because..." Nice question, and it reminded me of the value of being in a room with like minded souls and to have the opportunity to just think. Peter Bishop from the University of Houston provided an overview of the futures field, highlighting some characteristics:

  • long term 5+years
  • all domains, all influences
  • predominantly qualitative, assumption driven
  • alternative futures (scenarios)
  • all clients, consulting, public speaking, writing

During discussion, a couple more were added:

  • there are different emphasis in foresight work in different global regions (eg North America, Australasia and Europe), and
  • there is a strong diversity of backgrounds across the people in the room who are working in the futures field.

Next followed by a panel session on the similarities and differences between competitive intelligence and foresight and exploring the value of longer term futures versus more immediate intelligence gathering. Judy Leavitt and Helen Ho led this panel session and provided a very succinct comparison between the two field.

NegotiatingMarcus Barber then led a session on negotiating as a skill all futures practitioners need to master. He talked about the differences between acceptance and agreement and ensuring that the final outcome ensures that both parties are happy with the outcome, even though it might not be ideal. And yes, we did have to do a couple of role plays, not one of my favourite techniques :(  A couple of other key points:

  • what you think you have on offer is not necessarily what they need; you need to ensure that what you offer will help the potential client to meet their needs, their boss's needs, and their organisation's needs, and
  • do your homework on the client to understand their positioning and what is important for them,
  • use tactics/tricks like 'the flinch', 'the squeeze', 'the little bit extra',  'the walk-away', 'the high engagement', 'the time drain', 'the higher authority' and 'the take away',
  • you need to understand tactics that might be used against you in the negotiating process,
  • you need to practise these skills to be comfortable with them,
  • focus on a daily rate as your minimum rate; don't use hourly rates or be 'a bit' worker,
  • make sure that the reason you are discounting fees is clear on documentation and invoices.

Marcus left us with these messages about negotiating.

  • Selling and negotiating are different parts of the process.
  • Value of selling comes after the sale, and the value of negotiation accrues before.
  • Bigger firms have bigger overheads to carry - sell access to the expertise NOT ownership of the expertise.
  • Concede by don't discount
  • Be willing to walk away from unreasonable offers and clients - lose/win is bad karma as is win/lose.

Marcus referred us to books by Alan Weiss: Million Dollar Consulting, 29 Closing Tactics by Roger Dawson, and Negotiating in the Age of Integrity by Wayne Berry.

His final point was that we are negotiating with the future, a salient reminder for us all.

Marcus' website is at

Lunch at Cafe Medina followed (thanks to Chris Fair for the recommendation), and we reconvened to hear from Maria Anderson on how to engage and use digital tools and networks to enhance our professional lives and work.

Throughout the day, one message kept being repeated - that the value of these APF days comes from the opportunity to re-connect, meet new people, and learn from each other.

Maria's first great point - when you plan a presentation, plan it as though you are going to present to the whole world. Make what you do able to be shared, because it generates other possibilities.

First point: manage your digital profile, don't let the internet do it for you - keep an eye on what is being said about you, and develop content you want to reflect you.

Third, find ways of collaborate, so that you are in a room of like minded people. Cultivate the connections. Use twitter to develop a social network.

Inbox zero:  acting  on your email when you get it rather than let it build up and get overwhelming: options are: delete, delegate (and then decide whether to delete/archive from your own system), defer.  Consolidate email accounts, learn how to search. We talked about Dropbox and Gmail, ways of keeping track of todos. Check out charter.

We talked about so much stuff in the next hour or so, it is hard to summarise it - we covered bookmarking, RSS feeds, mind mapping software, tripit, time management, jing screen capture and sharing, and using a.nnotate to make notes on PDF and manage large numbers of research papers, readability to make it easier to read online...and on and on it went.

One good quote: Treat the internet as an extension of your brain.

The final session was focused around participants sharing and idea, a book or anything else that they are thinking about or doing at the moment , but I was so interested in listening to others, I didn't write them all down!  You had to be there...

This was a great day for me - many minds connected - so many thanks to Jennifer Jarratt and Mary-Jane Naquin who organised and facilitated the day.



