Foresight and Hindsight: A Balancing Act [Guest Post by Bob Johansen]

An excerpt from The New Leadership Literacies by Bob Johansen, 2017


Foresight, inevitably, links in some way to hindsight. Think of hindsight as our banks of prior knowledge that ground us and sometimes constrain us from imagining futures that don’t fit our patterns of under-standing. Hindsight can include blinders that don’t allow us to see. Hindsight can also include an instinct for openness, an ability to imagine what others cannot yet see. Hindsight includes experience, which can be both a source of insight and a burden. Hindsight can be a cognitive anchoring in the past, or it can be a stimulus for innovation. It is revealing to notice that the word “history” has the word “story” imbedded in it. Futures research is, in a real sense, storytelling about the history of the future—the pre-sent that hasn’t happened yet. It was novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, an eloquent futures storyteller herself, who said, “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.”

Storyteller Kendall Haven, one of the key players on a recent project to explore the neuroscience of storytelling, has taught me that we all have our own personal neural story net that shapes our hindsight and our view of the world. As we experience new things, we always run them up against our personal neural story net to see what fits and what does not. More open-minded people have flexible neural story nets, while others are stuck in their old stories—no matter what new experiences they may have. Thinking systematically about the future helps to loosen up, keep an open mind, and challenge our own assumptions.

For example, at IFTF we get to work with some of the world’s most innovative companies. Leaders at companies like these often try out new technologies too early and their experiments fail. Years later, those same leaders are likely to remember their earlier failures when someone comes to them to pro-pose use of a new technology. “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work,” they say—and they are correct. Yes, they tried it too early, but that doesn’t mean that same innovation—or some variation—won’t work later, when the timing is right.

Traditionally innovative companies often miss the biggest potential impacts of a new technology or a new innovation once it finally occurs. Innovation often involves timing. A failed technology in one period can become a giant success later on. Those early innovators often watch in frustration as later (often less innovative) companies get the benefit of a delayed innovation. Hindsight—even accurate hind-sight—can limit foresight. It is dangerous to assume that what didn’t work before doesn’t work now. Often, what didn’t work before does work now. Leaders need to keep their minds open.

Foresight is a plausible, internally consistent, provocative story from the future, with signals to bring it to life. Notice that word story. Futurists tell stories of possibility about the future, sometimes as if they had some special access to the future. Some foresight is quantitative, but even quantitative forecasts should be wrapped in good stories in order to reach wide audiences.

Foresight should provoke people, but with a tone of humility. One of the things I don’t like about some futurists is that they seem to relish in making other people feel stupid. I believe that the best futurists provoke insights for others in a way that is both provocative and humble. The best futurists, like great leaders, both inspire and empower. The best foresight provokes insight for others. In my talks, I try to begin by frightening people a bit but end by empowering them.

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