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The future is not a place

The opening sentence of L. P.Hartley’s The Go-Between “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is well known. But is the future another country too?

Stories of time travel are tales of tourism – perhaps not surprising since we call it time travel. But the premise underlying this is that the future has an existence, and the quality of prediction is essentially about how well you anticipate the topography of the countryside of the future, which we will be able to test when we arrive.

Jethro believes that one of the jobs of a management consultant is to shine lights into dark rooms; to help confront some of the scary or so-far-unknown challenges that individuals or organisations face. One of the ways of doing this is to make the tacit explicit. And of course, our lives are run on a series of tacit assumptions about the future: that the sun will rise tomorrow; that my employer will still be in business in six months' time; that the car will work when I start it.

So the value of scenario drawing lies in helping to test our assumptions about the future.

Over the last few months, we have all faced high levels of uncertainty and disruption, both as individuals and as professionals, and for most of us this was debilitating rather than exciting. It is discontinuity that we find particularly challenging – the fact that the health we previously took for granted is threatened, that the technology core to our products is now obsolete and so on. Indeed, disruptive innovation is now a whole field of study in its own right.

So how should we deal with it? One of the original posters from the Second World War says “Keep calm and carry on” – sage advice for a generation that believes that every stimulus needs an immediate response.

But of course, remember that the future is not what it used to be!

Thursday 3rd December 2020
Hands on typewriter