It used to be a skill of CEOs. It used to be the cherry on top. Something that differentiated the Great from the good. Now it’s the upcoming reality for everyone. It is not the cherry, it is the cake. Something that will differentiate the good from the below average.
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” - Wayne Gretzky.
Futures Thinking might not have been seen as relevant before. But times are changing. More than that, they are changing faster than ever. The change brings not only progress but also uncertainty. It makes feasible a new scope of competition: vertical not horizontal. When non-existent yesterday competitor suddenly arises with a product 100 times better than the state-of-the-art. Environmental and economical issues are longing for sustainability today. AI is on the rise and no one can truly estimate how it will affect our lives. These are the issues of today, not tomorrow.
Futures Thinking is the methodology, which allows one to envision future scenarios, apply a systematic approach to considering the long-term future and make better decisions in the face of uncertainty*. Futures Thinking is not a typical forecasting but multi-futures thinking, which uses a structured approach to come to the output comprising of a number of possible future outcomes. It works with weak signals of change, trends, forecasts. It takes into account the long-term and broad picture involving social, economic, political, environmental and other factors. It helps to turn empty words of the preacher man into actionable predictions. Let’s take a look at how this methodology might affect our careers in the near future.
In the ever-changing environment of today, competition is more intense than it has ever been. Currently, I live in Helsinki, Finland. Everyone is already sick and tired of the stories about Nokia’s decay here. Yet it’s a great example. No one has seen iPhone coming. And it wasn’t about adding one megapixel to the camera or increasing memory by 1 gigabyte. It brought a drastic change disrupting the industry and the way humans operate in their daily life. But iPhone was just an early bird. Spotify’s emergence, Airbnb’s breakthrough, and Uber’s vastness in recent years are hard to deny. They completely reinvented their industries.
How to stay on top of the wave when the wave comes every 5 minutes? Or, every 4 minutes. And while you’re still thinking, already 3 minutes. We used to call it strategy in business schools. It was the skill of the CEOs. I would argue that nowadays there is a huge benefit in every employee adopting such a way of thinking. One person is just not enough anymore for this task. I believe that the job of the CEO is to develop an organism, an organization, an ecosystem, which is able to sense and adapt on its own.
There is a discussion going on about whether humanity already crossed the point of no return towards the environmental destruction. Whether we did or we didn’t, the environment is a hot topic. Sustainability is not only an environmental issue, though. Political and economic sustainability are also marked “Wanted. Dead or Alive” nowadays.
One example of sustainability or lack of such is from my own experience. While visiting an international AIESEC (international NGO I worked for) conference in Kiev, Ukraine I was accommodated in the same hotel where the conference was happening. I don’t remember the name of the hotel, but it was freshly renovated and contained the word “royal” in its name. It had golden chairs and red carpet. It was all beautiful until the next few days when we started noticing that there were more and more scratches appearing on these chairs. The whitewash was falling off the walls. The suspended ceiling was sagging. It was then when it struck me, a Ukrainian, to notice one of the biggest problems of our country: people don’t think long-term. Being afraid for their tomorrow, they are ready to steal today not taking into account how ruined relationships will affect them in a few months. Of course, for Ukraine, it’s not only the cause but also a symptom of decease. Yet, point stays the same: not thinking in long-term sends us in a downward spiral.
3. AI vs. Humanity
From age 7 to age 15 I professionally played chess. I quit chess at the age of 15 when I found out about Go. Go is a board game, like chess in some ways, with simpler rules, but thousand times more complex strategy. The computer has beaten human champion in chess back in 1997. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has beaten one the world’s top 10 Go players in March 2016. I felt I was struck by the lightning. Google’s DeepMind has built a general-purpose AI called AlphaGo. What does ‘general-purpose AI’ mean? It means that they didn’t teach it how to play Go. Go is infinitely complex and even all supercomputers on Earth put together won’t be able to calculate a fraction of all variations. They didn’t teach AlphaGo how to play Go. They taught AlphaGo how to learn. Like a human, AlphaGo started playing Go and learning from its mistakes. The only difference being that it can play 10 000** times more games per day than a human can. Of course, it crashed one of the top humans after studying Go for a while. What it means is that this AI can learn not only Go. DeepMind was feeding AlphaGo old computer games (i.e. Quake II) - and it was getting inhumanly good at them literally overnight.
