The Perils of Pure Optimism
Most of us think about the future dozens of times per day; sometimes it’s about what we’re going to have for lunch, other times it’s daydreaming about some bigger goals or decisions.
Daydreaming isn’t just a waste of time; it can be a powerful motivator. You can’t build something you haven’t first imagined, nor can you achieve something you haven’t first painted a vision of in your mind.
The problem lies in stopping at imagination alone, which is exactly where many stop — individually and organizationally. Only fantasizing about a desired future can even be counterproductive as it reduces efforts to achieve the goal.
When it comes to imagining the future, the tech industry is practically a dream factory. More technologies than not are, at some point in their hype cycle, claimed to be the solution to all our problems, from climate change to resource scarcity.
While this optimism is seductive — and marketable — it begs the question what happens after it becomes clear the daydreams were only ever mirages.
Enter a technique called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII), also known as Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan (WOOP). Developed by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, it is effective as a self-regulatory strategy for helping us achieve our goals, and there are distinct parallels to the world of organizational foresight.
So, How Does MCII Work?
MCII starts off with good old-fashioned optimism, letting you bathe in the glory of a problem-free future.
But then comes the contrasting part — specifically working to identify the obstacles between you and that rosy outcome. It’s like dreaming of a romantic getaway and then remembering you’re allergic to the beach. This contrast, between where you are and where you want to go, creates the tension necessary to motivate action.
Research has shown that merely engaging in mental contrasting helps people both to identify and abandon goals that are unlikely to be achieved and promote the effective pursuit of feasible goals. Not bad for a few minutes of pondering, huh?
Implementation Intentions: The Tactical Move
The MCII process doesn’t end at just imagining the problems — doing that would sound a bit defeatist anyway, wouldn’t it? So, next comes Implementation Intentions.
This stage is about planning your moves when you inevitably bump into those obstacles you’ve identified. This is not just about saying, “I will do X”; it’s a more nuanced “If obstacle Y happens, then I will counter it with action Z.” This conditional planning makes the MCII approach an effective strategy of achieving goals.
That’s simple enough in a personal setting, but what about organizationally? Turns out MCII translates beautifully to organizational foresight. Think scenario planning; what is scenario planning if not sketching out various futures (hello, Mental Contrasting) and creating strategies for each (yep, Implementation Intentions). Tools like scenario planning provide a structured framework that guides organizations toward future readiness, balancing both dreamy with the doable and building a bridge between them, paved with actions.
MCII does not need to be a particularly involved process to be helpful in either personal or organizational contexts. Consider a simple example where your organization is planning on adopting some AI technology. The process starts from picturing the organization streamlining operations and improving decision-making through AI, and then imagining an obstacle. In this case, something like employee resistance due to fear of job loss is a fairly natural one. As a result, the simple Implementation Intentions step could be “If we encounter resistance during AI adoption, then we will immediately address job security and upskilling opportunities.”
Beyond Techno-Utopian Fantasies
While there’s room for blue-sky thinking, MCII provides a more balanced lens through which we can view the future. It forces us to climb down from our utopian clouds, roll up our sleeves and actually consider some of the challenges on the road to that utopia.
The next time you find yourself drifting into daydreams of a flawless, tech-savvy future, and feel like re-sharing a beautiful but cringeworthy CGI vision of one, remember — optimism is the starter, not the main course. The MCII is not about stifling your optimism; it’s about making it actionable. The technique takes us beyond mere wishful thinking and launches us into the realm of “let’s actually get stuff done”, and scenario planning is one key way organizations can implement MCII in a structured manner.
- Oettinger et al: The Psychology of Thinking About The Future. The Guilford Press, 2018.
- J. Martenstyn, A. Grant: An online, comparative effectiveness trial of mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) versus solution-focused coaching (SFC) questions, 2021.
- A. Toli, Thomas Llewelyn Webb, G. Hardy: Does forming implementation intentions help people with mental health problems to achieve goals? A meta-analysis of experimental studies with clinical and analogue samples, 2016.
- Yasaman et al: Lessons Learned for Data-Driven Implementation Intentions with Mental Contrasting, 2023.
IFTF Foresight Essentials
Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon over 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.
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