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What's in a name?

What's in a name?

I wrote an article* with the same name as this post in 2000, talking about the need to clarify the terms used to describe university managers as opposed to university administrators. This time I'm writing about the terms used to describe people who work in the foresight/futures field and more specifically, the terms I apply to my work.



A redesign of my business model, a domestic challenge, two immersive experiences with fellow futures and foresight folks and a PhD with a strong focus on critical reflective practice has got me reflecting, something I don't do enough of.

Business model redesign and what really matters

I was a Founding Partner of the Centre for Australian Foresight (CFAF) which set me thinking about what it was I actually did in Thinking Futures. Hence my business model redesign. It's still a work in progress and will, I think, see Thinking Futures focus very clearly on the practice of foresight - resources, webinars, and this blog. It made me think quite deeply about what is it about foresight that has value for individuals and organisations, and then to explore how to demonstrate that value in my practice. The Business Model Canvas has been useful for me here, as well as taking a design thinking approach to this redesign, which will involve some prototyping of ideas with people to see if they work.

Domestic Challenge and the reality of work life balance

work home life signDomestic life always has a knack for getting in the way of business, which is to be expected given they are so closely intertwined for me. I am reading a book called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simply Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Garry Keller and Jay Papasa. I don't think the key message around focus on the one thing that matters is all that new but they have presented it well, and there are some ideas which invoked some clarity for me. One of these is around work-life balance. I've always had a problem with this term but could never articulate why. One obvious thing is that it separates work from life and for me that's a bit daft - life includes my work and the balance bit comes from making sure I spend enough time on me as an individual - physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

The desire for balance is part of our belief that we need compartmentalise ourselves from the 24/7 world of work we find ourselves in, which is exacerbated by the rise of technology and our apparent  love of it. Until our organisational leaders and society generally understand that the future of organisations and work is not bricks and mortar and not 9-5, however, we will seek out this elusive balance. I work from home and am disciplined enough to get my work done when it needs to get done (mostly), and have the freedom to balance domestic and work issues in a way that makes it easier for me and my family. That factor alone is why I don't think I'll ever go back into an organisation to work as an employee.

Keller and Papasa point out that if you look at balance as being in the middle, with work on one side and life, "then out of balance is when you are away from it. Get too far from the middle and you are living in the extremes. The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything else". But the best bit of this for me was their comment that "the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes...but we don't know how to manage our lives while we're out there."

Apple spiral

In a foresight context, when I do scanning work, I encourage people to go to the edges to find the new and the innovative, rather than stay in the mainstream where there is nothing new in terms of trends and we all have access to the same information. Same with work-life balance which Keller and Papasa term counterbalancing: moving across the middle to spend time where it needs to be spent at any given point in time. Sometimes you need to be in the middle like I needed to be to deal with my recent domestic challenge and sometimes you need to move to the extremes - most of the time I try to move out towards the extremes now.

This statement, coming from a structure loving person, indicates a tangible mind shift for me. The extremes are more challenging mentally, but that is good. Like I couldn't go back to an organisation full-time, I don't think I can think productively in the middle anymore either.

Immersion in Foresight and what I learned

I've attended the Association of Professional Futurists Gathering in Orlando in May and have just returned from the World Future Society Conference in Chicago. Apart from the impact of jet lag, I enjoyed the opportunities to reconnect with my friends and colleagues, meet new people and participate in some valuable sessions. The Gathering is much more an immersive experience than the WFS Conference, so you can't really compare the two; both were valuable for me and provided fodder for my reflections.

I am an introvert and spending too much time in loud, noisy places really does do my head in, but I managed to hang out at the Simulacrum After Party at the APF Gathering. Lesson: it's important to push yourself beyond your comfort zone whenever you can.

I am getting better at challenging bombastic people who think they are really smart but who just suffer from closed minds. I used to think they were closed minded and said nothing, now I tell them. Not the most tactful thing to do perhaps but on the occasion this happened at WFS, I had help from a couple of other people who agreed with me. Lesson: time's too short to not challenge closed minds. 

One Stands Holding Change, Others Crushed

A corollary to this lesson is responding to people to say they are comfortable where they are, thank you, and don't want to change. This comment usually happens in the middle of an organisational change process. I was in a room with university academics and professional staff recently where this comment was made and I blurted out something like "well, my view is that being comfortable in the face of the degree of change your faculty is facing is a really dangerous place to be" - received with a strange look and more criticism of the change being discussed, so I don't think I conveyed my message well enough to penetrate the closed mind!

