Dealing with uncertainty is the new normal, whether you’re looking through the lens of a parent, a CEO, or an individual contributor. With so many questions floating around in our heads, a natural reaction is to avoid thinking about the future and focus on what’s right in front of us today and tomorrow. However, it turns out that thinking about the future, in fact thinking about multiple possible futures, can provide the secret to working through all that uncertainty today.
A good friend of mine, Peter Scoblic, recently published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “A Better Crystal Ball: The Right Way to Think About the Future.” While Peter’s focus is on a business and organizational context, the more I’ve talked over his research that underlies the article, the more I believe his findings apply to us as individuals as well.
The basic premise is this: By imagining multiple plausible futures - think 10-15 years out - and then working backwards to identify the events that would have occurred on the way to each future scenario, we can identify common threads and identify patterns that drive our decision making today. While Peter and his co-author, Philip Tetlock incorporate forecasting in their approach, let’s focus on the idea of imagination and scenarios.
If we map out five future scenarios based on our personal and professional lives, what would they look like? Don’t limit yourself to what you think is likely. In fact, it’s important that you stretch the boundaries and pick five different scenarios. For example, one might have you create a foundation for charitable work. Another might have you start a company. Another might have you lose your job and have to sell your house. While this last one isn’t a positive outcome, going through the exercise of laying out these scenarios gives us a powerful tool for making decisions today, tomorrow, and next month.
Once you have your different scenarios laid out, look at the common threads. What commonalities do you see? What would be the signposts that would tell you if you’re headed down the path to one or more of these possible futures? Peter and Philip push business and organizational leaders to develop question clusters: “Questions should be chosen not only for their individual diagnostic value but also for their diversity as a set, so that each cluster provides the greatest amount of information about which imagined future is emerging—or which elements of which envisioned futures are emerging.” We can apply the same technique for ourselves. As we start to find answers to these questions, we can adapt and develop new questions.
This exercise is key to help us escape what Scoblic and Tetlock refer to as “the tyranny of the present.” This requires imagination and a willingness to put our biases aside while we think about possible futures to in turn guide the decisions we make in the present.
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Nick is a serial entrepreneur with deep product and operational experience built through leadership roles across multiple Fortune 500 companies and startups, including a successful exit to Microsoft for BlueStripe Software where Nick was the VP of Product.