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Why do we forget the future matters?

In the first instalment of our HE Futures series, Alister Wilson highlights just how difficult it can be for an organisation to properly focus on the future.
This article is more than 6 years old

Alister Wilson consults in futures and strategy with clients in higher education, the private sector and government

I was part of the facilitation team for a workshop last week, helping a client to explore issues around environmental change and what they might mean for the long term strategic plan. Part of the conversation was focused on how a range of drivers might shape the market in the future and, consequently, how the nature of demand might change. So we asked workshop participants to think about what the market might be like – remember this was an exercise in long term thinking – in 2042.

To get them in the mood – and since we were asking them to look forward 25 years – we put up a single slide with a timeline from the present day back to 1992. It was intended to be a light-touch exercise, using memorable events to illustrate how we think about time and to give a sense of scale to what we were asking them to do. Our list included the London Olympics (2012); Barack Obama’s election to 44th President of the United States (2008); Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans (2005); and Apple introducing the first generation iPod (2001). When we got to 1992, we were torn between ‘The Maastricht Treaty is signed, founding the European Union’, ‘North Korea signs an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency allowing for international inspections of North Korea’s nuclear power plants’ and ‘The Prince and Princess of Wales separate’v. A member of the audience spoke up:

“1992 was my first year at university and one of my lecturers told us that the world was facing a huge challenge called global warming and that we had to act quickly to deal with it.”

People nodded. Someone else said, “I heard the same from one of mine. Except that was in 1985.” It was a salutary moment as participants collectively reflected on the challenge of getting things done.

This type of conversation happens time and again in the world of futures thinking and strategic planning. Why do we not pay attention to the signals (sometimes the very loud signals) that change is coming? Why do we forget that the future matters?

Three reasons for failure

While there may be no simple answer, our futures work highlights three particular reasons why organisations – or to be more frank, leaders – consistently fail to anticipate and act on emerging trends until, well, until they actually have emerged and some competitor has spotted them and acted on them first. Usually stealing some market share along the way.

  • Reason #1: Attention. Many organisations simply do not spend enough time paying attention to what’s going on. Some individuals within the organisation might be researching future trends but even when this is happening, there is often limited opportunity to disseminate the findings or feed them into strategic planning.
  • Reason #2: Belief. Even when decision-makers have spotted and accepted that a disruptive trend or player has emerged, they may not believe it. Or, to be more accurate, they may not believe it is important, they may not believe it is urgent or they may not believe there is anything they can do about.
  • Reason #3: Momentum. Turning futures thinking into current action is rarely straightforward. Even when the evidence of change is there, and leaders know what needs to be done in response, changing the direction of the organisation and building momentum in a new strategic direction is tough. Some parts of the organisation may not believe that change is necessary and may be slow to act; and other parts may simply not have the skills or tools they need to operate differently and may need to acquire them before they can change.

Futures thinking is not about making predictions, but about exploring the dynamics of the complex system that is the marketplace we all operate in and deciding how to turn those dynamics to our own competitive advantage. The first step in effective futures work is simple: pay attention to what is happening.

Don’t worry if it’s hard at first to figure out what’s important: that comes with time. Like any complex system, the marketplace can be hard to read and hard to understand but the more you practice, the easier it becomes to spot patterns and make sense of what they mean. Belief – knowing what’s important and why it matters for your organisation – follows; and that makes it easier to anticipate what you need to change to thrive in the future.

The memorable event that we eventually settled on for 1992, by the way, was Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to establish a socialist market economy in the People’s Republic of China. That has certainly driven a lot of change over the last 25 years.

This article is part of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series. There’s more information about the series here.

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