This was one of the few times I spoke before thinking and upon reflecting, I realised this is one of the core issues for people doing futures work - helping people recognise and deal with change in context. Not only are there closed minds about what change matters and what is important in a given context, there are also people who deny that change is part of their lives now. They also deny that they have to find a way to respond to it or their discomfort will only continue to increase. Lesson: find a way that works for you to understand change in your context and how you want to respond to it.

integral quadrantsI listened to some really good presentations at the WFS Conference, but listened to others that were incredibly superficial futures work. I won't name names but if you are going to call yourself a futurist, then think beyond the superficial and pop cultures realm if you really want to help people explore their possible futures - go deep. One presentation in particular saw me get up and leave when the last tip for participants was 'you can't predict the future' - I felt like I was in my first strategic foresight class again. While there was a mix of professional foresighters and interested members of the public in the audience, surely one of the first lessons of speaking is to scope your audience so you can pitch your content appropriately?  Lesson: start integrating integral futures more overtly into my work to reveal this depth - I've been using it in stealth mode for some time, but it's time for it to become visible.

Critical reflective practice: the joy of making time for thinkingthinking

I won't say much about this except that my PhD has given me the opportunity to do deep thinking dives which I really enjoy and which I realised I have not made time for - despite, sadly, this being a core message when I do workshops and webinars. This hallelujah moment led me to the business model redesign described in the first point, to think deeply about what it is I want to do with my foresight work, to identify the one thing that will let me make that elusive difference. Lesson: whatever you call it, make time for critical reflective practice, particularly the kind that makes one challenge self and underpinning beliefs - uncomfortable but worth it.


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The Value of Futures Approaches in Strategic Planning

How do futures approaches ‘add value’ to those processes we now call strategic planning? Organisational planning processes usually focus on the relevant industry sector and mainstream trends, both locally and globally, and develop strategy in response. This focus is essential.  So what's different with futures approaches?

Futures approaches consider a wider range of issues and trends beyond an industry, including emerging issues, and more general societal issues and trends.

Futures approaches usually go beyond visible trends to look at the systemic drivers underpinning those trends.  Some futures work attempts to surface and challenge the assumptions underpinning how those trends are analysed and interpreted. Trends are not confined to a particular industry, and interactions, collisions and intersections between trends are explored in depth.

Futures approaches identify and use wider sources of information from the mainstream and the periphery, as well as seeking to source tacit information held by individuals.

Futures work uses a long term time frame. Futures work in a strategy sense is undertaken to inform decision making today. Thinking systematically about the future is not about trying to get the future right through prediction and forecasting, but aims to explore potential longer term impacts of decisions that may not be visible if the time frame used in strategy is only short term.

Futures work aims to surface and challenge assumptions that underpin current thinking and decision making. These assumptions are often grounded in deeply held beliefs that are hard to shift, even in the face of clear evidence that they are not true or no longer true. Surfacing assumptions is hard work, because it involves individuals recongising their blind spots and biases, and this can often be uncomfortable.

Futures work can be inclusive.  Because foresight is an innate human capacity, everyone in a university or organisation is capable of thinking strategically.  Futures approaches provide opportunities for staff to be involved in an authentic way in the process of exploring options about the future.

The quotes that follow demonstrate the value of integrating futures approaches into strategy development.

Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for future development. Roman engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus, 1st Century AD

Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction. Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology, Toulouse, 1872.

Heavier than air flying machines are not possible. Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1895

The aeroplane will never fly. Lord Haldane, British Minister of War, 1907.

Space flight is hokum. Astronomer Royal, 1956

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929

We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. Decca Recording Co, rejecting The Beatles, 1962

I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers. Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

But, what is it good for? Attributed to an engineer at Advanced Systems Division at IBM, commenting on the first microchip.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment, 1977

640K [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"][of RAM] ought to be enough for anybody. Bill Gates, 1981

Using futures approaches might just help avoid making statements like these!  But, remember, at the time these statements were made, they were probably considered to be realistic and accurate in the current context and given what we know. It is only hindsight, coupled with our knowledge of the present, that allows us to recognise how short sighted these statements were.  Yet, every time someone 'predicts' what's coming, they are at risk of making a statement equally as stupid as the ones here.

