The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

Imagine the unimaginable: A guide to futures work

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Photo | Associated Press

Painting the future | A workman at ‘World of Tomorrow’ Fair repaints the iconic Perisphere, New York, 1939

“The purpose of thinking in futures is to disturb the present. If you don’t start there when undertaking this work, you may not start at all”

Late last year we found ourselves in the final stages of a foresight project for a UK regulator. We held a round table on lessons learned from futures work by experts in the field. We set out to contest myths associated with foresight work and to ask, what is the purpose of futures work? Does it support? Does it disrupt? Where is the value of looking up and out from the day to day?

Drawing on our networks we gathered together a room of people with deep and varied experiences, (and the battle scars to prove it) of futures work. We’ll share with you here some of those lessons learned from the roundtable.

Futures work is generalist. If you want an impactful experience, invite in a multitude of expertise in order to gather the best insights and draw valid conclusions.

Set limits before undertaking a futures project by envisioning how the outputs will actually be used. Coming to the end of a futures project and finding yourself faced with a mass of trends, data and evidence can be overwhelming. Sometimes less is more when it comes to turning insight into action.

Grow the discussion. Foresight work invites us to look to the future in order to engage differently with the present. That learning journey works best as a collaborative, open and interesting conversation of many voices.  The more participants in that discussion, the more insights generated, and the more creative those insights are. (Note that this is not mutually exclusive to the setting of limits).

Present futures outputs in a vivid and compelling way to increase organisation-wide engagement. The conclusions could be shown as ‘artefacts of the future’, or as ‘tickertape of future news’.  Depict scenarios as days-in-the-life of characters, or as immersive exhibits, or offer them as role-playing games. Don’t be tempted to reduce a compelling story down to disengaging data.

Separate foresight work and operational work. day-to-day operational business and futures work require very different states of mind. Futures work requires imaginative and creative thinking. To be successful it has to be undertaken in a separate space to conversation about day-to-day work.

Look for what you don’t know and throw the net wide to get the most out of data and evidence.

Take a consistent and systematic approach to maximise the impact of your findings, and ‘future-proof’ the information in databases so that it can be repurposed. This will help you identify shifts that could otherwise unnoticed.

Shifts in values often point to larger paradigm shifts. Look for emerging issues within value conflicts; these are often subtle signals of a shift in established systems of understanding and point to bigger change.

Own failure. Futures work deals with complex, often unpredictable change. Don’t expect every piece of futures work to generate the impact and outputs you were expecting and hoping for. Sometimes looking up and out from the day-to-day is impact enough.

Imagine the unimaginable. Futures work will throw up unpalatable messages. And that’s part of its purpose and output.  A sign of a successful futures project is that your futures taskforce finds itself thinking about the (usually scary) futures ‘that could never happen’ and challenging itself to take a look at those previously unseen, deeply embedded assumptions.

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