If you could predict what would happen 50 years down the road, how would that shape strategy, change innovation or define creative approaches at your company?
Luckily, futurists are here to provide you with these predictions. Futurists use sophisticated methods to forecast trends and predict events that may occur in the future. Both companies and government organizations are increasingly making use of these services to help prepare for imminent problems, shape product development or gain a competitive edge.
To learn more about this innovative profession, we spoke with two futurists about their daily work, biggest challenges and most exciting initiatives.
What does your job involve on a daily basis? My day-to-day can involve creating potential future business scenarios for companies 20 to 30 years from now. It's incredibly challenging, but extremely fun. For example, perhaps an energy company won't extract oil 30 years from now, but grow energy instead—think of those implications! Perhaps cars will use materials that heal themselves so mechanics will no longer be needed, or maybe food packaging will be designed to keep things fresh indefinitely. We explore possible and probable options like these with companies to stretch their thinking and drive strategic investments.
What is the most challenging part of your job? Hands down, getting people comfortable with change. Do you know what your biggest barrier to change is? You. It's human nature to want stasis, to maintain the status quo. Change can be scary for many people. We help individuals realize that they may resist change more than they think, and help them assess how much risk they are really willing to take.
What current initiative or past project are you most excited about? My new book—Why Simple Wins—which launches in October. I wrote this book because I found that to get people to change is challenging. I found that it's not that people don't want to innovate, it's that they don't have time. I asked people, "What do you spend your day doing?" and they said, "Meetings and emails." Gee, that's inspiring! We are drowning in mundane work, and that holds us back from getting to the work that matters.
What is your best piece of advice for companies looking to utilize futurology or a futurist in the workplace? First, decide how you define the "future." Is that five years from now? 10? 50? The farther out a leader or company is willing to look, the more open to risk and change they typically are. Next, define what hunting grounds you want to explore for your business, and make those areas of interest adjacent to your work. Materials science, consumer goods, the future of city planning—those unorthodox connections are where the real magic happens for a company in the future.
What does your job involve on a daily basis? For me, future thinking is about helping people let go of their fixed thinking from the past so that they can more effectively see where things may be headed in the future. Some of the key tasks involved are speaking, writing, and facilitating. There's some research involved, but it's not like traditional research since there are no facts about the future. It's more imaginative research—first, to explore what the future could look like, and then to look for evidence to see if the things you've imagined are happening.
What is the most challenging part of your job? I learned early on that the most challenging part isn't knowing what could happen in the future, it's helping clients see what could happen. You have to calibrate the content so clients can really receive it. It should be provocative enough to challenge their thinking without being so far out there that clients see it as irrelevant to their current concerns.
What current initiative or past project are you most excited about? In 2012, I co-wrote a set of scenarios for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the future of health and health care out to the year 2032. One of the scenarios was called "A Culture of Health," and it contributed to a major RWJF strategic initiative to build a culture of health in the U.S. It's been fun to see that work unfold in new partnerships and initiatives that RWJF has created.
What is your best piece of advice for companies looking to utilize futurology or a futurist in the workplace? A futurist is most effective when they can serve as a guide in the uncharted territory of the future, which implies a certain amount of not knowing—even on the part of the futurist. I would advise companies to be wary of futurists who come in with their own fixed beliefs about what the future will look like; for example, a belief about how a certain technology will revolutionize society. Instead, work with futurists who are knowledgeable about trends but willing to learn with you about how your own context may change in years to come.