How to Lead the Future
How to Lead the Future
A walkthrough of the futures design process and methods.
Futures designers design products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. But how do we do it? How do we design the future? It happens in big and small ways every day. Any time you make an improvement to some process or are kind to someone you’re shaping a more just, egalitarian, and prosperous future. However, it can be immensely helpful to codify how we design the future (i.e., arrange these steps into a systematic process). A process to help us to identify and iterate on best practices, welcome stakeholders into our world, and demonstrate professionalism and structure.
So, how do we design the future? Well, at Boardroom Labs we’ve been tinkering with our process for some time and it is (and will always be) a work-in-progress. Further, since every engagement or challenge is unique, especially in the realm of wicked problems any process that’s too restrictive and narrow will be brittle and misleading. Thus, think of this process as a set of railings on a wide bridge. There are many different approaches you could take to crossing this bridge, but the guardrails help you to cross without falling into the water.
This process is applicable in any context as a futures designer and has been distilled from many different domains and disciplines across the social sciences and changemaking, including:
- Ethnography & Anthropology: Exploring people’s innermost thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and contexts.
- Strategic Foresight: Surfacing global patterns of change and envisioning bold future possibilities.
- Business & Product Management: Bridging today’s realities with tomorrow’s possibilities to drive stakeholder value.
- Systems Thinking: Making connections and uncovering truths and implications in the bigger picture.
- Concept & Service Design: Identifying, validating, and piloting concepts into new or improved products or initiatives.
- Storytelling & Brand: Crafting stories, artifacts, and experiences that simplify, engage, and inspire.
The process is broken down into five stages: scope, signals, scenarios, strategies, and scale. I’ll provide an overview of each phase of the process, some useful tools and approaches, and stories that demonstrate what the process looks like in practice. The first story is meant to be humorous and is about someone simply moving a chair in a factory. It’s intended to show how small but meaningful changes follow this process. The second story follows a designer working for the Red Cross. They’re trying to raise volunteerism rates, especially among youth. This story shows how the process unfolds in complex, more formal environments on significant challenges.
Scope is the murky beginnings of any new futures design initiative. In informal settings, it could be that you simply notice some issue and feel compelled to address it. In corporate environments perhaps there’s a governance committee that’s decided now’s a good time to pursue a certain portfolio initiative. Imagine we’ve been stranded on a desert island. This phase is that moment where we pause and take stock of the momentous challenge ahead. It’s important and perhaps even intimidating, but it’s only the beginning.
- Problem Framing: Regardless of the formality of the environment it’s helpful to articulate the current state, problem, and desired end state. Additionally, even laying out who’s working on the project, timelines, and so on can help. An example model is CPQQRT (Content, Purpose, Quality, Quantity, Resources, Time).
- OKRs & Roadmapping: An even more formal version of project framing. OKRs (Objective, Key Results) come from John Doerr’s Measure What Matters. Roadmapping means laying out these measures and milestones along a time-bound path to ensure stakeholders know when to expect certain outcomes.
- Research Design: Generally the knowledge we currently hold is only sufficient to identify the problem’s existence (or ideally it’s nature). When we need more information, it’s helpful to lay out how we’ll be gathering it. For instance, we’ll be interviewing certain people (segmentation criteria / participant lists) with certain questions in a certain manner (discussion guide).
Noah had worked at BoxCo for nearly 20 years. He’d watch the factory grow and change. New machines added to the floor and co-workers come and go. He was nearing the end of his career and felt an urge to tidy things up and leave the ol’ place in a good way. As he wandered and mused, he stumbled on a machine operator’s chair that had been left on the walkway. He paused, savouring the moment, knowing the days of this chair obstructing people’s journeys were numbered.
Mariam had only been with the Red Cross for six months and she already felt in over her head. She was in a relatively new innovation and futures function and had been tasked with working on volunteerism. Volunteerism rates had been declining for years, especially among youth, and now there was a pandemic. What a mess. She decided that she should start with laying out what the problem might be, why, and some people she could talk to for more information. She knew that even if she had to circle back, anything she learned at this stage would only help.
