How to Think Like a Futurist

What would someone who gets paid to forecast future trends have to say about the potential to foresee a global pandemic with all its ramifications?

The state of the world today is something most of us could never have predicted six months ago…or is it? What would someone who gets paid to forecast future trends have to say about the potential to foresee a global pandemic with all its ramifications? LuAnn Heinen of the Business Group interviewed futurist Don Abraham of Kantar on how we can better envision future scenarios and prepare our organizations for what’s to come.

LH: Let’s start by understanding what a futurist does, including how you go about forecasting.

DA: A futurist helps make sense of uncertainty so organizations can figure out which way things might be headed and prepare accordingly. There are futurists who specialize in a given category, say energy futures, and they spend their time studying and anticipating what is to come with respect to energy policy, energy breakthroughs, and energy innovations. I work more generally to understand what's changing now in order to anticipate what comes next so that companies can shape their future, their business's future or their brand's future. Companies ultimately want to know: What business should we be in? What products should we be producing? What business strategies should we be deploying? And the phrase that captures this work is “applied futures.”

LH: Could the pandemic have been predicted using an applied future view?

DA: As much as it may seem shocking and jarring and confusing that a global pandemic could come up like this, if you were paying attention to the right kinds of trends, if you were asking the right kinds of questions, and if you were envisioning proper futures, this is not a surprise. In fact, we would call this a predictable surprise, and a predictable surprise is one that you can see coming if you're looking in the right places and asking the right questions.

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LH: How do you develop the right questions and where do you look for data and information?

DA: Asking the right question is everything! With applied foresight, it is absolutely critical to make sure we're asking questions that will generate the output the organization actually needs. When we're digging into concepts like the future of health care, we have to take a systems view and think broadly about where change is coming from. And that's almost the key ingredient or the “secret sauce”; our work is a structured interrogation of the future. This gets to some of the misconceptions out there: futurists don't just make things up. And we don't reach into our crystal ball and come up with fanciful ideas that nobody's thought of before. In fact, this is all about structured thinking and analytical tools.

Futurists consider how the social environment is changing, how the technology landscape is changing, where the economic and environmental conditions are evolving around the world. And in many cases, we look at the political or regulatory landscape. By looking in those five or so different spaces and drilling down, you come up with a list of smaller scale shifts that we refer to as drivers of change. And ultimately this process is one that is divergent: let's identify the right number of drivers of change, but then let's converge a few times and figure out what those drivers of change mean for the future. If we're looking at the future of health care it could be looking at things like the economics of health, health care delivery, information exchanges, new technology and bio frontiers or public health, regulation and policy. By looking at those different spaces and drilling into each of them, you get a really nice structured view of change. And that structured view of change is everything when anticipating what comes next.

LH: What is your starting point to think about how will things change going forward? Can you use the past to help predict what’s coming?

DA: We consider how long it takes for a new idea to become something real on a shelf or in a showroom. And what we find is that every industry has a different number (the math we use is one-and-a-half product cycles, so if it's a 10-year window to get a product from idea to showroom floor, we say you should be thinking 15 years out). The reason for that is very straightforward. When you're thinking about trying to influence the future, you have to get away from today's gravitational pull and what's already been decided to have an impact. If you're in the world of high technology where things turn every six months, one-and-a-half product cycles means you should be looking nine months into the future. In consumer product goods it often ends up being three or five years into the future because that's how long the process takes. Once we've got that window of how long into the future to be thinking about, we take a retrospective view that asks where have come from, and then we go back twice as long.

By taking a historical view and looking back, you can start to understand the extent of change that we may experience going forward and gauge an expected rate of change. We know there's no such thing as an absolutely breakthrough, new to the world, never-even-thought-of-it before futures forecast. That doesn't happen (or if it does, it's extremely rare). And the kind of thing that a structured thinking approach to futures probably won't turn up because ultimately we are trying to stay within the cone of plausibility. And that cone of plausibility is everything when it comes to having a perspective on what's come before and what's likely to come next.

how to think like a futurist

LH: How might benefits and well-being leaders begin to think like a futurist, especially in light of the pandemic?

DA: COVID has no doubt been a tremendous disruption. The depth of change from innovations and disruptions that we’ve classically defined as disruptive, like the iPhone, don’t really offer any guidance for how to think about COVID. So, the first question is: How much of our previous world will continue, and how much will be fundamentally different? And this is where futures work blends beautifully with cultural and human insights because this is ultimately a human question. Where will we be comfortable? Where will we fill new needs? What new openings and new innovation spaces can we fill? What COVID allows us to do is to act upon these questions, drive change and make the future that we want it to be. When consumers and customers and partners come back to discover what companies have to offer, they find something fundamentally better and even transformative compared to what they had before.

LH: Is this crisis an opportunity for change at the organizational level?

DA: We have a client in the supermarket industry and they've been getting excited on the digital side saying, “Look how exciting this is. Everybody's doing delivery service and online ordering. We’ve turned a corner, and this is going to be incredible.” And our answer to that is “maybe.” Maybe you actually have cracked into a new world, a new future for your business, but it actually rests on one simple question: Is the future you have found yourself in better or worse than the one you had before? Is your experience - your joy, your fulfillment, your satisfaction - actually better than it was? If not, reverting back to the way it was before COVID is very likely. And that is where the opportunities to innovate reside.

There's a massive opportunity here for us to break away and get unstuck from the trajectories that we were on before and find a new plane.

Don Abraham, Kantar

LH: Do you have any advice on how we can acknowledge and overcome our personal blind spots?

DA: It's an interesting question. The punchline is: Read something or study something that you don't necessarily agree with or know anything about. It could be a medical journal. It could be a technology publication. It could be something on a political spectrum that you don't agree with or understand, but ultimately blind-spot analysis starts with addressing and acknowledging them. Concede you know a lot about these spaces over here, and physically force yourself to turn your head and your attention to a space you know nothing about. And the more you do that on a regular basis, the richer your discovery process is. And I guarantee that it will naturally lead back to a germ of an idea that has something to do with your area of expertise. But every time I've done this, either for myself or for our clients, we're able to answer a question in ways that nobody thought of before, because we weren't looking in the expected spaces.

Interested in learning more about the future of work and well-being? Join HR leaders and global experts at our virtual Workforce Strategy conference, October 6-7. Opening keynote James Hamblin, a Yale lecturer and writer for The Atlantic, will offer his predictions for how we will live and work differently in 2021 and beyond. Other sessions will explore novel approaches to mental, physical and financial health, social determinants and health equity, connecting well-being to C-suite priorities and more. Explore the agenda, and register today!