There is much discussion these days about whether it is best to live in the moment, whether reminiscing is a good thing, or whether we should always have an eye to the future. However, in reality, we spend much of the day flicking between these different temporal perspectives. For organisations, the ability to have an eye for the future is undeniably a skill which all employees, especially those in positions of leadership, should be cultivating. But how do you become better at seeing the future? It isn’t like we have a magic 8 ball that provides all the answers, is it?
A magic eight ball in the brain
But maybe, in a way, we do. Because your brain is a prediction-making machine. Every moment of the day, it is making predictions about what might happen next. This proactive stance means that you can prepare for future events which have a high probability of occurring, based on past experiences. It also means less missed opportunities and helps with damage limitation.
Beyond this, if you can have a better vision for the future, then you might be able to see what other people don’t. See opportunities that other people can’t even imagine. Or see challenges that may need some contingency planning and that other people miss. This gives your organization the flexibility and change readiness; it needs to stay ahead of the game, to be more innovative, and to develop strategies for future long-term success.
So how can you become better at utilising the prediction machine inside your head to enable you to see into the future? Here are a couple of suggestions:
Make long-range associations
The knowledge bank in your brain is like a massive network of interconnected associations. Each piece of information is associated with several other ones based on your past experiences. However, so often these experiences hinder your ability to think properly about the future because you simply fall back on past sequences and patterns of thoughts without really generating anything particularly new, often without you realising. This is because it is easier and more energy efficient for your brain to think along the familiar and so it will often nudge your thoughts in that direction.
Also, although sometimes the future plays out similarly to the past, that kind of thinking is, at best, only going to give you a vision for iterative change, rather than groundbreaking shifts in thinking and perspective.
So instead of relying on well-worn associative pathways in your brain, ones that are obvious or short range, go big, go long-range and practice connecting thoughts and concepts which have never been paired up before. This is something that might be hard to do at first, but with practice, you can get better at.
Often people think mind-wandering as just that – a way of absentmindedly wandering through your thoughts. But wandering through your thoughts, when it is instead based on a particular goal, lies at the very essence of what future-thinking is all about. You have a goal, you set up a simulation of what it will be like to achieve that goal, you work out probabilities of different things happening along the way. You generate predictions about what might happen so you can put contingency plans in place, and you mentally put together the planning steps you need to do to reach that goal. Only in your mind can you play around with the possibilities, the consequences, the challenges and the opportunities in an unconstrained way. But to do so requires thinking time, away from the steady stream of daily work tasks, to achieve the immersion necessary to create a future-proof roadmap in your mind, in preparation for putting it down more concretely onto paper.
Ask curious questions
As children, we are constant questioners, but as we grow up the steady stream of curious questions often changes into knowledge-based questions – those that you ask simply to find out a specific answer. But what about questions, that you may not be able to answer straight away? Questions which start with “why?” or “what if?”. Questions which make you stop. Make you think. Make you wonder. Not everyone feels comfortable with these kinds of questions, but these are incredibly powerful questions which allow you to look into the future. To see what other people can’t. And ultimately, to do what other people hadn’t even considered doing. Asking questions like these is easiest in organizations which create a psychologically safe workplace. Where opinions are respected, where individuals feel empowered and where innovative thinking is actively encouraged.