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Futures thinking for a wicked world

Most organisations base their behaviour and strategy on conventional business thinking. This is a rational approach characterised by a focus on the bottom line, the short term and on unbroken business continuity among other things.

These organisations, like all organisations, face a world of increasingly complex and wicked problems. Wicked problems – like climate change and the ageing population – have innumerable causes, are tough to describe, and don’t have a ‘right’ answer. Not only does conventional business thinking fail to tackle wicked problems, but it may also exacerbate a bad situation by generating undesirable consequences

Wicked problems demand futures thinking. Futures thinking complements conventional business thinking and un-constrains organisations from its more negative aspects, allowing them to thrive in a wicked world. Futures thinking can take several different forms.

Broadening your focus

Conventional business thinking focuses narrowly on a single market, industry sector or economy. Futures thinking is driven by a broad, cross-disciplinary awareness of what’s going on in the world. Connections between apparently unconnected events are sought and studied in a systematic way.

By focusing on a single sector, you risk disruption by new entrants from outside the market. You also lose out on the opportunity to move into new markets. Futures thinking helps you imagine the radical transformations that catalyse innovation and create value in one market by adapting the capabilities and skills from another. Think of Tesco and other supermarkets moving into financial services; think of Apple revolutionising the music industry.

Speaking the unspeakable

Business leaders discourage pessimistic thoughts, preferring to ‘accentuate the positive’ – an approach that is often beneficial in maintaining morale. Futures thinking deliberately voices the unpopular, the unthinkable and the unspeakable – from widespread high-street bankruptcy caused by the shift to digital, to dwindling natural resources. It is important that you manage and encourage this kind of dialogue. Wicked problems are easy to ignore but have a tendency to become worse if not openly addressed and discussed over time. Voicing concerns and alternative views can also open up new opportunities

Taking the long view

Typical strategic planning has a relatively short time horizon, usually no more than three to five years. Futures thinking looks to more distant horizons and the consequences and implications of long-term trends – such as demographics, compounding liabilities and technology – and relates these back to near-term objectives. A longer-term view improves resilience and risk management. When we advised a global leader in medical devices to think about their longer-term future, the result was a new product line, an associated business model – and incredible success as the business environment began to shift.

Becoming unconstrained by conventional thinking

Businesses often focus on the best current idea – an approach that generally leads to incremental tweaking rather than radical or disruptive change. Futures thinking explores a wide range of possibilities and fresh ideas, not all of which will be immediately obvious as winners, but many of which may yield important, cumulative, long-term results. Similarly, it can often be natural for businesses to gravitate towards mainstream thinking - considering, projecting, or forecasting a single future based on conventional wisdom (aka ‘group think’). A futures approach deliberately considers a range of possible futures, knowing that the future is inherently unpredictable. Our work examining the future of the energy market is a good example of how this approach can be beneficial to those across the industry.The above are just a few examples of the approaches you can take to thrive in a wicked world.  

Figure 1: The difference between conventional business thinking and futures thinking

Futures thinking

Conventional business thinking

Depth of vision

Immediate term


Knows its own business

Breadth of vision

Conscious attention to detail

Broad trends orientation

Technology and economic trends dominate

Systems approach

Problem approach

Interrelationships and interactions between trends

Less emphasis on connections

Considers wildcards and discontinuities

Continuity assumption dominates

Full time exploration of the future

Episodic or part time longer term thinking

Strategic focus

Bottom line focus

Speak the unspeakable

Uncomfortable ideas and thoughts suppressed

Long-term orientation

Short-term focus and reward structure

Foresight yields fresh ideas

Builds on best current idea

Emphasises plausible alternative futures and their implications

A single future view dominates


Mind changing

Mainstream thinking / group think dominates

The future dominates recommended actions

Past experience and present concerns dominate


To find out how you can use futures thinking to thrive in a wicked world  contact us now.

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