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Thinking Futures

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.


Foresight and Transformation

Vector Transformation. Broken textI was asked recently about using weak signals and wildcards in work to transform the way a university did learning and teaching. My response was that you can't transform an organisation or a process with foresight, you can only work to transform the way an individual thinks about the future. I don't think the person asking the question was impressed with the answer. I explained Richard Slaughter's framework for the development of social foresight that I've modified for my work to use in strategy development - that it's individual first, then the building of a critical mass of foresight aware individuals who can use foresight tools, then embedding foresight into the organisation so it becomes ' the way we do things around here'. Once there are enough organisations at that level, social foresight becomes a reality.

It takes time to do this, and in most cases time is in short supply in organisations. It takes a strong leader to decide to do foresight. to provide the resources and support to make it happen and then work to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be involved. More often than not, internal or external shifts intervene to derail foresight projects, particularly organisation wide efforts.

Yet, if an organisation is serious about transformation at any level, then the starting point is with the individual. Yes, set up structures, put people in roles, start doing new things, but just because you build it, will they come? Maybe, maybe not.



I think my mind has moved...

WP BrainI'm in Cairns in North Queensland for the annual Tertiary Education Management Conference - about 800 managers are here, so it will be good to catch up with old friends. I haven't worked in the sector for 7 years now, but I try and stay in touch by coming to the conference and since my PhD is on the future of university management, I figured it would be useful to immerse myself in a contained environment with the people who manage! That said, after looking at the program properly, I began to reflect on why there were so few sessions I wanted to attend. The sessions themselves are fine, and there are some good keynote speakers, although I still wonder why the conference has moved away from strong tertiary education speakers to the more motivational, speaker circuit type - the latter group, in my experience, tend to speak well but present the same sort of talk. Work hard, work with others, follow your dream...

Apart from that gripe, I'm not casting aspersions on the conference - it's a good one, and an annual meeting point for managers in the sector. As the saying goes, it's not the conference, it's me. I think my mind has moved.

That's probably not surprising since my work is now foresight and not university management, but it's always a little sad when you realise you have mentally and emotionally left some of your past behind, particularly when you've spent almost 30 years of your life in that past. It's often said that once you 'get' foresight, there's not turning back and that's true of any shift in how you think.

I live in the future space now, not the today space and this only really dawned on me when I read the program. There was a lot about change and the occasional mention of the future, but the sessions were all about today. And after attending a few now, this initial observation was proven correct for me. I am sitting in the conference as an outsider, with no real connection to the people in the room except for my past. And that's never enough. I'm not part of their future now.

Bifurcation in a Country roadThat's okay, I chose to leave the sector and head in a different direction. Until now, I could be at the conference and find meaning, but the path that has always brought me here has reached a divergence point, a fork in the road.

I will be following the foresight path and farewell the conference path. My PhD will mean there is still a connection over the next few years at least, as managers are one of my target groups for participants. But I'll be a researcher, not a participant. My mind has moved to a different space now.





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.



Trusting in emergence

splash paint I think I first heard the phrase trust emergence from Joseph Voros when we were working together more than a decade ago to do foresight at Swinburne University of Technology. It's become something of a mantra for me ever since, allowing me to let go of my deeply ingrained need for structure and trust that whatever happens, happens at the right time - not as a result of randomness but more as a result of a convergence of intent and actions, both conscious and unconscious.

Emergence only happens when you are open to the possible, and when you are ready to let go of the past. Letting go of the past usually results in the sensation of your safe world disintegrating around you, although that sensation can range from extreme (as when an addict realises they need help) to more subtle (an unease that all is not right, and something needs to change). For me, this past year or so has been a period of subtle unease - of course, I only realised that with hindsight! This post is a bit of an indulgence but I think as I write, and putting where I have reached in my emergence journey is a key step is helping me understand what to do next. And writing it publicly is about being transparent and open with what I do in my work and the thinking that underpins that.

I can now pinpoint some thinking shifts that, taken together, indicate emergence has brought me to a new space in my business life. One was when I realised I didn't want to be called a futurist or a consultant. That's when I started using the term strategic foresight practitioner - what I did was about the practice of strategic foresight in organisations, not telling organisations about their future, and then walking away. I have always believed that people in organisations can craft their own futures if they are given the opportunity and the time, and are trusted to get on with it, because that's the way you get practical outcomes that actually mean something to the people who have to implement actions every day. And the practical outcomes are a key performance indicator for me - if people can't use what they do with me when they go back to work, then I'm not doing something right.