Connecting Minds 1: Getting Started in Vancouver

I'm currently in Vancouver to attend the World Future Society Conference for the first time, and attend the professional development day of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). I'll be doing a set of posts from Vancouver here, and they will also be posted to APFLive (no longer active). Last night, Foresight Canada and Ruben Nelso hosted a dinner with some of their folks and people from the boards of the APF and the World Futures Studies  Federation (WFSF) - this was designed to be a neutral space where we could talk about similarities and differences between the associations, and to identify areas of possible collaboration. At the end of the night, after much lively conversation, we had a long list of possibilities which will be circulated shortly.

While we agreed that differences between the associations are a good thing, building on the similarities is an important thing to do at this stage in the development of both groups.

The atmosphere was incredibly positive and it was great to talk about how connecting the minds in the WFSF and the APF has the potential to strengthen both associations, and more importantly, to strengthen the positioning for foresight for society in general.



Follow up: What big questions do we need to ask about the future?

For the last twitter chat (#futrchat) held by the Association of Professional Futurists, I wrote a blog post on the topic: what big questions do we need to ask about the future? The twitter chat was great, so I thought it might be interesting to record all the big questions and big issues that were raised in the chat. Five questions were asked in the chat, with only the last one dealing with big questions themselves. The other questions all generated interesting points and comments, so I've included some of them here too. Big questions actually emerged throughout the chat, and I've tried to cluster them all under question 5 (the question about big questions).

I've not tried to see if there's any common themes or patterns, just cluster the answers to the questions so they are easier to follow than the transcript of the chat.


Question 1: Why ask big questions about the future? What's the point?

  • The question is not really the matter, the matter is the process, the exchange @chvdHaegen
  • All of the big questions filter down with implications for even the smallest questions @jbmahaffie
  • Futurists often want to save the world and humankind, thus big questions @jbmahaffie
  • The future we all work together to build for overselves @JDEbberly
  • Individual flourishing for all means collective flourishing, no? @ChvdHaegen
  • Big questions (and potential answers) provide a direction. No one asks a child what classes they want to take when they grow up @phi162
  • Not asking the big question is like walking through a forest, just trying to avoid the trees @fredmcclimans
  • It is the exchange and the other questions it spawns @SMSJOE


Question 2: What are the areas where big questions need to be asked urgently?

  • All sorts of version of 'what is the future of humankind?' since that's deep down what people are wondering @jbmahaffie
  • Communication - how will we talk and connect? with whom etc @urbanverse
  • Education for what - for participation in industrial era work or for living in the future @aussiefuturist
  • Asking how we should change/modify our behavior @CASUDI
  • Those areas that affect our basic needs: safety & security. That broad - could be economy, could be environment, could be... @dbevarly
  • One big area is developing safety into nanotechnology @JBEbberly
  • First principles, i.e. what is essential? Ensuring resources still available regardless of supply disruption @sLange_Windsor
  • Big questions needed in climate change, income equity, and the 'global' governance of complex systems (disruptive tech, etc) @justinpickard
  • Future areas of need: human rights (see current unrest), hunger, health, education & environment @CathyWebSavvyPR
  • How about the impact of religious fundamentalism of all types on society? I c mostly negatives, can there be pos outcomes? @jimmath
  • The environment: Water, deforestation, species extinction etc.
  • Also: how big, chaotic, complex & interdependent entities can fail safely with the minimum of damage @justinpickard
  • Big questions in future resilience...society, technology, climate, food
  • I agree with policy/resource issues offered up. Would add democracy and entrepreneurism. Anyone teaching/instilling? @TonyatCollins
  • Availability of gas is important to developing the future - until we fully implement alternative fuels @JDEbberly
  • What will the future economy consist of? People need jobs to buy, but automation makes products w/ less people. Conundrum @phi162
  • Post scarcity 'economics', synthetic biology, 3D printing. They're going to cause a 'bucketload' of disruption and realignment @justinpickard
  • Big questions in future resilience...society, technology, climate, food @fairsnape
  • Biggest big question is 'how do we ask big questions and derive succinct answers" @fredmcclimans


Question 3: How can we, or should we, ensure asking big questions is the primary driver of strategy development?

