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Navigating the Future: The Power of Futures Thinking in the Workplace

When a Harvard University psychiatrist interviewed nearly 2,000 geniuses (including 22 Nobel laureates) he noted that each had spent considerable time “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously”. It’s probably why Apple’s motto for such a long time was ‘think different’.

Below are a few thoughts on different ways of thinking. During such a long period of working remotely, just spending an hour a week looking at problems a little different can leave you feeling refreshed and energised.

Futures Thinking

Futures Thinking is a method for informed reflection on the major changes that will occur in the next 10, 20 or more years in all areas of life. Futures Thinking uses a multidisciplinary approach to pierce the veil of received opinion and identify the dynamics that are creating the future.

Strategy is all about making choices for the Future. But in reality, since there are no concrete facts about the Future, the evidence base will always be incomplete. While the future cannot be reliably predicted, one can foresee a range of possible futures and ask which are the most desirable. Futures Thinking offsets the short-term thinking in the public and private sectors, governments tending to focus on the next election and businesses on quarterly performance.

Futures Thinking looks beyond immediate constraints. It helps people remember that existing attitudes and frameworks, which often seem immutable and insurmountable in the short term, are ripe for change in the long term. Futures Thinking creates an environment for deeply informed decision-making with a sustainable balance between short- and long-term policy goals, smoothing the transition toward a positive future.

Paradoxical thinking

A paradox is when two opposing ideas have equal power or truth. Both are real and have merit and yet they contradict each other. paradoxical thinking is looking at a problem or a situation from different or even opposite perspectives and finding the same thing which is deep down in two opposite perspectives.

The eight skills that are linked to intelligence are judgement, perception, reason, intuition, imagination, logic, memory and paradox. Among all the skills mentioned, the least commonly used one is paradoxical thinking because people are reluctant to get involved in illogical thinking.

Paradox thinking allows you to explore the duality of the world. ‘Either/or’ thinking won’t work. Try it for yourself and write down three conflicting statements as fast as possible. Often our rational brains resist this sort of activity. Statements like ‘sitting is more exhausting than walking’ may seem bizarre, but if you’re as inflexible as I am, I would much rather walk for an hour than sit cross-legged for an hour.

Google has long been a practitioner of paradoxical thinking with its ‘Moon-shot’ program, where though pursue things that sound undoable, but if done, could redefine humanity. It requires the teams to undertake an in-depth analysis of any contradictory thought because it can give rise to something new that is not present in the market.

Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies are a card-based method for promoting creativity pioneered by musician/artist Brian Eno. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

Whilst originally used for music, the same method can be applied to business, whether it’s using the original set or creating your custom prompts. It creates an environment of randomness that can help people to think about a problem in new and unexpected ways.

Some prompts that often are used most in a business context include:

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

  • What would your closest friend do?

  • Work at a different speed.

Final Thoughts

In today’s environment, amidst a global pandemic and accelerating rates of change, organisations must remain alert so challenges can be encountered proactively. Leaders within organisations should foster an innovative climate — using techniques like future thinking or paradoxical thinking — so employees can be nurtured to make significant contributions and enhance their performance.

Humans, in general, are more distracted than ever, even though we feel more productive working from home it’s becoming harder and harder to invest the time and effort for deep work. Allocating the time to try and use different ways of thinking is a chance for us to rediscover our love of learning and creativity. Hopefully, as hybrid working is normalised the tools and techniques become more refined, and can facilitate the ways we may think and collaborate different as a team.


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