What if you could plan the future?

The new book by Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth explains how we can change our mindset when  it comes to planning and leading in a way that results in impactful change.

It has been mind-opening to be honest reading how shifting our perspectives can enable us to see further and imagine bolder futures.

This, especially now post-COVID, is something that we all need.

The future is going to be different from the past.

But most of us plan from today, from today’s constraints and how our lives are like right now.

We expect the same to continue and so the plans we make are based on current constraints and we have very hard time imagining something very different.

So we are surprised by change even though change is the only constant and inevitable.


The difference between present-forward and future-back

The core mindsets that the book focuses on are “present-forward” and “future-back”:

“Present-forward thinking is high in knowledge and driven by known rules, facts, and data; future-back thinking is low in initial knowledge and high in assumptions- its aim is to discover what could be true” (p. 44). 

Present-forward thinking is about maintaining things as they are, improving small issues we are not happy with and using relatively short 3-5 year time horizons.

In this mode of thinking, we often don’t have to question our assumptions because we know the world we live in and how it works.

This means living in the current paradigm where we rely on facts (how things are and have been).

Yet, especially now with so many global challenges, our assumptions have been questioned and new questions are emerging about how we live and work.

Future-back thinking instead focuses on questions and curiosity, on seeing a different future and  starting to prepare for it.

Whereas present-forward thinking is sustaining and continuous, future-back thinking is transformative, discontinuous and thrives on innovation and questioning.

Because future-back thinking is highly dependent on assumptions, it uses “iterative learning” where we explore what a future state could be (What assumptions can we make about the future?), envision a future state (What does our enterprise future state look like?), and discover parts of that future (How can we experiment on our future today?).

By exploring, envisioning and discovering, we build a continuous learning loop where we can test some of our assumptions, imagine a different bolder future state, and start building strategies how to get there.


Expand your planning horizon

One key component of future-back thinking is re-consideration of the timeframes that we use in how we plan our business and lives:

“If you define the long-term as three to five years, as most enterprise leaders do, then by definition you are only looking at the present, as both disruption and new ventures take time to develop” (p. 29)

For example, in 1999 Steve Jobs used the year 2010 as his planning vision; he saw in his mind’s eye what the world would look like in 10 years time and what role and what products Apple was then known for.

He started building his strategy backwards from 2010 and started slowly gathering the building blocks for that vision: acquiring the technologies Apple would need in expanding and changing from one-product focus to a technology ecosystem.

He relied on the assumption that things will fundamentally change in the next 10 years and relied on understanding emerging trends and opportunities that were part of that change:

“Financial data comes from the past; relying too much on it to make decisions about the future is like looking in the rearview mirror to see where you are going. The only way to override comparative profitability forecasts is with a well-founded judgment that the forecasts are likely wrong because markets will change in fundamental ways” (p. 29).

The disruption that new products, new technologies and changing customer needs and aspirations will cause are often not sudden but they will create an inflection point where you are either prepared or really not.

By measuring future in 10-year increments, you allow enough time for massive, even if now hidden, trends to evolve and be able to change your planning paradigm and even vision of what that future looks like.

This is particularly important for scientific fields such as climate change adaptation where we need to project potential future changes, not only happening because of climate change, but also broader overall trends.

What does a well-adapted world look like?

What is that compelling vision that can drive the global adaptation science community towards more accurate and useful science?


Steps towards future-back mindset

The key steps then to take in developing a future-back mindset rely on 3 broad steps:

  1. Develop Your Vision. Ask key questions about potential future trends and changes; observe trends and paint a picture of the future environment. In that environment, what is the vision for you/your company that is compelling and is able to answer the key challenges and opportunities? What are the inflection points where you know you must have changed? Vision is about the long-term game.
  2. Convert Vision to Strategy. Once you have your vision, it needs to be translated into strategy. Strategy is about the actions that are taken in near-term, defines the set of core activities that can get you there and improves your/company’s ability to move forward both in current form and also in the future. Define immediate actions but also those actions that are needed to prepare you for the future.
  3. Program and Implement the Strategy. Commit to your actions and implement the activities. Keep learning what is working, how these activities are progressing (and why not) and make sure all roles and responsibilities are clearly spelled out, including in those groups that are driving the more cutting-edge innovation.

Clearly, if future-back thinking was this easy with 3 simple steps, we would all be masters at it already.

The key here is action, using iterative learning but also taking time.

A great and compelling vision should not and cannot be rushed but needs great deal of time and contemplation.

Much of what is in the book runs contrary to what we are usually being taught, such as  traditional risk management (what are the risks, how to manage them), rather than asking key compelling questions and being ready to question our own assumptions in the process.

Future-back mindset is a learning process that never ends.

But it will shift our perspectives into positive opportunities and prepare us better to imagine greater, bolder futures for ourselves and the people we serve.


Ps. and if you are ready to challenge your assumptions, have a look at the series of free webinars this week in The Recovery Summit.

My favourite to date is Alf Rehn on The Art and Science of Contrarian Thinking and Unconventional Creativity.

Not just because he is Finnish, but because he defines being an oddball as a superpower…