  • We have 2 b able 2 show gr7 results frm asking the big Qs to get ppl willing 2 keep asking them virtuous cycle @jimmath
  • Are big questions being asked at Board level? who is driving change, strategy? @fairsnape
  • I believe you can/should sometimes ask tiny little questions, then open thinking up to biggest q's. Future of kittens! @jbmahaffie
  • How to ensure bigQ is primary driver of strategy dev? Commoditize - build incentives into economies @urbanverse
  • Should it be? Canned future shock and seemingly unsurmountable challenges aren't the best way to get people on-side right? @justinpickard
  • Big q to strategy - its the most logical way. Big questions are like clouds - they hover in the background sometimes @urbanverse
  • Moving to big qs must stretch strategic thinking byond the next qtr or year @jbmahaffie
  • Do big questions always move us to long term thinking? @urbanverse
  • Big q's and long term thinking, maybe its the L-T thinking that moves us to big q's @urbanverse
  • asking big Q should move us out of today at very least which moves us in direction of long term@jbmahaffie
  • sometimes big Qs move us backward as much as forward @urbanverse


Question 4: What's the biggest challenge to asking big questions?

  • what constitutes a big question inside a company is quite different to a big question outside? @aussiefuturist
  • Institutional intertia & risk-avoidance, but also a sense that if the Q is 'too' big, you can't do anything useful w/it @justinpickard
  • Maybe...if you could make action plans from them, yes? RT@ChvdHaegen: big questions bring a cloud of answers, and action @urbanverse
  • ORGS maybe, GOVT never, small CO v possible and individuals = YES (cynical YES) @CASUDI
  • biggest obstacle 2 getting the big questions asked in orgs, govt, by ppl in general = ostrich syndrome. ppl don't always want As @jimmath
  • Big questions seem overwhelming. People like answers and those questions don't always have them @phi162
  • ppl are overwhelmed by bigq's and don't know how to move forward @davidmcgraw
  • so perhaps real question is what might make companies interested in the long term @JDEbberly
  • Challenges to big Ws being asked en masse - incentives for short-term projects that satisfy long-term reqs @sLange_Windsor
  • Future and big Q = uncertainty and answers = certainty: need to be more comfortable with uncertainty @mareeconway
  • how to get people to accept the inevitability of uncertainty? @aussiefuturist
  • Are the big Qs necessary, but not sufficient, to drive good foresight efforts @jbmahaffie
  • It seems like only a small %age of ppl care if things get better & r willing to act. is there enuf 4 critical mass? @jimmath
  • Biggest challenges to all is creating the "appropriate" forums that allow exchange of ideas/answers/curation @fredmcclimans
  • A big challenge to getting people, orgs thinking about the future is that most people have only vague grasp of the present @geofutures
  • Perhaps big question are waht we can rarely agree on? @phi162 and RT I think it is the answers to, ppl struggle with @urbanverse
  • Are small unanswered quetiosn obstacles to reach big questions @ChvdHaegen
  • Companies interested in long term when they have answers to big questions already @urbanverse


5. What's Your Big Question?

  • Another big question, when life expectancy 140. Personal implications and natural resources too @TonyatCollins
  • What's the utopia that we all can share? @chvdHaegen
  • So how do we deal with, change our behavior to combat or align ourselves w the WATSONs @loisgeller
  • How are we going to build relationships when the more devices we have, the more isolated we seem to be @loisgeller
  • Do you think that the 'gross happiness index' in Bhutan is a big question or a big answer in changing the future? @krash63
  • If we are going to ask big questions, we should start with the really gib ones like what brings meaning to life @kristinalford
  • On post-growth, Sadar asks r we in postnormal times? @drjaygary
  • We've adapted to the speed of fax, email, IM - so what do we need to adapt to next?
  • Where does the future come from? Who is in a position to choose & drive it, and with what goals @geofutures
  • Svante Arrhenius warned of the dangers of fossil fuels to earths climate in 1896. We are still debating the merits of his questions @davidmcgraw
  • Will we really see a technological singularity @JDEbberly
  • 50 yrs from 2day, will the world b better or worse than it is today? & by who's standards? @jimmath
  • How does one define quality of life? and how do we say what's better for future generations? @urbanverse
  • How 2 anticipate sysfails at level of individual, ie each person is their own 'survival kit'?
  • The big question today is, how to think about finding the right, ultimate question? @chvdHaegen
  • Taught a calss at the local university yesterday. Students asked where the job opportunities will be in the future @loisgeller
  • How can we be smart enough to anticipate change, and change our behavour (patterns) accordingly @CASUDI
  • How do we avoid irreconciliable divisions/clevages in humanity - generational, political, reality-based etc. Us vs them @justinpickard
  • What is the future? Humans/technology: a turning point in history @robinbrittain
  • What's the process for formulating the questiosn that will guide us towards a better world for all @ChvdHaegen
  • Our needs (Maslow) are static. What's the process for formulating the questions that will guide us towards a better world for all? @phi162

