How to Think Like a Futurist

Every January, articles about trends take over the internet. You’ve probably read a few yourself—including, we hope, the one published here last week about six non-obvious online learning trends for 2018. But every association has a distinct audience who may behave differently than how trend-spotters predict. If you want to identify the most relevant trends for your membership, learn how to think like a futurist.

By developing a few mindsets and habits, you’ll be able to spot your own trends, anticipate member needs, take advantage of marketplace demand, and not lose your audience to competitors.

Why thinking about the future is a good idea

Jane McGonigal, PhD, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, said there’s a downside to not thinking about the future. If you can’t imagine yourself in the future, you will:

  • Exhibit less self-control and give in more often to temptation.
  • Procrastinate more.
  • Exercise less.
  • Save less money.
  • Give up sooner when challenged.

McGonigal teaches a class at Stanford, How to Think Like a Futurist. In the course description, she said:

“Thinking about the far-off future is more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity. It’s a practical skill that new research reveals has a direct neurological link to greater creativity, empathy, and optimism. In other words, futurist thinking gives you the ability to create change in your own life and the world around you, today.”

If Stanford isn’t in your future, here’s a peek at habits you can develop to help you think like a futurist.

think like a futurist, like a kid

Thinking habits of a futurist

Most people don’t think about the future. A survey conducted by the Institute for the Future found that only 35 percent of Americans regularly think about their five-year future. Researchers call this the “future gap.”

Rohit Bhargava, who we introduced in last week’s post on online learning trends for 2018, spends each year thinking and writing about non-obvious trends: “unique curated observation(s) about the accelerating present.” He said, “Learning to think differently is more important than ever.”

Here are some habits you can develop to think like a futurist.

First-person thinking

McGonigal said there are two ways to imagine the future: rely on impersonal facts or think in the first person. Impersonal facts don’t help you think like a futurist, but first-person thinking (making it personal) helps you imagine your future self in five or ten years. She said:

“Get some specific ideas of what the future of something you care about might be like…when you can imagine concrete details of a possible future, it’s easier to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.”

Here’s how to practice this mindset. Make a list of things you’re personally interested in. For example, think about hobbies, products or services you use regularly, or where you live or like to vacation. Then, do a Google search for “the future of X”—X being one of those things on your list. Find out what the future of that thing might be like by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to podcasts. Now, imagine yourself living in that future. Are you prepared for it? Or will you need to learn new skills?

Signal hunting

Practice future-thinking by watching for and noting signals of possible futures. The Institute for the Future describes a signal as:

“a small or local innovation or disruption that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution…a new product, a new practice, a new market strategy, a new policy, or new technology… an event, a local trend, or an organization…a recently revealed problem or state of affairs.”

Unlike trends, signals “turn our attention to possible innovations before they become obvious…, they often focus our attention at the margins of society rather than the core. In this way, they are more likely to reveal disruptions and innovations.”

Bhargava said:

“Long-term decisions start in the short-term, so understanding how the world is changing in real time is far more valuable in your day-to-day career and life than trying to guess what will happen in the world twenty years from now.”

Search for things that might be clues to the future. Then, imagine how the change represented by these signals could affect your life. Make it personal and then expand your thinking.

Imagine that signal coming to life. Now, imagine a few different types of members (or non-members) and speculate as to how their lives, jobs, careers, and organizations will change if that imagined future actually happens. How will they adapt? Will they have to learn new skills? How will they prefer to learn?

Combine the signals you spot into a ten-year forecast to make predictions. The signals for 2028 exist today. 2028 is not so far off that’s it completely unimaginable. Just try imagining yourself ten years older and how those signals would affect you and the world around you. Don’t worry if your predictions seem outlandish. Futurist Jim Dator said, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”

think like a futurist

Counterfactual thinking

Another way to exercise your futurist chops and strengthen your prediction muscle is to imagine how the past could have turned out differently and what that would have meant for the future. Work through some “what if” scenarios. When you think counterfactually, according to McGonigal, “you unlock your brain to predict a past that never was and to remember a future that hasn't happened.”

If you’d like to get a sense for how this plays out before you try it, read some alternate history books.

Foresight habits of mind

Association consultant Jeff De Cagna, Executive Advisor at ‎Foresight First, works with many association boards on developing foresight so they can lead their organizations into the future. But before you can move forward, you must identify and recognize your organization’s orthodox beliefs.

Orthodox beliefs are “largely invisible and often counterproductive assumptions about…organizations and stakeholders, as well as the world around them,” said De Cagna. “In some cases, these orthodox beliefs have been in use for years or decades and are still deeply felt by many stakeholders even though they are no longer true or helpful.” What assumptions do you make about members and others that aren’t based on data?

Associations can develop their foresight by practicing two skills identified by De Cagna:

  • Sense-making: Build an understanding of plausible futures through exploration, inquiry, and dialogue.
  • Meaning-making: Probe the positive and negative implications of plausible futures.

Futurist and association consultant Marsha Rhea, president of Signature I, echoed De Cagna’s advice. “Challenge your assumptions, question your orthodox beliefs and reframe the problem are three critical thinking processes to break free of the habits and patterns that limit our ability to see new strategic opportunities.” She identified three habits of mind for futures thinking: critical analysis, inquisitiveness, and imagination.

Do you ever get together with colleagues to imagine different futures for your members, their industry or profession, or your association? If you can’t be part of a formal exercise, get together informally to talk about possible futures. Remember Dator’s advice, it's okay to be ridiculous, it might lead to an aha moment.

As you can see, thinking like a futurist doesn’t require specialized skills. In fact, critical thinking and creativity are what you need—the type of skills most of you have probably developed to some extent. Practice these forward-thinking and imaginative mindsets and you too can think like a futurist.

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