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Creating the future – why futures thinking is necessary for today’s leaders


More than ever before, individuals, organisations and businesses are concerned with the challenges of an uncertain future. In these volatile times, the field of futures thinking has become critically important. So what exactly is futures thinking and what does it entail?

Futures thinking is concerned with better decision making, by anticipating risks and sensing opportunities. It entails developing, nurturing and fostering the ability to make decisions that are good when they are made and remain so in the long run. Futures thinking and futures research is the systematic exploration of possible and desirable futures to improve decisions and the endeavours to realise them. Futures thinking is therefore rooted in the understanding that knowing the future is not possible, but knowledge of the factors that shape the future are known and their consequences provide a palette of possible future outcomes, states or scenarios. Futures thinking is also inextricably linked to strategic planning and strategic management, and can therefore assist in illuminating the ways that policy, strategies and actions can promote desirable futures and help prevent those we consider undesirable. In 2000, MacMillan and Tampoe viewed strategic management as envisioning the future; they realised that if the future can be measured, it can be created.  

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), too, defines futures thinking as a way of addressing and helping to shape the future. Futures thinking can:

  • stimulate strategic dialogue;
  • widen understanding of the possible;
  • strengthen leadership; and
  • inform decision making. 

These are all attributes that a good future-focused leader should have and aspire to practise.

Futures thinking therefore starts with a view of the world as a complex system, shaped not only by the past, but also by the present context, and can, according to Viljoen's recent report, lead to exciting new era.

Leaders who are future-focused should therefore be skilled in the tools of futures thinking. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once described the human brain as an "anticipation machine". Yet foresight remains rare because – in the view of Alexander – most people find it hard to imagine a future radically different from the past or present.

Characteristics of a future-focused leader

Petri explains that leaders are often faced with information overload, the interconnectedness of systems and business communities, the dissolving of conventional organisational boundaries, new technologies that disrupt old work practices, the different values and expectations of younger generations entering the workplace and increased globalisation. This, says Petri, leads to the need to lead across diverse cultures.  The ability to deal with this kind of ambiguity requires special competencies from organisational leaders. These kinds of leaders cannot afford to be contextually blind; they need to have an inherent desire to know more about the future contexts in which their organisations will operate, to think on multiple levels of comprehension, to initiate conversations, to create a culture of uninhibited thinking, and to have an open mind and be myth-makers and story-tellers of note.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Future of Jobs report in 2016. In it, the WEF listed the top 10 skills that managers needed to possess in 2015 and would need to possess by 2020 in order to succeed. The top three skills needed in 2020 are complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

It is therefore valid to argue that in the not-too-distant future we will need leaders who can evaluate adaptive challenges calmly, who are comfortable not having all the answers themselves, and who are at ease with ambiguity. The very nature of adaptive challenges means that no one person can possibly have all the answers. So the future of leadership, according to Stacey, will lie in the ability to be curious and collaborative – curious in that, instead of rushing to judgement, future leaders will need to be open to new ideas and information; and collaborative because they will need to understand the different perspectives of a variety of stakeholders and be able to work together on trial solutions

If this is the calibre of leaders required for the future – and if the skills are so rare – a critical question arises for today's leaders: Is there a way to develop these skills? The answer is yes. Futures thinking is a well-established field of research and study that is continuing to undergo rapid development worldwide.

Heilet B.jpg

Heilet Bertrand holds postgraduate qualifications in Marketing and Futures Studies, and is responsible for marketing activities at the Institute for Futures Research​, Stellenbosch University. Her passion is leadership development.

Original article will be published in the IFR Business Futures publication to be launched at the annual workshop and conference of the Institute for Futures Research. Read more a

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