Signals is the information gathering and knowledge formation phase. Here we identify signals (i.e., datapoints that hint at some possibility, problem, or solution) and form them into directional patterns of change. These may be insights from customer interviews, trends gathered from a scan of the ecosystem, or opportunity spotting with stakeholders within the problem area. For our desert island conundrum, we’ll need to make sense of our new home. We notice there are a few crabs skittering about, a river carving its way through a broad swath of trees, and deeper, underlying patterns, like the tropical climate. Each of these is a signal, or an indicator of what’s happening and might happen next. We would study and make sense of how these signals fit together until we intimately know the ecosystem and the patterns beneath what’s seen.
- Immersive Research: Often at the heart of a problem space is people, either causing it or the ones benefiting from its solution. Speaking with and understanding the beliefs, pain points, contexts, and needs of real people is crucial even if they’re not end users or paying customers. Or as the saying goes Nothing About Us Without Us. Dave Gray’s Empathy Map is a helpful tool for consolidating a perspective on someone’s perspective.
- Horizon Scanning: In many cases, the data we need isn’t human sentiments but broader ecosystemic data pertaining to trends, drivers, and possible future states. In strategic foresight, this practice is called Horizon Scanning. Often it involves secondary research to find signals and synthesis to form patterns. Like a smoke detector, horizon scanning is a way of making sense of the messiness of the wider world before it becomes dangerous. If you’re interested in trying, here’s a signals database Excel template you can start with.
- Opportunity Spotting: As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” The easiest problems to solve are well-defined, clear, and widely agreed upon. Much like sharpening our axe, spending time synthesizing our research and understanding the ins and outs of the problem, can make it more likely we solve it effectively and without unintended consequences .
Noah paused and thought, “is this chair really in the way?” He had a look at the walkway and it was pretty narrow. He thought, “maybe I could divert foot traffic away from this path or re-design the chair to allow for people to slip by it more easily.” He got excited and imagined a curved chair that could sense and adapt to its surroundings. After a few moments, he chuckled and realized he was overcomplicating things. “I’ll just move the chair,” he decided.
Mariam began with a three-pronged research approach as part of a team. She began by interviewing potential volunteers. She didn’t just ask them about volunteering but also their hopes, dreams, concerns, stories, and more. She wanted to deeply understand them to help serve them in service of their communities. She also conducted a broader scan into technology, changing demographics, and trends. She found that volunteerism declined in denser areas and that youth had less spare time than in the past, likely because of rising unaffordability. She met with and toured several volunteer sites, including a care home, recreation center, and farmers market.
Humanity has always relied on stories to convey meaningful lessons, conceive of possibilities, and inspire our peers and selves. Stories are most powerful when they imagine tangible worlds that have never been but could be. In futures design, a scenario is any future possibility. It could take the form of a concept or idea, a future world with events that made it so, or a future course of action, which we can test and consider. For our desert island (and with our landscape understood) we could begin to explore plausible events that may lay ahead. There’s lots of water around. Perhaps it might rain? Could the trees be useful for building an escape craft? Maybe those rocks on the beach could spell SOS?
- Concept Ideation: While many don’t think of them this way a concept (and its predecessor, the idea) is just a form of scenario. It’s a story about a product or service that doesn’t yet exist but that we believe may have some value. Generating and refining concepts and testing them with users, stakeholders, and ecosystem forces is an excellent way of identifying effective solutions in a resource-efficient manner.
- Speculative Futures: How does one respond to population aging? Or climate change? For Metrolinx (Ontario’s transit agency) it’s not merely a matter of inventing a new type of bus or more effective operator resourcing system. If it gets hot enough train tracks could melt and derail trains. Entire suburbs could exist that will need infrastructure that can take years to build. That’s why in Navigating Uncertainty Metrolinx relied on speculative futures to explore what possible future states they could be dealing with and how they might respond. With speculative futures, wind tunnelling takes the place of the more usual product testing to stress test theoretical decisions.