And some general comments

  • The most important thing is...They have brownies in the future! @RealTerminator
  • About questions and answers: I believe if we have one very big question, the ultimate question, we will have a cloud of answers @ChvdHaegen
  • And the clouds of answers will be millions of people going through life with purpose and serenity @ChvdHaegen
  • Do big questions produce fewer big answers actually? @urbanverse
  • Staying competitive in the future global marketplace can only be achived through continuous self education @mARkeTingOtakus
  • Independent and effective learning and critical thinking should play a key role in the future @mARkeTingOtakus

What's your big question about the future?


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What big questions do we need to ask about the future?

The topic for the Association of Professional Futurists' Twitter chat (#futrchat) this week (see below for details) is "what big questions do we need to ask about the future?" We all have questions about how the future might shape up for us. That's the most fundamental and urgent driver for building our foresight capacity - as individuals, organisations and societies.

Why? Because the future will be different to our past and our present. To answer questions about the future we need to go to a sort of future space, where we move beyond our knowledge of what's happened and what's happening now to explore what's possible.  In this space, there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, we find possibilities and options that we may not have seen if we'd relied only on what we know about the past and the present.

This future space is the realm of the 'what if' question and the 'big ' question. To answer those questions, we have to be open to changing the way we think, and challenging our deeply held assumptions about what is possible and what is not. Answers to our big questions will be very constrained if we base them only on what is possible today.

So, before we ask 'what are the big questions', I wanted to think about the shape of those questions.  I often hear that we need to be asking the right questions about the future, but how do you know if a question is the right one?

Fortunately, there is a great publication called The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action (2003) by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs which provides a roadmap to help you and me design powerful questions - the 'big' questions that need answering if we are to collectively ensure our futures.

The authors make the point that (p3):

While you may not immediately know the characteristics of a powerful question, it’s actually quite easy to recognize one. For instance, if you were an Olympic judge scoring the power of questions on a scale from one to ten (with ten being the highest), how would you rate the following queries? 1. What time is it? 2. Did you take a shower? 3. What possibilities exist that we haven’t thought of yet? 4. What does it mean to be ethical?

We are provided with a very clear explanation of the architecture of powerful questions, and how to develop and use them in organisations. There are lots of examples. Basically, powerful questions have the following characteristics (p4):

generates curiosity in the listener, • stimulates reflective conversation, • is thought-provoking, • surfaces underlying assumptions, • invites creativity and new possibilities, • generates energy and forward movement, • channels attention and focuses inquiry, • stays with participants, • touches a deep meaning, and • evokes more questions.

I think designing a big question or a powerful question is a skill learned with practice. My big questions revolve around changing the way we think about the future to move beyond the short-termism that seems to drive  decision making in organisations and governments, and in our personal lives today. So, for the APF #futrchat, my big question is:

what needs to change if we are to move beyond short-termism to collectively accept responsibility for future generations?

What's your big question about the future?

APF Twitter Chat at 4-5pm EST on Thursday, 24 February in the USA, 8-9am Australian EDST on Friday, 25 February.

See also the introductory blog post by #futrchat co-host, Cindy Frewen Weullner.

Join us on Twitter by searching for #futrchat. Please use #futrchat in your tweets, and the Question #, as Q1, Q2, Q3 etc.

As alternative to, you can use tweetdeck and search for #futrchat.

Or Tweetchat

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