The Unknowable Future
What is the future? It doesn’t exist. We can only live in the present. But we contemplate the future endlessly and anticipate what could happen with trepidation.
The future is the not-yet-realized and imagined state of an infinitely complex system – the system of systems that includes the cosmos, the universe and our world. This boundless complexity exists everywhere, at every level, within and around us. We live with the illusion we can direct it, but it is not something we can predict or be in control of. What happens next unfolds, as it will, with surprises and unexpected consequences.
“It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi Berra once said, “especially about the future.”
There are deeper forces at play. Complexity theorist and originator of the idea of the ‘adjacent possible,’ Stuart Kauffman says, “Not only do we not know what will happen, we often do not even know what can happen.” The future emerges, he says, and is “unprestatable.” We have no way to anticipate in advance what is possible. Even the scope of what is possible changes as the world evolves. [Stuart A. Kauffman, Humanity in a Creative Universe, 2016]
This is an existential challenge to the practice of strategy, which assumes that well-planned action leads to intended results. The reality is much more nuanced.
Best Laid Plans
Herman Khan understood the limitations of strategy. A prominent futurist and military strategist, who invented scenario planning at RAND Corporation in the 1950s, confessed in Edward de Bono’s book Tactics: The Art and Science of Success, “We often have strategies around this place, but we tend not to use them. There are simply too many contingencies. So it is very hard to plan because you don’t know which contingency is going to occur, which things will tend to become dominant and override the long-term strategy.”
Henry Mintzberg, a Canadian researcher and writer on strategy, described the gap between what we plan and what actually happens in The Strategy Process (1998). Intended strategy, he said, is never realized. Realized strategy is a combination of intended and emergent strategy. The full scope of intended strategy is never achieved.
How emergent strategy works. Source: Henry Mintzberg, Sumantra Ghoshal
and James B. Quinn, The Strategy Process, 1998.
In Shaping the Adaptive Organization: Landscapes, Learning, and Leadership in Volatile Times, William Fulmer, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, says companies are becoming more and more uneasy about their ability to look ahead.
“According to a survey by the Futures Group, consultants and corporate forecasters are increasingly uncomfortable looking outward, averaging a ‘comfort zone’ of 1.7 years, down from 2 years in 1995. This is especially true in technology companies. At SAS Institute, e.g., the largest privately owned software company in the United States, two years is about as far out as the company’s leadership will admit to looking.”
The paradox, management consultant Michael Raynor says, is that companies must still commit in the face of this uncertainty. [Michael E. Raynor, The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (and What to Do About It), 2007]
“Success demands commitments to hard-to-copy, hard-to-reverse configurations of resources and capabilities that are aligned with the competitive conditions of a market. These commitments take time to bear fruit and so they must be based on beliefs about the future. These beliefs can turn out to be wrong. As a result, otherwise excellent strategies can fail simply because the conditions under which those commitments would have been appropriate did not materialize.”
Raynor cites Sony’s Betamax video cassette recorder as an example – a brilliantly executed strategy that was a spectacular failure because it was based on the wrong assumptions.
The Quest for a New Reality
A desired future has the power to appeal to our better nature, hold our attention, and define an alternative reality we can aspire to. This can strengthen our intentions and change the way we behave in the present. Focusing on the future we want can bring us together and bring our collective efforts to bear on what is possible. It becomes a strong attractor.
A number of methods used to convene communities to collaborate in creating transformative change work this way, including Marvin Weisbord’s Future Search, Ron Lippitt’s Preferred Futuring, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and Adam Kahane’s Transformative Scenario Planning.
Ron Lippitt developed Preferred Futuring with Ed Lindaman, former director of program planning for design and manufacturing of the Apollo Space Craft. A writer and practitioner of change management, he identified the four basic responses he saw to change in human systems. [Lawrence L. Lippitt, Preferred Futuring: Envision the Future You Want and Unleash the Energy to Get There, 1998]
- Holding on to the past
- Focusing on and responding to the pain or the problem
- Attempting to predict the future
- Preferred Futuring
Preferred Futuring is the mindset that took a man to the moon and back safely. It can also help organizations and communities deal with complex challenges.
“The act of identifying the future we prefer becomes simultaneously an act of creation and a quest,” Lawrence Lippitt says. “As soon as we decide on a future we want and move to achieve it, we learn. Thus we become capable of creating an even more exciting and more deeply meaningful future reality. This becomes a cycle of transformation and positive change.”
Otto Scharmer, cofounder of MIT’s u.lab and the Presencing Institute, calls this “leading from the emerging future.” In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies (2013), he says “responding to the emerging future requires us to shift the inner place from which we operate. It requires us to suspend our judgments, redirect our attention, let go of the past, lean into the future that wants to emerge through us, and let it come.”
Adam Kahane joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1988 where he learned to develop scenarios. He was invited to South Africa to facilitate the Mont Fleur scenarios in 1991 and 1992, working with current and potential leaders to imagine alternative futures for the country after Apartheid. Participants looked at the options – including some that would lead to confrontation and collapse – and chose a future of reconciliation and collaboration.
We have two choices in how we engage with the future, Kahane says. We can seek to adapt or transform [Adam Kahane, Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, 2012]. Scenarios can be used to describe possible futures we may have to respond to, or they can portray alternative futures we can create more intentionally through our own actions.
“In an adaptive scenario planning process,” Kahane says, “the leaders of an organization construct and employ stories about what could happen in the world outside their organization in order to formulate strategies and plans to enable their organization to fit into and survive and thrive in a range of possible futures. They use adaptive scenario planning to anticipate and adapt to futures that they think they cannot predict and cannot or should not or need not influence.”
Adaptive planning often falls short, he says. “Sometimes people find themselves in situations that are too unacceptable or unstable or unsustainable for them to be willing or able to go along with and adapt to. In such situations, they need an approach not simply for anticipating and adapting to the future but also for influencing or transforming it.”
Transformative scenario planning gives us a way to engage. We no longer feel compelled to sit on the sidelines. By choosing a desired future we gain courage and become active agents of change. With the future there are no guarantees. We can never be in control, but we can still have influence.