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How to think more like a futurist

Experts say anyone can train their brain to be more forward-thinking. For leaders, doing so could be the difference between failing and thriving.


How well does your company predict the future?

As sci-fi as it may sound, the ability to predict and prepare isn’t just feasible—it’s good for business. In one 2018 study, researchers found that firms with the highest level of future preparedness outperformed the average with 33% higher profitability. And it’s not just profits—future-prepared firms also beat the average by a 200% higher growth. And with the rate technology is transforming society, this future-facing foresight becomes more necessary.

Despite this urgency, most companies suffer from a myopic view, according to René Rohrbeck, a professor of strategy at EDHEC Business School in France, and one of the study’s authors.

“They’re very good at perceiving the near-term but have only a blurry image of the future, for which they fail to prepare,” Rohrbeck tells The Workback.

Rohrbeck sees only one in five companies exhibiting sufficient foresight in his studies. Remedying this requires strengthening the individual capability of leaders just as much as building organizational capacity. “One without the other will not deliver the desired result of a resilient, agile, and future-ready organization,” says Rohrbeck.

Enter the futurists. A growing number of organizations are employing—or otherwise tapping the insights of—people whose job is to analyze current trends and make informed predictions about future events to help organizations plan accordingly. Fortunately for enterprise leaders, prominent futurists say that anyone can learn to become more forward-thinking—and they absolutely should. 

Of course, no one can predict the future with certainty. Still, leaders can incorporate many best practices and habits into their daily routines and learn to notice changes, envision scenarios, and be ready for the supposedly unthinkable. Here’s how to start.

Train your brain to see “signals”

The futurist’s version of “always be closing” is more like “always be scanning”—in other words, looking for signals and clues of emerging technologies and nascent shifts in attitudes and behaviors. 

“It helps me develop a ‘spider sense’ about things that seem minor now but have the potential to be really big,” Jamais Cascio has worked in foresight and scenario development for more than 25 years and is now a distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future.

Research suggests that it takes only twenty seconds to form a new and persuasive vision of the future.

To develop a scanning habit, you can turn to the news, social media, text threads with people in disparate fields, and even forums like Reddit. This approach differs from passively consuming media because you’re proactively watching for changes and patterns. When you start to notice something cropping up more often, pay attention. It may remain a niche interest or snowball into a meaningful change in human behavior. The only way to prepare for the latter is to keep your eyes open.

Futurist consultant and author Nikolas Badminton created a brief guide to kickstarting one’s futures exploration, with suggestions such as setting up a hyper-targeted Google Alert in an area of interest or listening to podcasts such as The Wall Street Journal’s The Future of Everything. Badminton’s book, Facing Our Futures: How foresight, futures design and strategy creates prosperity and growth, provides more in-depth advice specifically for executives and other leaders. 

Be willing to envision bad outcomes

In many ways, futurism is less about finding answers than learning to ask the right questions. What, for example, happens if things don’t go as expected? Once you’ve run through likely negative scenarios, you can see where your current processes come up short. As obvious as this step may seem, it’s one many firms are hesitant to take because it may call for inconvenient changes. For an example of how failing to anticipate a global disaster impacted businesses, Cascio says one needs to look no further than recent global supply chain issues.

“Organizations that looked ahead at the possibility of a major disruption outside the realm of their business were in a much better state when the pandemic hit,” says Cascio, noting that the companies hit the hardest were those operating on a “just-in-time” production model, with the thinnest possible margins. His number one suggestion is for organizations to look at ways to add slack and flexibility to their systems, even if it adds costs today.

Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, offers more suggestions for signal scanning in her 2022 book Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything―Even Things That Seem Impossible Today

In addition to mining social media and search engines for signals, McGonigal suggests consulting the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, which analyzes insights from more than 650 world leaders about the most impactful and urgent risks facing humanity. The newly-published 2023 edition makes predictions about disordered climate transition and cybersecurity, among other issues. 

Recognize common pitfalls

Scanning for emerging technology is certainly a good practice—just be careful not to get caught up by sensationalist media, warns Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale University School of Medicine professor and a host of the popular podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Even respectable science journalism can be guilty of over-hyping a new technology, leading people to overestimate its importance. 

“When I read, ‘We just need to scale it,’ that’s always a red flag for me,” says Novella. 

Often, seemingly minute details can keep technology from scaling. Virtual reality headsets, for instance, have grown incredibly advanced, yet a common complaint slows their adoption: They’re just too heavy to wear comfortably. And just because the technology exists, it doesn’t mean people won’t continue to choose more archaic ways of doing things. Cooking over a stove has proven a remarkably resilient practice long after microwaves offered a faster and easier alternative.

Sharpen your imagination

Truly preparing for the future means doing more than reviewing projections and models. It means envisioning outcomes in vivid detail, almost as if you’re creating a memory of an event that hasn’t yet occurred. In Imaginable, McGonigal argues that detailed imagining helps us get past “normalcy bias”—the refusal to plan for a disaster that has never happened before. Amazingly, research suggests that it takes only twenty seconds to form a new and persuasive vision of the future.

You don’t know when the next big disruption will hit at the scale of the pandemic. Thinking like a futurist means having your eyes open for things you don’t expect.

Badminton agrees with the value of imaginative exercising, adding that there’s a strong business case for engaging leaders in storytelling. He provides prompts in Facing Our Futures that read like a screenwriting course: think about how a scene feels and smells, use metaphors, and imagine the heroes and villains.

To whatever extent you incorporate the habits of futurists into your routine, it’d be hard to take their advice without becoming more open-minded, tuned in, and mentally ready for whatever the future has to bring. Given the upheaval of the past few years, it’s clear that at least attempting to plan for the “unthinkable” is no longer optional.

“You don’t know when the next big disruption will hit at the scale of the pandemic,” says Cascio. “Thinking like a futurist means having your eyes open for things you don’t expect.” 

Recommended reading for the aspiring enterprise futurist:

Asana Forward takes place March 28, 2023 at 10 a.m. Pacific.