All our knowledge is about the past, yet all our decisions are about the future.  The future is characterised by uncertainty, and much that we simply do not know.  Worse, we do not know what we do not know.  For anyone to claim certainty about the future is, at best, misguided and, at worst, arrogant.  We need to acknowledge uncertainty and seek to better understand it, not try to explain it away with predictions.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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A Celebration of 10 Years of Swinburne Foresight

Over the past few months, I have helped organise a celebration of 10 years of the Masters of Strategic Foresight course at Swinburne University of Technology here in Melbourne. Last Saturday (31 July), a group of about 40 alumni, current students,  present and past teaching staff gathered to celebrate those 10 years. This course was a life-changing experience for me, not only because I had one of the most intense learning experiences of my life in my first year, which was delivered online, but also because I had a personal epiphany about the importance of thinking about the future impact of our decisions today - before we make those decisions - that caused me to change careers. The concept of responsibility for future generations and being a good ancestor struck a real chord with me, and by the end of the two years of the course, I had decided that I wanted to work in the futures field. It took me a few more years, but in 2007 I left behind a career of almost 30 years as a university manager, to set up Thinking Futures. Two and a half years later, I feel privileged every day for the opportunity to work with people who want to understand what the future might bring and who are willing to open up their assumptions to challenge - so that we can collaboratively create better futures for us all. The Swinburne course set me on this foresight journey, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Back to the day.  The organisers gathered at around 8am on a cold morning, and set up the hall where we would be meeting. The food was organised, as was the Wall of Wonder, and the Open Space Technology posters.  We had sent out a survey before we started organising, and we got a clear message that participants wanted the day to be about their experience and their passions. So we structured an opening and a closing, and devoted the remainder of the day to Open Space discussions.

A brief introduction and welcome was followed by the Wall of Wonder, facilitated by Karen Newkirk (Creating Eternity), who did a great job of drawing out of us all our feelings and beliefs about the past, present and future of the course.  A really big wall was created with a timeline and we each wrote our ideas on pieces of paper which were then stuck to the wall. It provided both personal and big picture views and perspectives, and allowed us all to hear about what drew us to the course, our experiences in the course, and then the driving forces in our work after the course now and into the future.

I facilitated the Open Space Technology session which saw sessions on:

  • Foresight in Schools
  • Foresight and Permaculture
  • Building a network of alumni
  • Helping socially disadvantaged people find their voice, particularly aged care
  • Where to from here: what strategies to we have?
  • Personal discovery through Future sculpture
  • Our Foresight Journeys
  • Aspirations for Change
  • Conversations that Enrich Foresight

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Open Space approach worked well - people were responsible and took ownership of the day themselves. And, as perhaps some sort of sign, the sun came out just before we moved into the Open Space segement of the program. People commented that they loved the emergence of the Open Space process, although it requires us to 'unlearn' how to meet without structure that is defined for us. The degree of involvement of the facilitator was also raised as some people felt some intervention was necessary to keep the process on track.  We did not have a formal feedback process on session outcomes, but rather encouraged each group to work out whether or not they wanted to take their topic beyond the day. A more general review of the day highlighted that:

  • there is lots of good 'stuff' happening,
  • we might need more 'in the box' thinking so we can act now,
  • we may not be clear about whether we are using futures to advocate something, or promoting advocacy of futures
  • there were many light bulb moments, and
  • overall, a re-energising day - we can make a difference.

We closed with a time capsule exercise facilitated by Barbara Bok, where we each - individually or in groups - developed our own futures triangles based around the future of the course. The time capsule will be opened in 10 years time. Richard Slaughter, who set up the course, then provided an overview of its history and reminded us of the urgency of the work we are now all doing if we are to help ensure a sustainable future for us and the planet.

For me, the day was marked by remarkable openness, from the passion of individuals who spoke about their drivers, to discussing methods and ways of working in the futures field. Sharing experiences, wonderful food and making new connections were hallmarks of the day. A common respect yet simultaneous dislike of the Integral Futures subject in the course was very clear!  This subject is challenging and forces you to question your own assumptions and worldviews in the context of learning about four quadrants, holons, streams, waves and much more. It remains a defining and connecting element of the course - in one way or another - for all of us.

The one thing that kept cropping up for me, however, was a question around why, if we understand the imperative of the future, can we as a society, and individual foresight practitioners, not work out a way to move to action?  Why is it that we don't change the way we think and operate in the face of overwhelming evidence that that change is essential?  This was a much bigger question than we could do justice to on the day, but it's remained with me and I'm pondering how to make this action step more overt in my work.

People stayed after the formal close and had more conversation before gradually heading off in the twilight of the evening. We organisers cleaned up, shared the left over food :) and said our goodbyes, exhausted but all feeling that the effort to organise the day was well worth it.  The challenge now will be to try and maintain the energy on the day, so that we can keep the conversations going.