After this event in March 2016, I started treating AI more seriously. It might not be all jokes. Look at the media. TV series such as Westworld are preparing us for the upcoming future, where AI can even be conscious. Whether Artificial Intelligence will be able to gain consciousness or not, it still beats humans in most of the work we do. Except one. And that is improvisation, adaptability to changes, response to the environment we have never been in. See, the way AI learns is by countless repetition. It digests tremendous amounts of data and draws conclusions from there. Over time it can get good at anything, but in short term, it’s first reactions to something new will be awfully unproductive. Today we live in the ever-changing environment. This is where Futures Thinking comes in. This is what humans might excel at. AI can gather the intel, but it is humans who must take decisions based on that information. Futures Thinking might very well be the single most wanted skill in the very near future.
4. Futures Thinking in Learning & Development
One of the industries, which needs Futures Thinking the most is corporate education. Employee training, coaching and consulting are all targeted towards the education of the employees. What many companies don’t fully realize or act upon yet is that it’s too late to educate their people the skills of the past century. They need to navigate through uncertainty and extract the gems of the future. Of course, it’s easier said than done taking into account the fact that this methodology is very new and we lack very basic tools.
In Panda, we are working on developing one of such tools. We bring together corporate trainers, consultants and coaches with their clients on one platform, corporate training marketplace. What it means though lies deeper. If we succeed, Panda will be one of the biggest data sources for analyzing the corporate training and education industry. Right now all the data is highly scattered but having it in one place will allow using big data analytics and machine learning for predicting both what companies will need in the near or long-term future and what training agencies and consultancies have to offer. Together with the community of trainers, consultants, and coaches, we aim to build a bridge, which will allow Futures Thinking to emerge.
5. How we use Futures Thinking in Panda
You might have read one of my previous articles called “The Future of the Training Industry” (if you didn’t - take a look, it got quite a wide response, especially in LinkedIn groups). In this article, I was describing the way I envision the development of the training industry. It encompassed 6 points. In fact, those were not just random trends or possible forecasts - the article could, in fact, also be called “The Vision behind Panda”. In other words, these were 6 products Panda aims to build in the near future. I told previously that we are building a Corporate Training Marketplace. This is one of the 6 products we have in mind. And don’t get me wrong, we are laser-focused on just one product right now. But we keep our eyes open. For example, #6 which is a Virtual Reality (VR) training. We are keeping in touch with one local VR company in Finland and following up on the progress of innovative startups. While at Slush (the biggest startup event in Europe, which was held in Helsinki two weeks ago), we’ve met an amazing tech startup from Silicon Valley working on Augmented Reality (AR) communication tool. Unfortunately, I can’t say much due to the signed NDA, but the point is: we wouldn’t have come to their stand if VR/AR wouldn’t have been on our mind. And who knows, maybe we will only implement VR/AR training in 5-10 years, but by that time we will be prepared and know exactly what and when to do best.
It's in every decision we make
“Think before you speak”, - is a saying many of us have heard from various sources. One could call it Futures Thinking. Thinking about the possible consequences of taking action, thinking several steps ahead. One could, of course, say that Futures Thinking is just common sense. And it is. Same as, for example, Design Thinking. The difference is that we are creating a culture around it, we make it a norm of everyday life. Whether it is about choosing which shoes to buy or whether to expand the business to China, Futures Thinking is in every decision we make. The tools and methodologies in this area are just a newborn. This article might not have provided a clear answer, but I hope it equipped you with enough questions. If you liked the topic, feel free to read more about it (see footnotes) or chat with me (I am quite friendly with connection requests).
NB: Curious to find out why I used such a weird image as the header? The image is from the movie “Arrival”, which I watched just yesterday in the cinema. The movie, among other themes, touches upon the Futures Thinking! So that I don’t spoil the whole movie here - watch it.
**Probably even more than that.