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Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn't, and What's Next Hardcover – October 9, 2012
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Q & A with Cecily Sommers, Author of Think Like a Futurist
A futurist studies long-term trends from a global perspective, identifying their implications for business and society. A futurist's work can range from creating industry forecasts and policy agendas to speculating about how our work, education, healthcare, and families are poised to change. Some futurists stop there. Others focus on the application of this knowledge to organizational strategy, as I do, helping companies answer the question, "what do these forecasts mean for us?" By explaining different future scenarios, futurists can help organizations prepare for emerging threats and identify important growth opportunities. We turn real-world research into clear plans for the future.Why is it difficult for most people to think like a futurist? Where do most of us get stuck?
Our brains naturally project what we currently know into the future, seeking certainty and continuity, and we tend to ignore clues and ideas that don't fit with our experiences. We get stuck in our knowledge to date-a mindset I call the permanent present. To think like a futurist is to think outside of that box and purposely expand our horizons so that we can imagine ideas and events that haven't yet occurred.In what types of roles is it most important to think like a futurist?
If your role involves setting strategy or fostering innovation, the ability to manage the future is particularly relevant. Additionally, anyone in a leadership role needs to address the future; leaders must have a compelling vision of what lies ahead in order to inspire others to join them in making it happen.
For marketers, my Zone of Discovery methodology makes brand strategy a foundational part of the corporate strategy workflow. The Zone of Discovery poses two central questions: "Who are you?" and "Where are you going?" I show you how to leverage these two questions (and their answers) to limit the ideation and planning phases of your innovation initiatives to only the ideas and potentials that are right for your brand. Really, future-thinking applies in all facets of company operations. Knowing how to think about change leads to smarter decisions.
"Top 25: What corporate America is reading" (800-CEO-read's list of best-selling business books based on purchases by its corporate customers nationwide) - The Tribune-Review
Think Like a Futurist is an insightful and scholarly take on the advancement of business management and why it may be different than anything else before it, much recommended. - Midwest Book Review
"Think Like a Futurist has some useful ideas about its four forces and helpful techniques you might apply to your organization's strategic planning and innovation efforts. - The Globe and Mail
Think Like a Futurist is a good read for anyone struggling with how to move their organization forward. Business leaders, product and program managers, service providers will all find the concepts Sommers introduces to be well laid-out with a reasonable amount of supporting content. - The Livingston Post
Think Like a Futurist is recommended reading for strategists, innovators and leaders across all disciplines. Those in leadership roles will most benefit from Sommers' suggestions, as leaders - more than anyone else - must be able to envisage what lies ahead and encourage others to help make it a reality. - Management Today
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Futurists contribute to the solution to this problem. The Association of Professional Futurists describes a “futurist” as one who “studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.” Futurists do not predict what will happen; rather they describe what could happen.
The problem with thinking in this way, Sommers explains, is that our brain’s structure frustrates this effort. The neural networks that we use to foresee the future are the same used to recall the past. The result is that we are inclined to see the future only as a continuation of the past, not as a departure from it. The consequence for both people and organizations is a predilection for what Sommers calls “the Permanent Present.”
Many futurists reduce the factors that affect change to the most elemental components. This method provides a manageable foundation for futurist thinking. One popular approach uses the acronym STEEP - Society, Technology, Economic, Environmental, and Politics for the forces. Sommers uses Resources, Technology, Demographics, and Governance. These, she asserts, produce changes “in a fairly predictable manner.”
RESOURCES – Our Neanderthal predecessors were engaged in hunting, gathering food, and collecting materials to make fire, and shelter. They lived off what was close by and when then was consumed, they moved to a new area. When they discovered a new energy resource, the quality of their lives improved.
During some periods, we made such significant increases in our capacity to harness energy that these periods are referred to as revolutions. Progress is propelled by “one simple formula” Sommers asserts: “advances in science and technology + new energy sources + imagination.” This formula has enabled us to cross oceans using wind, and cross the world using fossils fuels, and cross the universe using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
Our future will, undoubtably, be affected by the sources of and use we are able make of various types of energy. Currently, fossil fuels are part of almost every item we use, and are used move the food we eat. Just as it has not always been this way, it is unlikely to continue.
TECHNOLOGY - Technology has always enhanced our limited human capabilities and given us power beyond our bodies’ capacities. “Something as simple as magnification in a microscope or telescope opened up an entirely new way of understanding life that shifted beliefs and morality, affected medicine and science, and allowed us to dream about worlds beyond our own.”
DEMOGRAPHICS – Sommers identifies demographics as the third category that needs to be taken into account when thinking about the future. Who makes up your community or country is an decisive factor in how successful it can be. The community’s ability to produce more children and so provide more labour will affect its capacity to enhance the health and wealth of the group, positively or negatively. The effect of demographics is most easily seen in Neanderthal clans because they were rarely comprised of more than forty people.
Having the right mix of age, gender, and genetic diversity would determine the ability of the group and its chances of survival. There needs to be enough working-age people to support the young and the old, and there has to be a balanced ratio of men to women to produce the next generation.
Our communities and countries differ from the Neanderthal clan only in the enormity of scale, not in concept. The impact of demographics on our future will be no less significant that it was on the Neanderthal clan.
GOVERNANCE – Governance is the last of the four factors as it forces them all in one or other direction. Primarily, governance is concerned with the distribution and management of the group's assets— resources, technology, and people. This is as true for a small group, the townhouse complex committee as it is for a whole country.
Governance is guided by two factors, the rule of law, and the rule of markets. These create constraints that determine what may or may not be done, and what can or cannot be done.
In the Neanderthal clan, it was necessary to decide who did the hunting, who looked after the children, and how the meat was distributed. China’s mandates for its 1.3 billion citizens on the distribution of resources, information, and even children, is little different.
The drivers of these changes are resources, technology, and demographics.
The problem with Sommers book is that this model comprises only a quarter of the text. The balance is a description of what sounds much like a creativity workshop organized by HR more as a treat than to solve a serious business problem.
That said, the model is a useful tool for thinking about the future. It is comprehensive enough and simple enough to make a solid start, and it can be used to think about possibilities in many business contexts.
Readability Light -+--- Serious
Insights High ---+- Low
Practical High ---+- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy
On the second part - "what doesn't" [change], there is next to nothing in the book aside from what can be inferred from the shallow Four Forces coverage.
On the last part - "what's next", the author really only provides a plethora of facilitation tools. No trend analysis or extrapolation itself is done, nor are methodologies described for the same. The contents skims over a set of facilitation and workshopping techniques; some more interesting than others, but nothing revolutionary new there.
Many of the examples used, such as General Mill's Idea Greenhouse which is many a page, are in fact stock standard practises at enterprises today - not even "best practises" but something less than that. How the Idea Greenhouse came to be might make a superficially interesting story, but it provides little value to the book as a whole - especially when the end product falls way short of what the best companies do today. The science on "left brain-right brain" is also lacking and outdated; both quite surprising shortcomings given the book is still relatively recent.
If you know nothing of the basic underlying macro-trends and have little to no innovation facilitation experience, it's a worthy read. For anyone wanting a more in-depth coverage - or even answering the subtitle's promise itself - I would recommend to stay away from this one.
This book is the reason that business books have gotten a bad name. It really seems like this book was written to 1). Make Cecily look better and help her secure consulting contracts with dim-witted corporate executives and 2). Puff up her friends so that they are more likely to refer business to her consulting company, and possibly even book her for keynote speeches.
STAY AWAY from this book. Actual futurists who do their job and have real things to say include Ray Kurzweil, George Friedman, and Kevin Kelly. Please please look there instead.