Crafting a narrative for change in the most unpredictable times
The author, H.G. Wells once wrote a short paper entitled, “Wanted – Professors of Foresight!” in which, he shares the following observation:
“It seems an odd thing to me that though we have thousands and thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students of history working upon the records of the past… There is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world.”
As you might expect, at the time his suggestion was largely met with a combination of wry smiles, cynicism and ridicule, not least because it appeared that Wells clearly believed he would be the ideal candidate for such a prestigious and (ahem) handsomely remunerated tenure.
But even now, when the professional role of “futurologist” has become more commonplace in academia and many parts of industry, deep scepticism remains the prevalent lay reaction; a sentiment that has only been enhanced by the recent emergence, and apparent catastrophic failures, of self-styled “super-forecasters” in senior government advisory roles.
You might think that this discussion is at best an interesting diversion. But understanding why we feel this way is essential, because how we look at and feel about forecasting the future is pivotal to making the momentous decisions that we, as leaders, face right now.
Many of us are facing huge choices about the immediate futures of our organisations. Scary choices, with big, long-term implications. Once skills are gone, services are closed, assets are sold, reserves are spent, there’s no going back.
There’s more than the typical burden of responsibility in these decisions. There’s the profound weight of legacy.
In situations like this, we’d usually explore the alternatives, choose the best (or least bad) option, and build our narrative based on the positive outcome, around what this change allows us to do, whether that’s to survive, sustain, thrive, transform or pivot and explode into new growth. And that narrative, that “bridge to the future”, would carry our stakeholders and teams across the chasm of change, supporting our collective confidence and commitment in making such an historic call.
But within that narrative is one big assumption: that we have a feel for the future, a sense of how we will come out of this, a picture we can paint of life on the other side of the chasm. And right now, many of us feel utterly ill-equipped to set out that vision, having literally no idea what lies in store for us a few years, a few months, even a few weeks ahead.
I’m seeing this more and more across the sector, as leaders, exec teams and trustees vacillate and second-guess themselves, painfully and emotionally hesitant to pull the trigger and commit to a risky, transformational course of action without knowing exactly how it will play out.
The thing is, we do know a lot more about what’s likely to happen than we give ourselves credit for, and we can know a lot more if we put in the little bit of time, thought and personal discomfort to work through those ugly scenarios. But often, that’s not enough. We want to be sure. We don’t want to be wrong.
For most of us, our formative years in education drilled into us a basic belief that there are right and wrong answers, and instilled that consequent desire with in us to be right, or at least, not to be wrong. This is why we ridicule the futurologist and shy away from putting our own heads above their dangerous parapets, because inevitably, by that same yardstick, some of what they say will turn out to be wrong. And we don’t want to be wrong.
But a good vision of the future is not meant to be “right”. A good visionary knows that it will never be the case. So, the question becomes: are our assumptions for the future, upon which we need to build this most important of narratives, reasonably sound; are they directionally sensible; and do we have the flexibility to adapt from those assumptions as the real future unfolds?
Because that’s the best we’re going to get, probably for a long time to come.
And if that’s not enough, and we continue to hesitate, whatever possibilities or advantages we might have had by acting now will soon be lost forever.
If you think you know what you need to do but are hesitating to pull the trigger, give me a call and I’ll tell you if I think you’re right, or what you’ve missed if you’re not.