Long Range Thinking, Time and the Future

To be human is to ponder the future. From their very beginnings human beings have tried to anticipate tomorrow. They noted the cycles of the seasons and fertility; they noted the phases of the moon, the changing of the tides. They consulted seers, witch-doctors, looked for omens and strove to find their fate in the stars.

Technological progress made change accelerate to a point where its effects became visible in a single lifetime. Today we see humans change the earth on a vast scale: we alter climate and genetic structures, we harbour weapons that can annihilate the planet, we communicate instantly and the globe has truly become a village.

Is it still possible to predict the future? Do we have the capability to do so in this incredibly fast, ever changing and turbulent world we live in? In the past many great futurists came surprisingly close to the mark with their predictions. They foresaw things like “each well-to-do man will have a telephone in his residence”; “we will navigate the air” and “the entire world will be open to trade”. But then, things changed. In 2000 we were supposed to have a meltdown of the world’s data systems, in 2012 it was supposed to be the end of the world as we know it, the world economic crisis and credit crunch was never predicted. The world became more occupied with the direction of the NASDAQ, and the JSE and politicians became more interested in being re-elected in 4 or 5 years’ time. It has also become evident that long term thinking has lost its popularity or impact in corporations.

Executives argue that the rate of change is too rapid, that the world has become too complex and that predicting the future can no longer be done.

Complexity theorists (diverse top-level people from many fields and disciplines) at the Santa Fe Institute began to develop tools and theories to understand the concept of complexity. Their shared focus was to understand the common underlying structural and behavioural features of complex systems, which display properties such as self-organisation. They try to understand how patterns emerge out of total randomness and they draw on lessons from diverse phenomena such as ant colonies, internet traffic and consumer patterns.

This work on complexity has not solved the intrinsic difficulties in looking ahead, but has brought something important to the effort: a sense of humility and awe before the difficulty of the task, and a better understanding of the limits of human cognition. It has highlighted that trend extrapolation and mechanistic models and views of the world are ineffective. It highlights the need to capture and understand the inherent uncertainties of open non-linear systems with complex feedback loops, in which small perturbations can sometimes cause large and unpredictable effects.

Mindfulness

With this understanding we have realised that we will never again be able to predict the future with a high level of accuracy. We have come to realise that there are better approaches in dealing with surprise, disruption and uncertainty. We understand that we must prepare for the unexpected. To do this we should constantly revise our awareness of the present whilst at the same time work towards creating the kinds of long-term outcomes we want by crafting well-considered images of the future.

Being truly present, being more attuned to the world around you and listening with interest to both the spoken and unspoken words of people at all levels, from all walks of life, is one of the best insurance policies against a surprise filled future. Who are the organisations that excel at “managing the unexpected”?

I believe it is those who distribute decision-making throughout the organisation, those who make sure that the experts get heard and not just those people at the top of the food chain. Those organisations that excel at listening, are able to suspend judgement, who co-operate and co-create, those who communicate. These characteristics make an organisation “mindful” and better able to detect surprises when they are new, small and insignificant. Many major crises, including major ones such as the Marikana events and the world financial crisis did not “just happen”. The signs were there, the whispers were audible, the fears were not invisible and all that was requited was mindful leaders at all levels who were attuned to their world, ready to truly listen with the courage to take decisive action.

Co-created Futures

Through quality dialogue and widely shared co-created images of what they want the future to look like for the organisation, a shared picture of the future is created. Through this envisioning process, new realms of behavioural possibilities are opened up and chain reactions of self-organising change are created. The economist Kenneth Boulding summarised this view effectively: “the human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experience are of the past, all decisions are about the future. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice- orientated behaviour. The character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society are therefore the most important clue to its overall dynamics”.

Bouldings’ words are incredibly profound. If all employees in an organisation have a clear and shared image of the future, then it follows that they will choose behaviours, and make decisions that will lead to the creation of that desired future.

Another important lesson for thinking about the future was summed up by Alan Kay, who created the computer interface that became the model for the first Apple Macintosh and then the basis for Windows: “the best way to predict the future,” Kay said, “is to create it.”

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