- Creative Facilitation: The future is built together. However, that doesn’t happen by accident. Typically a designer gets a mandate to focus on some area and it’s their choice (and ethical responsibility) to consider and involve impacted stakeholders, those without voices, and others beyond just the loud and powerful. It takes an immense amount of skill and empathy to help people feel involved, empowered, and to facilitate their meaningful contributions. Often creative facilitation takes the form of structured workshops where people (and inputs) are gathered and later synthesized into ideas, pain points, or decisions.
Noah saw a coworker walking by. He asked, “Hey do you know who left this here?” His coworker chuckled and kept walking. Noah thought, “he probably thought I was joking.” Noah considered what might happen IF he moved the chair. “Maybe my boss will be upset… Maybe the chair’s SUPPOSED to be there? Or what if someone trips over it after I move it? Would I get in trouble?” Noah ruminated on these possibilities for a while before realizing he had the perfect solution.
Mariam synthesized her research into a set of problem statements, which she used as the basis for a co-design workshop with different research participants, partners, and constituents. She worked with this group to validate her problem statements, generate possible solutions, and consider how they might be implemented. Ideas included a digital volunteer management platform and courses and certificates for volunteer hours accrued, like a nanodegree for volunteerism. She discovered that the best way to mobilize people was to make doing good the best thing for everyone to do.
A scenario is merely a possibility. But what happens if a concept is implemented? Who’s affected? What steps would need to be taken to make it real? Who would provide the resources? Why? The scenario is only the beginning of teasing out how to best act in the fact of change. Once we know what’s possible, strategy is figuring out how to make it real. Strategy is rarely easy. If a decision is obvious, it isn’t a strategy but common sense. Often there are complex risks, 50-50 calls, and fractious voices. For our island situation, with a perspective on what may lay ahead, we can begin to anticipate and test trade-offs. What happens if we build a boat and there’s a tropical storm? We haven’t seen any planes overhead, who will see the SOS sign? There’s rarely an obviously perfect choice. Rather strategy is anticipating risks and benefits, then making decisions.
- Experiential Futures: Imagine a room full of executives. First, you present to them a set of trends and drivers, then you assign each a role to play that’s different than their usual purview. Next, you lead them through a series of decisions they make from their vantage point. Invest or don’t. Respond or ignore. Launch or delay. While this activity is based on wargaming, making a strategy an experience is a powerful engagement practice. The design studio Superflux is incredible at this. Otherwise, here are two experiential futures that I’ve always loved: one powerful and disturbing (automated weapons), one happy and playful (and also a yoghurt commercial).
- Venture Design: A venture is a business unit intent on bringing a new value proposition to the market in partnership with capital providers. Designing ventures means working with key partners, often corporate entities or governments, to discover and deliver value.
- Strategic Modelling: If we launch this new initiative what might our competitors do? If we invest in these new capabilities, what might this organization look like in 5-10 years? Strategic modelling is more than laying out a roadmap and milestones, it’s about testing and understanding the consequences of various critical decisions. Often venture design sits at the product level, while strategic modelling introduces more abstract thinking at the company and movement levels.
Noah wouldn’t just move the chair, he would REmove it — to the storage room. He thought through if anyone would be upset or (realistically) even notice and decided the worst-case scenario is the operator would need to retrieve it. Hopefully this time he’d pick a place where people were less likely to trip over it. Noah picked up the chair and began his long journey.
Mariam worked with leadership and stakeholders across the Red Cross to explore how best to bring her validated initiatives to life. What might they cost? Who would benefit or be hurt by them? How long might they take? What new opportunities might they unlock? Who might be interested in helping to make them real? She found that by pitching, sharing, and interrogating the initiatives, she better understood and evangelized them. Soon she had a solid, widely agreed upon strategy that was ready for implementation and scaling.
