Nathan/ You work with corporate clients, nonprofits, and especially government agencies. How do you talk about foresight in the context of strategy?
Jake/ So much of foresight work is pre-strategic. There are always subtleties in different organizations, but this work is more about shifting mindsets. Sometimes, you need to use the strategy hammer to pry open minds, address culture, worldview, and ideology. Strategy often gets signatures on a contract, but if the will or mindset isn’t there, the project may be doomed to failure. People have a lot of the biases and in the short-term many are only looking at a narrow band of things that are really just planning.
People usually have a narrow view of alternative futures and possibilities. And, the usual focus on business in in the near-term, so we need to stretch their timeframes—at least 5-10 years out. When you truly look at the long-term, there are so many more plausible opportunities but that needs to nest in a framework that makes sense. That’s what strategy foresight is. Sometimes, this work feels slippery, especially the further out you looks. But, the tools are much the same as strategy, just with that longer perspective. You still need to look at trends and forces, stakeholders and other actors in the ecology. We have tools to look forward that far and then point you in the right direction. Strategy often opens-up that process and gives permission to ask these longer-term questions.
Nathan/ How difficult is it to get people to think beyond the quarter, beyond the year, beyond the three years into that future?
Jake/ Even in the last 15 years that I’ve been doing this professionally, more people are more amenable to the addressing the bigger picture. And, that’s great. There are always holdouts that just don’t get it or don’t want to get it—some are the “just the facts” people. For others, especially in government, they may be close to retirement and just don’t care to take on something new that addresses the time after their gone. “I’ve got three years to retirement, don’t mess with me. Do not screw this up.” But, for the majority, they’ve felt constrained for a long time by the responsibilities of their jobs and the inability to look at a bigger picture. They honestly like the license it gives. You often feel a symbolic exhale from them: “We finally get to do this!”
So, it’s actually kind of easy to get people to think long-term and dream. What’s not easy is helping them operationalize the results within their organization. People go right back into their previous way of thinking. It’s energizing when you see the amount of momentum and stimulation that can come out of these insights and processes and demoralizing when you see them ignore it and go back to their previous frame. The gulf between insights and real behavior change on an operational level is difficult. Things do change over time, there are new strategies, pivots, there are things that come out of it, butsometimes it takes years. Aligning things so that people can actually move on them is the real challenge. Saying “no” is easy, as is sticking to the status quo.
There are also regulations, habits, etc. Operationalizing requires a mix of doing the positive things, like putting these new things into place, as well as removing the existing barriers. It’s usually a tricky, complex system to work through. You can look for small victories: a place where something good happens in a pilot or experiment. I love the book, The Power of Pull. It describes the feedback loops that build momentum. Can you learn the feedback loops within your system? Can you build a learning system where that feedback informs iterations that can be built on to create momentum?
I often look for opportunistic moments: crises, transitions of power, new people in existing roles, and other things that are already forcing change. Those are leverage points that weren’t there before so they’re better times to jump in.
Nathan/ I hear you describing three distinct categories: culture, which is an organizational level thing. You can’t expect people to behave differently if the culture doesn’t change or allow it. Then, there’s individuals, that guy sits there, he’s retiring or a disbeliever. That’s a whole different set of conditions. And, then there’s things like processes and rewards and the mechanics about how the organization works. It seems that you have to reformulate all three in order to create the conditions for success.
Jake/ That’s right. The old line is about culture, eating strategy for breakfast is true. For humans, especially in certain positions, power matters. Maybe that’s the shortest way to say it? Power matters.
And, these are all nested in a Venn diagram of different powers. But, incentives matter too. What are you getting rewarded for? What are your measures? Is it Gross National Products or some other sort of economic measure at a national level? That tells you something and codes for different values. Gross National Happiness or some metric of equity will result in completely different actions and culture. Incentive structures matter, feedback loops matter, rewards matter and all of these play-off reality. All of those things go into that complex soup that we’re trying to understand.
Nathan/ Do things like the COVID pandemic or climate change help justify in people’s minds that, maybe, they can or should have a conversation that goes beyond their day-to-day?
Jake/ Yes, it certainly opens the door. You can clearly see the changes the pandemic caused in telemedicine and education. These have been discussed for decades before but were thought impossible (or too difficult) to implement. Then, suddenly, they were necessary. People stay on their path dependence until the advantage of alternatives becomes so obvious or their forced to choose a different path. I’m very much an advocate for looking for the paths of least resistance within the analysis of situations.
