Learn to think like a futurist in 3 easy steps


The term “futurist” has its challenges.

Too often, it invites cracks about crystal balls, tin foil hats and Star Trek conventions. I excuse these references because, until people recognize how vital the skills of a futurist are in securing their success, they simply don’t have much else to go on.

With just a little bit of introduction, you’ll understand that a futurist is someone who tracks long-term trends and helps people — including CPAs — prepare for (big!) changes coming our way. And, you’ll begin to recognize your own ability to think like a futurist can make a difference in your own work.

What’s a futurist?
The reason “futurist” makes us think of fortune tellers and psychics is that, for so much of human history, people believed the future was controlled by gods and supernatural forces. To geta glimpse of the future, people would consult mystics, oracles and soothsayers — those who claimed to have a privileged view of the “other side” — for guidance.

Today, we understand that economic, environmental and political systems have a strong hand in shaping the humans and are dictated not by the gods, but by the decisions we make. Being human, our decisions can only be as good as the thinking that goes into them. Big decisions can have big consequences, so it’s critical to think things all the way through.

That’s my role as a futurist—to help people think things all the way through before making important decisions. I help them pause, step back and see their issue from a big-picture view, to understand how all the systems work together. From this perspective, change, and, using scenarios, entertain possible consequences of a particular decision.

I use this process to help retailers see how they can remain relevant, despite the fact that Internet sales have been increasing 10 percent year over year. it allows manufacturers to see their place alongside the rise of 3D printing; energy utilities know how to hedge their investments in nuclear, coal, gas, wind and solar; hospitality groups to compete people renting their apartments to vacationing strangers for a night or two. It’s the same for CPAs, too, to know how to create more value for their clients, even as Big Data threatens to replace some of their bread-and-butter services.

3 steps to strategic foresight
Yogi Berra had it right: The future ain’t what it used to be. This is especially true when we think of how fast our world is changing, faster than our brains can perceive. And, we’re unable to perceive change before it comes, it is likely to hit us as a crisis. That we’re not skilled at anticipating and preparing for change is evident in the number of crises we now face: energy, financial, housing, privacy environmental, healthcare, as well as a number of geopolitical and environmental ones.

The (somewhat) good news is that every crisis is preceded by warning sights that have been trying to get your attention for years, if not decades. The same is true for opportunity. If you think like a futurist, you can see these signs in advance, and then think through how you’ll prepare to meet the change that’s headed your way.

This is what futurists refer to as strategic foresight. While the work can get fairly deep in a professional practice, there are three basic steps that anyone, including you, can — and should — learn.

1. Scan for emerging trends
The first step is to scan for emerging trends. For this, I’ve developed a model I call the Four Forces of Change — resources, technology, demographics and governance — basic elements that form every society and also determine its future. Because these four forces are both constant and universal, this tool is enormously helpful in tracking trends across industries, geographies and disciplines (a full discussion is found in my book, Think Like a Futurist).

2. Create a scenario
The second step, based on your Four Forces research, is to create a scenario of what life will be like, look like and feel like in the future.

For instance, if you consider just a handful of the life-altering capabilities already in development — driverless cars, delivery drones, space hotels, body parts that regenerate, robot workers and companions, and “the end of aging” — it’ll be clear that you’ll be conducting business in a very different environment from the one you’re in today.

To help you think through strategic options, you need to entertain three core questions: What role will you play in that scenario? What opportunities do you see? What can you do today to make sure you’re positioned for tomorrow?

3. Prototype your smartest solutions
Now it’s time to prototype your smartest solutions. This gives you a concrete sense of your options. Then, you can evaluate resources and priorities, and plan. This is the point of this work: to plan for the future, to anticipate challenges and opportunities, and to choose your future and avert crises.

Thinking like a futurist shouldn’t be the purview of an elite few. Rather, thinking like a futurist is a necessary competency for the 21st century, a set of basic skills and tools that anyone can learn. As the rate of change continues to accelerate — much, much faster than our old-model brains can keep up with — there will be much more volatility and many more crises in store, unless we pause to think it all the way through — like a futurist.

© 2014 by Cecily Sommers. All rights reserved.


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