A strategy without scale is like a map without a user. It may be accurate, helpful, or beautiful but it’s ultimately just a document. It’s action that changes lives (although conversely, without a good strategy action can be ineffective, wasteful, or even unintentionally harmful). Scale is the final and most crucial step in this process. Scale builds on previous research, consultation, ideation, and planning to bring this work to life in service of people’s wellbeing and organizational prosperity. On our island, this is when we’ve made our plans for escape. Build a boat. A boat that can take us home. We iterate, learn to lash wooden spars together. We gather resources for the journey: food, water, and spare parts. One final sunrise and we set sail. Scale is a funny step as it can theoretically span decades. It’s also where it mostly stops being futures design and becomes a million other things, like human resources, marketing, and operations. Once the new product, company, or movement has landed more specialized individuals generally step in to carry the torch forward. As a futures designer, you may want to stay alongside or go back to the beginning and explore the next source of collective value.
- Writing & Visual Design: People learn and engage best through stories and visual content. Effective writing and visuals can help people understand what it is you’re trying to do and rally behind it. It can mean designing reports, slogans, songs, poems, posters, slides, or more. A personal favourite of mine is the memo or a brief document that summarizes key points, ambitions, and the rationale behind a plan.
- Change Management: No change exists in a vacuum. New initiatives can mean new jobs, altered roles, new or removed responsibilities, temporary (or sustained) chaos, and more. Much of these shockwaves can be mitigated through careful planning and consultation, others must be paid attention to and dealt with as they arise during scale. Fear of change can paralyze us but recklessness can be even worse than inaction.
- Strategic Partnerships: A recent shift in business culture has been away from isolated development towards collective advancement. As an example, it’s more common for businesses to enter joint partnerships to co-develop new ventures and split ownership. Or corporates will invest and support early-stage startups to help them grow and, in turn, get access to innovative thinkers and new IPs.
Noah walked and walked for nearly 30 seconds before finally reaching the storage closet. He respectfully placed the chair inside and returned to his duties. He felt a glow of pride, knowing he’d successfully made his workplace safer for all. Now no one should walk in fear of tripping over a particular errant chair. Noah paused thinking, “have I finally found my calling or shall I continue my adventure towards the next problem to solve.” He felt a warmth in his chest, knowing that either way he’d made a real difference today.
Mariam both loved and hated this part. With several new initiatives being launched, she could no longer be at the heart of each one as a portfolio. They were all distinct and separate, with new teams and mandates. But as the lead and SME, she was constantly on call to help each team get their feet wet and really take ownership of the new initiatives. There was one, in particular, she was dreaming of staying on and running. But she also felt the pull to start it all over again and build the future once more.
Leading The Future
So that’s the process: scope, signals, scenarios, strategies, scale. I hope this has been helpful to get a deeper view into how one designs the future. It’s important to note that not everything is necessarily this linear or neat. You may discover something that makes you rethink your research or come across an obstinate stakeholder that makes one phase take ages. There’s no right way to do anything, rather there are effective and proven ways that can be helpful as guardrails. Give this process a try, be patient, and let me know how it goes.
Use Cases For This Process
Applying this process is no easy matter. To make it more tangible, here are the various ways that my futures studio Boardroom Labs applies it. We’ve grouped our service offerings into three categories, which use language our stakeholders are familiar with to explain things simply and easily: Futures Design, Innovation Strategy, and Capacity Building. In other words, we help inspire and engage leaders and talent, identify and capture new opportunities, and build sustainable, scalable innovation and futures architecture.
“The future is always beginning now.” —Mark Strand
I love futures design. I can feel my heart sing when I’m coming up with new ideas or exploring how to make them real. If you’re interested we’re always happy to discuss partnerships or explore how we can apply futures design within your problem area or organizational context.
This is the sixth article in the Lead The Future series, which will continue exploring the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. Would you like to be notified when the next article’s launched? Subscribe to the Boardroom Labs’ newsletter in the sidebar.