Imagine your mind as a construct – a series of models, assumptions, biases, values, beliefs, memories, past hurts and joys, experiences, expectations, and blind spots.

It’s running a real-time simulation of the world 24/7, creating stories, scenarios, predictions of what could happen next and how a situation might play out. We run a cost/benefit analysis of the range of choices we could make, and then make decisions based on what we think will lead to our preferred outcomes.

This mind of ours is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, an open, creative and imaginative mind has the capacity to envision futures that at first glance seem impossible or absurd, but on second glance make you go “hmmmmm.” On the other, our minds are fantastic of filling us with fears, envisioning scenarios of what could go wrong, and ultimately paralyzing us from taking any action at all.

It’s easy to get trapped in our most comfortable assumptions and models. It feels safe and familiar in there, where the territory is predictable and we have reference points for understanding situations likely to be confronted in ‘the real world.’

The bad news is, we’re in transition. The world is changing. Things are moving, shifting, adapting, at an accelerating rate.  Comfortable and familiar mental models may feel safe, but pretty much leave us with our pants down when a new system or paradigm emerges that reframes “how things work.”

You’ll wonder why you didn’t see it coming.

The good news is, the mind is plastic, flexible and pliable. We ARE capable of expanding our thought architecture to accommodate the imagining of new models and “crazy ideas” that actually just might work.

The ecosystem around is alive and buzzing right now, ripe for an explosion of innovations and shifts that will transform how things function at a multitude of levels.

Who’s going to harness the opportunities first? And how is it done?

I decided to touch base with my colleague Frank Spencer, founder of the foresight and design consultancy, Kedge. I asked him to share his views on which futures thinking “suites” he’s found to be the most useful for C-Suite leaders committed to expanding their mental horizons in order to pioneer new ground.

Below are 4 he believes should be in every leader’s toolbox:

:: Internal Inquiry Suite ::

:: Internal Inquiry Suite ::

The Futures Thinking tools in this group not only give an individual or organization a glimpse into how they think about the future, but also help in getting past assumptions and biases so that they are open to alternative outcomes, potential risks, and hidden opportunities.

The star of this set is known as Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), a method for digging beneath the obvious facts and events that we all see on the “surface” of everyday life.

Layer 1 – THE “FACTS” (official unquestioned view of reality)

CLA begins by having the user write down the facts around an issue (ex. “The Stop Online Piracy Act [SOPA] seeks to put an end to the illegal activity surrounding the intellectual property of the entertainment industry by online file-sharing sites”.) This factual information (the first layer of CLA known as the “litany”) is then analyzed through 3 more layers, each addressing a deeper level of internal meaning that caused the litany to be constructed in its present state.

Layer 2 – THE “SYSTEM’ (social system/structure informing ‘reality’)

The level at which the user uncovers the structures and actors that are causing the litany to appear on the “surface” in its present form.

(ex. “The entertainment industry has a monetary interest in protecting their IP from piracy. The present system is set up in such a way that entertainers create a product or IP, and sell to consumers through various means of delivery such as CDs/DVDs or digital downloads via online stores such as iTunes. The internet creates a huge disruptor to this model, and government legislation is the means to police and protect the present global economic model.)

Layer 3 – THE “WORLDVIEW” (deeper unconsciously held assumptions)

The “worldview” that is creating this present systemic approach.

(ex. Government intervention is needed across sectors and domains in order to assure economic protection. Government and industry must partner in order to assure global growth and stability. 2-way monetary exchange of goods is the only means to job development and economic growth. Big government is good.)

Layer 4 – THE “MYTH & METAPHOR” (unconscious emotional narratives about reality)

The “myth and metaphor” layer that reveals the deep ideas that an individual or culture holds that are giving birth to any singular worldview. This level can be expressed in statements, pictures, imagery, or any other means that helps to unveil the deeper cosmology of the user.

(ex. Tribalism, scarcity, and fear are universal motivators of human activity. “Might makes right.” Power is the chief means to social change. The great law-giver. etc.)

With this model in mind, a CLA map might look something like this:

Other tools in this suite include:
  • Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi), used to understand and inform personal and collective growth through internal modeling.
  • Theory U, a change management method that targets inner knowing and innovation in leadership, helping leaders break past unproductive patterns of behavior and realize future possibilities.
  • Action Inquiry, a tool to initiate progressive problem solving through understanding the underlying causes surrounding personal and organizational change, increasing the wider effectiveness of our present and future actions.
:: Environmental Impact Suite ::

:: Environmental Impact Suite ::

Headlining this suite is a method called Futures Wheels, a means for envisioning the future implications of any critical issue, focal decision, or emerging trend. These implications are then used by leaders to inform strategy and action in an organization, creating a more robust and resilient outcome. Though the tool is not limited in the amount of implications that can be developed, most Futures Wheels exercises use 3 expanding levels – far enough out from the original trend or decision to get a good look at the possible risks and opportunities that could impact the organization.