Nathan/ That’s really no different than getting customers to change behavior, too.
Jake/ In interface design, that one more click is a real impediment. You could use the pejorative term lazy, but I think we just want to reduce complexity and energy in our very complex world. Most people don’t want to innovate or the benefits of change haven’t been made clear. There’s always a good reason to hold on and wait. Human psychology and culture and incentive structures are just as important as some sort of idealistic or technological imperative. I’m a social scientists—and lots of foresight professionals are. We think about human behavior, we think about culture. It’s just as important as the sort of technological affordances of our world.
Nathan/ You come from an experiential, design-informed foresight tradition that seeks to create experiences in order to investigate results. How does that change how you work and the impact on the people that you’re working with and for?
Jake/ Experiential futures ties everything together. These things are feedback loops to things that don’t yet exist. You can’t get people to change their paths without a vision of the future. Otherwise, our only references are the things we’ve experienced in the past. We need to build maps (mental and otherwise), models, and experiences to expand people’s understanding of the alternatives. Experiential futures, performance media, new artifacts are all ways to simulate that future so that you can lay the neuronal tracks—so you can have that pre-experience of something—and then make it a learning experience. People are often surprised that their reactions to change aren’t what they thought when they have to opportunity to experience it. It reorients their realities, in a good way, challenges their assumptions, viscerally, and taps their emotional center. Honestly, you must have the physical body integrated into the experience if it’s going to have impact. Much of our work addresses emotions, physicality, visceral experience, touch, and other senses beyond just sight and abstract thinking. What does it feel like to live in that future? Maybe I’m more ready to move than I would have been when I only thought about it in intellectual terms or cognitive terms. If you can feel a future, all of a sudden, you have a deeper relationship to it and make a more informed decision. That’s part of our formula, as well.
Nathan/ That that’s been the power of science fiction or fiction, in general. And it’s been limiting. The sustainability world is really good at proposing a vision of the future that’s bad (if we don’t fix climate change) and really terrible at offering a better vision of the future (if we do).
Jake/ And, a little actually goes a long way. In workshops, I ask people to get really specific when the think about a future 20+ years from now. How old are your kids going to be in 2050? What are they going to look like? What are you going to be wearing? What’s over there? Imagine this scene. What’s a beautiful, wonderful scene that you could imagine in 2050? You’re this old, your partner’s this old, your kids are this old, your friends are this old. You’re living in that place. What does it look like? The more concrete, the better. That’s a scaffolding for our minds and our imaginations, and it makes it more impactful. We’re really good at imagining the dystopias, but our muscles are a atrophied for imagining the kind of world that we would want to live in.
Nathan/ Kids are really good at this. But then after about fifth or sixth grade when education starts getting more preparatory for college and jobs it gets drummed out or de-emphasized. Are there techniques that you use to get people back into that youthful, creative, open-ended spirit?
Jake/ Well, if you just walked in a room and asked people to imagine the future without any other instructions, they’re going to be very conventional and cliche. It’s more effective and more interesting to give people prompts or to give them something to respond to. And that’s where the concreteness comes in. You can get people back into that more malleable space, not by asking people to imagine, but asking them to react to a rich, vivid, layered future. You’re not just showing it to them but creating a situation that they can feel themselves interacting with. They’re explorers in that space rather than receivers—and not just one space but several so they understand that any one future isn’t inevitable. These kinds of provocations are very useful.
Nathan/ I feel like that’s the value of travel, especially when you’re young. You visit a city in another country and you realize, “oh, they do things differently here. How does that play out? Or, oh, it didn’t even occur to me to do this that way.” Those are real scenarios of possible futures. Do you ever take clients, for example a government agency, to a different governance location like that?
Jake/ There’s always somewhere that’s pushing the edges. For progressive social legislation, you can go to the Nordic countries or maybe certain cities in California cities. You can point out the early stage places that exist now. It’s not a coincidence that the term future shock was derived from culture shock because things are different and none of our maps work, none of the assumptions we normally make. “Do I eat with the fork on the left or right, or do I drive here or wait, are there even have forks, here? Can I vote on that? How? Can I saw this?” The future is that kind of place. Roadmaps are not a good metaphor, honestly. It’s more like shamans or guides or doulas or something. We need guides through transition periods. Marina Gobi, the director of the Institute for the Future says, “we’re all immigrants to the future.”—and maybe refugees, but while we’re entering it, we haven’t been there yet. The future is a new place. And when it comes fast, that future challenges us in new ways. It can be exhausting, which is why people resist change. It literally requires burning neuronal energy.
