I’m a futurist and dragon fighter —and so are you. Except you probably don’t know you’re a futurist and you probably don’t even believe in dragons. We need to fix that.
Let me explain. I may be making a big assumption here, but I’ll bet that you were once a child, and once upon a time you were told all sorts of things that began with the words, “Once upon a time ….”
As a result, you probably spent half your days with your head in the clouds dreaming — of adventure, finding treasures, marrying some personage of royalty and along the way getting into all sorts of trouble. And, here’s the strategic thinking thing, getting out of all sorts of trouble. You weren’t just daydreaming, you were learning to be a futurist and you were learning to fight dragons.
Once upon a time, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they teach children that dragons exist, but that they teach children that dragons can be beaten.”
By imagining that you were fighting dragons, you were engaged in some of the oldest sorts of training there is, using your imagination to try out strategies and tactics that would help you into the future, as in, once you learned to fight the dragons with tails and scales, you could someday fight the more dangerous creatures — ones hidden behind fancy suits and lawsuits, armed with bad attitudes and layoff notices. Instead of fire-breathing, they’d fire off memos, “I want that report by 3:00!” or the more terrifying, “All the other kids have an iPhone! Why can’t I have one? It’s not fair! I hate you!”
A futurist is anyone who fights the dragons blocking the path into a better future. But the fight is not always to slay them, it is often the more difficult task of reasoning with them, taming them and when necessary, even being at peace with them while you wait for them to grow out of it. A futurist finds ways of working for a good future; problem-solving your way into a desirable conclusion, not only for the short-term but the long-term too.
Unlike a fortuneteller, a futurist really isn’t about being mystical. Rather than hiding the sources of their future visions, they find and reveal them so, in the light of day, they can be shared, studied, and improved. It’s not just making shocking predictions about the next invention, it’s really about making the shocking rediscovery that not everything new is good and not everything old is bad. If we could call futurism by just one name, we should call it common sense. And if more people looked at it that way and hung on to some of the common sense they learned as children, the future might make a lot more sense as well.
For instance, we’ve all heard the common-sense notion that patience is a virtue. Mostly we accept that, except when it comes to tomorrow’s technology, which we want to have today. Millions are spent on the latest tech, which in case you haven’t noticed, often works better in the demo, not so much in the day-to-day practice. Like little kids with our faces pressed up against the window of the candy store, we easily imagine how good something is going to taste and we’re seduced by the glitz and give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, don’t doubt the doubt. Run the promises of new technology through what’s called the mill of objection to see how it works in real life.
When considering new technology, we overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in five years. Lots of new technologies fall short of their alluring promises, and then people will discount the entire notion of that new thing. But if the idea is valid, watch for those closely watching the first efforts, learn from the mistakes of others and try it again. Too often, while you were still laughing at the early failures, some of those secondary efforts succeed beyond our wildest imaginations. Quick on the draw pessimists are not long-term thinkers. Patience is a virtue as long as you know what it really takes to make things work.
Futurists learn to look where they’re not looking and try to see what they’re not seeing. Another wild guess here, if you’re reading this you might have something to do with computers as a user or, bless your heart, in information technology or tech support — and the subject of technology takes up way too much of your time and attention. You obsess about technology to the point where an outside observer might just think you’ve got an addiction going on. Does the relationship you have with technology and the amount of time you spend on it actually match the real importance of it? Does the use of technology distract us from getting things done?
This is no longer an age of specialization for those who want to be leaders. By default, a lot of you are specializing in technology and you shouldn’t. A leader asks how much of the technology world will be changed, disrupted, controlled by those who have nothing to do with IT. In all your searching for what’s happening next in IT, you’re going to miss something because you’re looking too closely at the subject at hand. What are you not seeing? Who can see what you cannot?
Watch for the unexpected dragons coming at you from odd angles, the unexpected ones that fly into the mix to completely disrupt the way the future was going. Think of how much 9/11 changed the way redundant backups were innovated. How much has wireless changed the ways we work and where we work. How has globalization changed the location of workers and given more people access to success, no matter where they live. Consider how the pirates of Napster broke the old rules of information and how we now have many new rules. All of these things that we now assume were always part of the future, were each unexpected disruptions. The trick will be to spot the next disruptions before everyone else does. The best way to do that is to once in a while take your eyes off of the ball and start looking at the rest of the playing field. Dragons don’t always come from where you expected and they don’t always play by the rules because sometimes the rules are just your rules and not the rules of the larger, newer game.
Spread out your thinking — think in panoramic time — think past, present and future. Leaving the past out of your thinking is like ignoring half your tools. Don’t think of history just as an anchor, think of it more like a well-stocked toolbox, with many different tools to be used (or not) in many different ways. History doesn’t seem to have a lot of relevance when thinking about IT, but it does when thinking about people. Things change, but people don’t. How did people in the past fight the good fight? The lessons of history can tell you a lot about today.
Too much focus on the future is to live in a fantasy without the necessary respect due to those in the present. The future has been described as a convenient place for dreams. It’s a place to try out your imagination without the harsh consequences of today. If you don’t know where you left your imagination, ask any child, and they’ll easily show you where it was that you had misplaced it.
Finally, while we’re thinking about what children can teach us, also learn to be more playful. Learn to play with the future. One of the great flaws of adults is that they get the hardening of the categories. They stop accepting ambiguity and demand order. They take on all sorts of responsibilities and act just a wee bit too important. They obsess over work. They’ve lost their ability to see the world as they did when they were children. Adults are sort of obsolete children.
This is not suggesting that we act like children. This is not about immaturity, as anyone can look around today and see too much of that. What we need is more innocence along with wisdom. We are born with innocence and we grow into wisdom. Can we be adults but not forget the delightful ways that we saw the world when we were still had not (wrongly) grown cynical and oh so sophisticated? To remember what it was like to delight in the discovery of life and learning.
The best defense against the dragons is a shield of innocence and the best offense against them is a sword of wisdom. This is a sort of sword that knows how to cut through things, not just to cut to the chase and reach the bottom line, but even how to cut ahead as you reach towards the horizon. Keep some of the innocence you were born with and find the wisdom that is all around you, together they help us fight the dragons no matter where they come from and no matter where we are going.
David Zach is a Futurist who gives lots of slightly amusing talks on trends, traditions, and the choices between them. He frequently sees things that might be dragons.
This article was written for Paragon Development Systems corporate magazine in 2010.