Other tools in this suite include:

  • Organizational Culture Assessment (OCAI), a method for gauging the health of any organization’s internal culture and external connection.
  • STEEP and Environmental Scanning, a system for identifying the emerging trends and issues across the various driving forces, and categorizing them around patterns that indicate future possibilities.
  • VERGE is also an environmental scanning tool. Rather than focusing on the “point of origin” as is the case with STEEP (social, technological, environmental, economic, political), this tool scans the driving forces from the perspective of the “point of impact.” (i.e. how will trends and issues define the end-user.)
  • Probability/Impact Matrix is a tool that categorizes emerging trends as to their degree of probability and impact. For example, if a rising event has a fairly high degree of happening, and such an event would have a substantial impact, then a leader of company should make provisions for that event in their strategy.
:: Futures Mapping Suite ::

(image via http://cindyu.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/backcasting_allbox.png)

:: Futures Mapping Suite ::

One of the more popular tools in this suite is known as Backcasting. Through this method, strategic teams can begin at a preferred or aspirational future and work backwards over time to identify specific strategies that will be needed to support that future. In this way, leaders can clearly understand not only what strategies and actions will be needed, but also the time increments in which those strategies must be implemented or obtained.

Other tools in this suite include:

  • Metamatrix is a tool used to map the natural growth curves of any organizational vision, strategy, or product, highlighting points of breakthrough as well as breakdown. In this way, a map is developed for reaching preferred futures and uncovering new and untapped opportunities.
  • Migration Landscaping is like backcasting in reverse, and is useful in identifying the obstacles or points of contact for an organization’s journey toward a certain future outcome.
  • Systems Thinking has become very popular in many disciplines over the past 10-20 years, and for good reason: mapping a business or organizational system not only reveals why certain outcomes are occurring, but also allows the user to see which players and structures in the system can be added, deleted, or moved in order to change future outcomes.
:: Scenario Modeling Suite ::

(image via http://www.softwarebee.com/preview/scenario-planning-mba-19590.jpg)

:: Scenario Modeling Suite ::

One of the most popular methods associated with Futures Thinking is Scenario Planning & Development. In employing this tool, companies can understand how the future will “play out” under different emerging trends and alternative outcomes. With the well-informed stories of multiple futures in-hand, leaders can then make their strategies much more robust and adaptive, ensuring both surviving and thriving no matter which future unfolds.

Other tools in this suite include:

  • Trend Cards is one of the most popular methods with groups because it allows them to imagine, create, and play! In this method, a small group is given 3 or 4 “trend cards” (each card explains a different emerging trend and comes from a different driving force), and they are then asked to develop a short story that describes a world where these trends intersect and define the landscape.
  • Design Fiction is a fairly new method of imagining the future of a particular strategy, action, or product, connecting the disciplines of design and futures thinking. Science Fiction is a natural medium for design fiction, describing new technologies and worlds that are products of a world beyond today. Some fantastic design fiction projects have been created in the last several years in which actual products, magazines, technological prototypes, and advertising campaigns were placed in public locations, forcing individuals to interact with a future they may not have imagined.
  • Scenario/Strategy Matrix, a tool that is often used after a scenario planning and development project. This method allows the user to gauge the “future-readiness” of their organizational strategies under the various scenario conditions, ensuring that attention is given to making each strategy robust, adaptive, and transformational.
  • Signposts can be added to the end of a scenario planning project as well, suggesting scenario times frames, and pointing out the specific emerging obstacles that could put the brakes on any particular strategy.

Now imagine these “suites” as one comprehensive learning program, each piece building on the last to help leaders across disciplines to integrate the competency of futures thinking. That’s exactly what Kedge has done in creating our Executive Futures Program, with an eye on working alongside the leaders of the 21st Century to raise the “foresight IQ” in organizational and social enterprise. This means promoting leadership that understands the necessity of viewing the future through the lens of alternatives rather than linear outcomes. This emerging breed of new thinkers knows that complexity is a birthplace for opportunity rather than an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and that a picture comprised of multiple outcomes holds the key to answering our greatest challenges.

As our present landscape of volatility has many leaders scrambling to create “survival manuals,” those who are learning and employing the skill of Futures Thinking are realizing that we can operate out of an entirely different mindset – trailblazing a path into new organizational structures and ideas, new entrepreneurial ventures and social innovations, and new economic terrain that will allow us to thrive.


Prior to founding the futures & foresight, innovation, and strategic design consultancy Kedge, Frank spent 15 years as a leadership coach and developer with entrepreneurs, social communities, networking initiatives and SMEs, helping them to create social innovation, organizational development, and transformational inititives. He holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from the School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship at Regent University, and is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Futures Studies Federation. With a strong background in both business and academic foresight, Frank created the first futures and foresight course for developing solutions to “wicked problems” at the Duke University TIP Institutes (“The Futures Institute: Creating Tomorrow Now”), is on the organizing team to develop the MSc in Foresight and Innovation at ISTIA/The University of Angers in France, and will begin teaching a course on advanced foresight in organizations at The Savannah College of Art and Design Spring 2012. As a partner at Kedge, Frank has created future-ready strategy, opportunities, and action for companies such as Marriott, Mars, Kraft and Disney, and has spoken to various groups and conferences over the last 20 years on topics such as leadership development, community and social architecture, the importance of the skill of futures thinking, creating corporate foresight divisions, recognizing the impact of emerging trends and issues, identifying and seizing unseen opportunities, and reaching business aspirations and preferred futures. Find Frank on twitter @frankspencer.

Further Reading:

3 Reasons CIOs Need Scenario Planning
This Is Generation Flux: Meet the Pioneers of the New (and Chaotic) Frontier of Business
Foresight Education and Research Network
Acceleration Studies Foundation
World Future Society