Nathan/ How do you go about finding trends and signals and then identifying which are important?
Jake/ These days, finding trends is not hard, from government reports to boutique firms, we can get them from many places. We know the demographics that are heading our way. We have data that backs it up. These big trends are sometimes called drivers or mega trends. I tell my clients, don’t spend all your time on that. It’s just your baseline. Now, looking for the signals of change, like weak signals (sometimes called emerging issues), maybe completing a horizon scan, those are more difficult to make sense of because they are so early stage.
We don’t know whether this protest movement is going to blow up into something big. We don’t know if this new patent will be transformative to our lives, but we’re looking for those things. There’s a lot of noise out there and, for futurists, it’s a habit to look to our digital streams and consult early adopters, to find where the edges are, where the weirdos are, where the fringe is. That could be in technology, politics, society, art, etc. We’re always keeping our eyes out for those signals. They are, now, a lot of automated tools that give me a list of the latest things going on out there. But, I’ve been around long enough to know that the human intelligence, sense-making, and interpretation is still critical. That can’t be automated much. Of course, we have tools, techniques, and templates that really help us structure our thinking systematically to make sure that we’re looking carefully at each issue. And, there is also a space for creativity and speculative leaps, It’s a mix of rigorous, systematic thought and intuition.
Nathan/ How do you help people differentiate signals from noise and then evaluate which signals are worth attending to?
Jake/ Because the present is so noisy, it’s usually easier to see 10 years out. The tools we use have an effect, too. Each tool or cognitive partner creates a different mental ecology. Thinking with a computer produces different results than with paper and pencil. Now, with AI, it’s different once again. Part of this is technical, yes, but part of it is aesthetic and cultural, and nobody wanted to be talking to somebody. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of us come out of social science and anthropology. We try to be holistic and look at the layers of shifting dynamics. When a new force or a new technology enters the system we look to how that may change the dynamics, looking at that. It’s important to discern the forces behind something from the surface effects we see, the phenotype versus the genotype. Pokémon Go was a huge deal many years ago but it isn’t top-of-mind, now, even though there are still thousands and thousands still playing. So, what can this speak to, currently, about augmented reality or location-based gaming? What’s happening at the deeper levels and is it something that still deserves attention?
Nathan/ It sounds like you could almost simplify this into a question: “Okay, this thing exists. You’ve found the signal. Now, can you imagine that signal in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years?” If you can, than it’s likely an influential or important signal.
Jake/ Yes, and what do people going to use it for? Thinking about real use cases, consider all of the hand waving around blockchain and its importance. You need to listen to your gut. While some of the blockchain uses look important and stable, NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) felt like bullshit from the start. Can you imagine them in 20 years and, if so, what do they look like? Now, consider AR/VR/XR googles: Are people really sitting in rooms with these things strapped to their face in 20 years? You can use your knowledge about human behavior and economic power. How does it impact the system and how does the system react? You have to question your assumptions, but you also need to play-out the possibilities, then choose the ones that feel more likely. But, it’s all systemic.
Nathan/ When you look at the world around you, there are trends and stakeholders and few people ever consider all of the stakeholders, so, they miss things. How do you help clients identify their ecosystem, who’s in it, and then who they need to pay attention to versus maybe who’s not really consequential to them?
Jake/ And, these days, everything is everywhere. There are few industries that aren’t impacted. You’re a car company, well, you’re actually a mobile computer company. You’re also part of a public safety community. We need to expand the aperture of what an ecology or system means and who stakeholders are. A you a credit union? Well, guess what? Amazon is your competitor, as is Apple. And, these are all moving targets. When they introduced wolves into Yellowstone national park, they didn’t consider their effects on the entire ecosystem. It’s had generational effects on the entire predator-prey ecosystem, which effects the way the rivers flow (due to silt and debris), which is going to change the way that climate acts in the mountains. We’re used to thinking only of people as the agents of change but when we look at the whole inventory of actors in the system, the interaction with environment matters and, then, new things emerge that interact for X amount of time. You may be seeing things that are close to happening now, but they’re really part of a much bigger cycle that you need to take a step back and consider.
This interview is from A Whole New Strategy: Everything You Need To Think And Act More Strategically