We can all see the past but cannot influence it. We can influence the future but cannot see it.
— Steward Brand, Clock of the Long Now

Mindsets and Assumptions

When we have conversations about the future, we are constructing narratives about how our organisations operate today, how we want them to operate in the future, and how to get to that future. These narratives are stories that help us recall key messages and make meaning of change. Some of these narratives are written down in a plan and some become tacit - the accepted way of 'doing things around here'. When they are focused on the future, these conversations produce a form of collective futures intelligence, informing our actions and decisions to build a positive and owned future for the organisation.

Every conversation we have, every narrative we construct, every decision we make, every judgement about which strategic actions to take today are all informed by individual and organisational beliefs, assumptions and cognitive biases about the future. Collectively, these assumptions and beliefs generate organisational cultures and ways of operating that are either open or closed to the future. 

Why does this happen? Our brains are programmed to look for confirming evidence so we dismiss what doesn't fit existing patterns. We can be misled; we can miss changes in front of our eyes. Play this video for an example of this: keep your eyes on the car at all times, then scroll to the bottom to see what you missed (or not).

Assumption Walls

The only way to challenge beliefs and assumptions about the future is to understand the nature of our mindsets - in particular, what we believe reality is or is not. In academic speak this is about your ontology - what can be said to exist and what categories we use to make sense of what exists. In other words, what you believe to be real or not and how you make sense of your reality. If something clashes with your view of reality, you have hit what I call an assumption wall, a brick wall in your thinking that you can choose to back away from and test the wall for validity. We all have them.

If you are a scientist or a statistician for example, your reality will be informed and bounded by data, experiment, and proof. You will probably find it hard to accept more qualitative explanations of reality and spiritual interpretations will not get past your assumption walls. If you believe the future is a thing to be observed, you will be looking for ways to reduce uncertainty and complexity to today's knowable forms. You will be using convergent thinking, seeking the right answer.

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But ... there are no facts about the future, no data, no certainty. Just complexity and messy spaces. And this makes us uneasy - we seek certainty and we seek answers that match our understanding of reality. I believe that everyone of us knows that reality is shifting in front of our eyes today, that we know in our bones that the future will not be more of the reality we classify as today.

Yet we continue to talk about future challenges and apply today's thinking to them. Does it work? Not often. Our assumptions and cognitive biases so useful today are very unlikely to be useful in the same way in the future - in this space, when we are asked to think about the future, we are often heard to utter - that is ridiculous, that will never happen, where is your data to back that up? We are closed to the future.

Instead, we need to also  think about opportunities and how we can be ready to act when emerging change gets stronger, gets more real. We need a new mindset, a futures mindset, that lets us use the future as an asset today, something to be engaged with, explored challenged and test for validity and relevance for your organisation. This is divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers, many ideas that just might be useful, before honing what you are finding to find the most useful ideas to use inform your strategic thinking and decision making.

In this space, we recognise the power of our assumptions and challenge them for validity when they emerge. We might be right but until we have explored what would have to happen to prove us right, we will keep an open mind. We accept that we might be right - we are hear to utter something like: let's talk about that a bit more, what if this happened though, how might that look if this happened? We are open to the future.

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building A Futures Mindset

Building a futures mindset needs that all of us at some time, to some degree, will need to break down an assumption wall or two. In the integral frame I use, this will be a Conversation with Self in the Upper Left Quadrant. No one else can change how we think or make us break down an assumption wall. People will try, but until we decide to change our thinking, nothing anyone else says will make a difference. Of course, we will each have mindsets that are more or less open to the future and so we are more or less open to changing our thinking as a result.

The Conversations about the Future approach that is used in Thinking Futures work is focused on four conversations all of which need to be had at some stage in a strategy development process. At the core of this approach is that we need to build a collective view of the future we want to happen.

The way to do that is to put the human back into strategy using facilitated and deep conversations. This approach focuses on making the time and space for people to come together to talk about the future, exploring different perspectives, asking questions, challenging your and my mindsets for validity, usefulness and relevance into the future.

Collectively, we can then explore our ideas about the future, make sense of the current and emerging reality around us, create shared futures, work out what's possible today and what capabilities are needed to ensure a robust, sustainable and meaningful future. These conversations promote and grow futures thinking as both collective intelligence and organisational capacity.

 

Conversations about the future therefore seek not to find the right answer but to seek the right questions to interrogate the future that will also surface and challenge conventional mindsets about the future that trap us in the past and the present. If we don't challenge them, we won't be futures ready and we risk ending in what Sohail Inayatullah calls the used future, where our image of the future, our desired future is unconsciously borrowed from someone else (Six Pillars: Futures Thinking for Transforming).

The outcome from conversations about the future is a collective understanding, a shared narrative about the organisation's future, one that includes multiple pathways to enable flexibility and proactive action as the world shifts, a future in which people have a stake and can see themselves in. It's a future that people care about rather than feel disconnected from the vision imposed on them by senior managers. People need to see themselves in the future being sold to them. Otherwise, that vision is flawed from the outset.

The biggest challenge to developing futures ready strategy is our mindsets. We all have one; no two are exactly alike. In those mindsets, we hold an image of the future, one that holds our most deeply held beliefs and assumptions. The problem is that our mindsets are often stuck in the past and we need to reframe those mindsets to create a futures facing organisation.
— Maree Conway, Thinking Futures

The Selective Attention Test Video

While you were looking at the car as instructed, the building colours and forms were changing. Go back now and review the video - you will never miss the colours again because you know what you are missing. The same applies to how we think about the future - we assume we are missing nothing, but when it's pointed out, we will never miss it again - as long as our minds our open to the future.

If we are trapped by our assumptions and biases, then no matter what we are told, if we aren't willing to let the message past our assumption walls, we will never change our thinking about what constitutes valid and credible change - until it arrives on your doorstep and you have no time to think, just react.