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To shape your future, examine what you’re doing now

Melbourne Business School /

Driverless cars, drone deliveries, lab-grown meat, every surface a solar panel, gene technology that eliminates disease with a snip of our DNA.

The future is everywhere, offering opportunity and threatening disruption – so why don’t we plan for it better?

It can be surprising how strongly people cling to past practices in the face of change.

Sticking to what works is natural, but developing foresight is more useful for survival. Thinking, planning and creating the future can be confronting and provoke anxiety across any organisation. And if your organisation’s culture is resistant to change, it will eat any future strategy for breakfast.

So, how can you better adapt to changing circumstances?

Reframe your thinking

The best way to develop future thinking is to frame it as a learning journey of four loops, some of which are negative and hard to break out of:

  • Zero-loop learning, where participants are so jaded, they give up on new ideas
  • Single-loop learning, where having a list of short-term, actionable objectives helps eliminate doubt and uncertainty
  • Double-loop learning, where, when confronted with the unknown, participants venture toward creating a learning organisation with the capacity to adapt
  • Narrative foresight, where having recognised the limits of old practices, participants see new possibilities and build new stories to support them.

The journey from zero to single-loop learning is usually the hardest. That’s because data about the future is often so overwhelming and contingent on multiple factors and unknowns, that learning becomes difficult, especially for people who have experienced previous failed attempts to address the future.

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Put future thinking into practice

To win over the disillusioned and get some buy-in, it is useful to start with single-loop learning, or specific technical fixes to immediate work challenges, which can restore participants’ faith in the possibility of effective action and progress.

But technical fixes no longer apply when the unexpected happens, such as a leader resigns, board member challenges strategy or new technology emerges.

Such unexpected events are opportunities to move to double-loop learning, where the current practices and future possibilities are questioned.

The first task here is to unpack the core narrative that supports and justifies a business’s current practices.

These practices can be referred to as the ‘used future’. Every organisation uses practices that are based on worldviews and narratives that have worked in the past but don’t reflect the preferred future and can even negate it. Recognising this ‘used future’ makes alternative futures possible.

As a case study example, an insurance company gave presentations on their current practices and changes in health care – the importance of diet, ageing, meditation and genomics – and realised that health insurance was no longer their best long-term strategy.

They could either go on listing how to optimise profits, based on their current business model, or move to a new narrative that saw them as health knowledge navigators, partnering with their customers to create a “healthier you”.

They realised their old strategy was passive: insuring individuals and then waiting for them to get sick. Their ‘used future’ saw sickness as the norm and health the exception  –  they were part of the sickness not the wellness industry. 

By working with customers to become active partners in health, this organisation could unlock one of the Ps of health futures: participate, prevent, personalise and predict.

This move from single-loop learning – focusing on what you do now – to double-loop learning – questioning present behaviour to reveal other possibilities – which creates the opportunity to develop a narrative that supports the future.  

When viewed this way, you can see why culture must change to ensure it works with rather than against a new strategy for the future.

Plan your path

To begin the journey of identifying your future, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is your organisation’s ‘used future’?
  2. What worldviews and narratives support it continuing?
  3. What alternative future emerges from examining what you’re doing now, and what worldviews and stories can you create to make it happen?

Melbourne Business School

Melbourne Business School is one of Asia-Pacific’s leading developers of individual and organisational talent through its MBA and executive education programs, including Futures Thinking and Strategy Development.