If you’ve done any amount of futures work you’ve inevitably had experiences with skeptics. The doubt can come in the form of snide comments about plausibility, subtle questions about data, or outright rejection of any possibilities that don’t fit into a comfortable, already-held narrative about the future. While it might be easier to just dismiss the skeptics and work with like-minded folks only, doing so is often impractical; and frankly defeats the purpose of futures thinking.
At its core, futures thinking should help people make decisions today that lay the foundation for better futures. If we leave skeptics behind, we’ll end up focusing on the most naturally receptive audiences, ones who are already most likely to make forward-leaning decisions. While overcoming skepticism does make for harder work, it also makes for more rewarding work. More importantly, it often needs to be one of the goals of your futures work because motivating more people to think and take actions for the long-term will have greater impact.
The question is though, how can we productively address skepticism in our audiences?
Push People Past Their Comfort Zones
At a high level, I see my job as a "futurist" as finding the edge of my audience’s comfort zone and helping push them just past that. This means that what is provocative for one group may not be for another, and vice versa. Part of our work as futurists is to discover that comfort limit and help people cross that boundary line into more imaginative possibilities. The bigger the group and the more diverse the audience, the more complicated this task might be.
Balance Fear and Hope
On the other hand, I think there are really just two fundamental emotions pushing people towards action. One is belief or faith in an opportunity (hope), the other is recognition of risk (fear). Ironically, both can lead to inaction as well as action. For instance, techno-optimists might have hope (unfounded or not) that all of our most intractable problems will inevitably be addressed by some as-of-yet un-invented technology—giving them an excuse to not take the difficult actions they might otherwise need to do today. Likewise, too much fear can lead to fatalism or paralysis. If we’re doomed anyway, why take action?
Like yin and yang, the answer is almost always balance. Overoptimism in a future fix can be dampened with a bit of well-placed fear. Similarly, fatalism requires a healthy dose of optimism, often in the form of well-considered opportunities or pathways out of that risk. Part of the job of the futurist is to find that balance and support the best way to motivate change.
I was once working with a client to explore the future of their industry. We identified a number of possible, plausible, and probable visions of the future for them to consider. One of the senior leaders in the room, while reading one of those visions, shook her head. “I don’t like it,” she said. Curious (and a bit anxious) I asked her why. “Because in this future, we don’t exist,” she replied. That story, taken alone, could have been paralyzing—but when we combined potential pathways into the future with plausible pivots so that the company COULD exist, even in that scary future, the work transformed risk into motivation.
Tools to Motivate Skeptics
Any good futures process will focus on including skeptics on the parts of the journey that will give them the greatest sense of ownership. For some that will be the entire process—seeing how data and signals from today come together to form the basis of plausible and possible narratives of tomorrow. For others that will be stepping in to identify preferable futures or describe aspirations. The goal is to share both hope and fear with stakeholders at the moments when they can catalyze the most action. The tools we use at the Institute, when used creatively and at the right moments, can help this process along—once you better understand how to motivate those in your organization.
The futures wheel of “Draw Out Consequences” is a simple tool with immediate impact. Described simply, Draw Out Consequences plays out like a series of “if…then…” statements, helping people think through first, second, third (and beyond) order consequences of some change or disruption. With the right prompting, practice, and diversity of perspectives, it can guide teams to think about how the systems they work within are interconnected. It’s a tool that is easy for people to get into quickly, but robust enough to really help unearth provocative insights. Because of this, it can be deployed with skeptics to allow them to identify the far-ranging consequences of future change themselves—creating “aha” moments that deepen the emotional connection to the work.
Our proprietary “Ride Two Curves” tool is a nice way to systematically think through how a system can switch from one present way of working to a new way in the future—and what the implications and results for your organization might be. Companies, for instance, concerned about disruptive players in their core businesses often find this type of thinking very valuable as they consider how to shift their strategies and how quickly to do it.
Finally, adopting a robust and regular signals gathering practice—complimented by regular debate and consideration of the disruptive possibilities implied by those signals – is a core practice which provides the concrete evidence that some people need to see. It can be especially impactful to show skeptical leaders signals of competitors wading in, when innovators in analogous sectors are experimenting, or when disruptions caused contemporaries to falter.
While dealing with skeptics might not be easy, it is almost unavoidable in any futures process. Rather than seeing it as an obstacle, I’d encourage you to see it as an opportunity (see how I applied that idea of balance there?). Skeptics will drive you to design better processes, create better content, and be better focused on driving change. Putting in the time up front to understand your audiences, identify where skepticism is coming from, and applying the right tools in the right places will position you well to turn skeptics into champions.
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