Another was I didn't like doing one day planning workshops or giving keynotes - I can do them pretty well if feedback is anything to go by, but it dawned on me one day, which is how emergence works, that the reason I didn't really like them was because of their 'walk-in, walk-out' nature. That's related to my dislike of perceptions of the traditional consultant role - walk in, often use a pre-determined model, charge money, walk out. Keynotes are the same - walk in, tell people your ideas about the future which often mean little to the audience, take money and walk out. It's like I am pontificating, which is all you can do when you have an hour (sorry all those accountants I upset once too). There was no opportunity to work with people over time to change the way they think about the future in their organisations, no real relationships, no time for the deep conversations that take people to new thinking spaces. I was earning money, but not making a real difference.

Even writing that I want to work with people to change the way they think about the future is not something I would have uttered in public a few years ago - it sounded grandiose and was that what I was doing? Could I really do that? Those thoughts probably had something to do with my newness as a foresight practitioner, struggling with the imposter syndrome. I did utter that phrase in a small workshop event, few people, private slides...I didn't have the courage to put out there in public what I now realise has always been a core driver of why I do this work.

I put my feelings about planning workshops on the backburner - I needed money - and I accepted being called a futurist and a consultant, and continued on doing what I was doing, although I was now consciously looking at what I did and why I did it - I stopped doing my email newsletter, took some of the words about planning off my website, but I didn't get around to deleting my speaker profile. It all felt very messy. Then I had a eureka moment, a bit more of the story emerged when I realised that the work I was doing was designed to create strategic foresight environments in organisations - spaces where the deep conversations and thinking about possible futures could occur on a continuing basis. I was so excited I tweeted that this was why I created Thinking Futures - it was, but it was not quite all there was to it.

Just this week, while doing some thinking and writing about what I do and what I contribute to the newly established Centre for Australian Foresight (CFAF), of which I'm a founding partner, that emergence worked its magic. A little more of that magic happened while writing this post too. To use phrasing that Marcus Barber and I use in workshops sometimes, here's where I'm at:

red white puzzleWhat do I do? I help people change the way they think about the future.

How do I do that? I help people use foresight approaches and tools and to build strategic foresight environments so they can use the future in their organisational strategy today (with apologies to Riel Miller for pinching his 'use the future' phrase).

And at the core of all that is that I want to spread the word about the value of foresight today - and how to use it in organisations to enable people to think in different ways about the future.

That feels good, it feels right. My grammar pedant brain tells me it needs more finessing, but it seems like the pieces fit - the internal and external me now seem like they are starting to move in synchroncity, ideas and actions beginning to converge. And one of the best things about reaching this point in my emergence story is that I can now say no to one day planning workshops and keynotes without feeling guilty. In fact, the day after I said out loud that I no longer wanted to do planning workshops as stand alone events was the day I got an enquiry about a potential longer term project. Trust emergence.

I look back to 2007 when I set up Thinking Futures and recognise that while my intent was correct and remains strong, I was working with an outside-in framework. And while that's essential in foresight work, what it meant was that I set up Thinking Futures using external benchmarks about running consulting businesses, marketing, websites, social media etc etc, rather than working to understand what it was that I have to offer, where I add value, and to work out from that point. It's the interior/individual aligning with the exterior/individual in an integral framework. Perhaps it is also akin to reaching the bottom of the U - presencing - in Theory U: "The capacity to connect to the deepest source of self and will allows the future to emerge from the whole rather than from a smaller part or special interest group"? I am not sure I'm quite there yet, but I feel confident I'm getting closer.

Trusting emergence works - it's a jerky process, never smooth or linear, challenging and scary at times. It's the space that is often described as disruptive change - a game changer, where you are ultimately faced with two choices, resist for whatever reasons or trust emergence. That doesn't mean you don't do anything and see what happens, rather it means you will have more clarity about where you are going, your strategic end point, that allows you to make wiser decisions today.  I still have structure, but it's a new structure that is taking me to new places in my work and my personal development. Disruptive change signals that it's time to recognise your disintegrating past, and that is ultimately positive, because without that, nothing new will ever emerge.

Is this what you see what I do? Have I got to the nub of it yet? Am I still deluding myself? Leave a comment or reply on twitter @mareeconway. And thanks for reading.