radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Finding Value Where Futures Diverge.

Jul 4, 2023

It’s the 4th of July here in the US, a holiday commemorating the ratification of a Declaration of Independence that put forth a very different vision for the future of Britain’s American colonies than the one the British king and Parliament had in mind. The ramifications of this divergence of views on the future and even what was possible within the systems and structures that made up the Transatlantic world of 1776 would – spoiler warning here – prove to be historically and globally significant.

But you don’t come to this newsletter for the history (and you’ve seen Hamilton), so let’s focus on the futures piece. Every organization – be it the British Parliament, the Colonies’ 2nd Continental Congress, OpenAI, or your local school board – is operating with a set of assumptions about the future. As we’ve written before, those assumptions (about what’s probable, what’s possible, what stakeholders will value, how the world will work, etc.) can easily go unexamined and unquestioned, calcifying over time into an organization’s version of what Peter Schwarz called an “Official Future.”

One danger of letting an official future go unexamined is that the assumptions embedded within that operating understanding may not, in fact, be entirely reliable – or might have a limited and shrinking shelf-life in a context of rapid change and high complexity. Another danger is that we can easily overestimate the extent to which other stakeholders or players share our own assumptions about the future in the environment – each of whom is operating with their own set of expectations about what the world will / can be like. Understanding the assumptions and expectations of these other key players is nearly as critical as understanding and reflecting on our own.

In a workshop with a healthcare company last week, I had an opportunity to unpack some of the client’s assumptions and expectations in a way that produced a rich set of conversations for the leaders in the room.

First, I asked the group to identify expectations about the future of the industry that they believed to be widely held within their organization. Even this proved to be rather interesting as the leaders realized that some of them had quite different ideas about what might be assumed or expected by the organization at large over the next 5 years.

After we had that body of assumptions named explicitly, I broke the workshop cohort into smaller groups and assigned each group to explore the perspective of a stakeholder or other player in the broader healthcare ecosystem (tech companies, customers, providers, etc.). I asked each group to identify some of the assumptions that their assigned stakeholder or ecosystem player might have about the future of the industry – focusing especially on assumptions and expectations that were at odds with those identified for their own organization in the previous round. 

Soon, we had a fascinating collection of divergent viewpoints about the future (assumed drivers of change, things that would remain relatively constant, unsolvable problems, the bounds of the possible…) and the basis for a set of conversations about communication and partnership across difference and the many ways in which views on the future can deeply shape – and at times constrain – the possibilities we see for action and leadership in the present.

Even outside of a structured workshop, the questions at hand are well worth any leader’s time and reflection.

  • What are your organization’s key assumptions and expectations about the future? Where do those ideas come from, and how are they refreshed over time?

  • What do the key stakeholders and players in your ecosystem assume and expect about the future, and where/how do those assumptions differ from your own?

  • How do these divergent views define/constrain your options for action or suggest new opportunities for building mutually beneficial relationships? (via Jeffrey)