radical Insights.

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

The Essential Futures Conversation Game.

Feb 26, 2024

One of the best entry points for surprisingly rich conversations about the future is a simple game that can be played anywhere with virtually any number of players. You can even play it alone – and still walk away with some real insights.

Since our days together at Singularity, Pascal & I have played versions of the Polak game with leaders and learners in our sessions. The game (also known as Where Do You Stand?) has an interesting history and many possible variations, but fundamentally, it’s designed to help players reflect on their views about the future (assumptions, expectations, beliefs – often unexamined) and begin to explore how those ideas about the future might shape leadership and action in the present – often in subtle or unrecognized ways.

The setup is wonderfully simple: Players are presented with two questions that they answer by situating themselves physically in a game space oriented with an X and a Y axis. How each player answers the two questions along a continuum of possible responses determines her location in a 2 x 2 where each quadrant reflects a sort of mindset or posture toward the future.

Classically, the two questions have focused on the type of future a player is anticipating (more positive/promising vs. more negative/challenging) and the level of agency a player expects an individual to have in shaping the future (more individual agency/influence vs. less individual agency/influence). I used this formulation consistently when facilitating the game on programs at Singularity, and it supported eye-opening exchanges between participants as they reflected on their own views about the future and recognized where and how (and how very frequently!) their assumptions and beliefs diverged from those of other folks in the room. And of course, Singularity as an organization had a point of view that was very much in the Positive/Promising + High Individual Agency quadrant and was invested in socializing that POV through its executive education programs.

Recently, I’ve shifted my framing of the first question to something that I find to be more useful in a wider variety of contexts – and while both have value, this is the framing that I generally recommend if you’re interested in running the game with your org or team. Rather than big picture optimism/pessimism, it asks instead about the extent to which participants feel that the future is fixed vs. flexible – i.e., Is the future largely set on a mostly fixed path or does it largely remain to be determined and still holds many possibilities.

The result is a 2 x 2 matrix that supports fantastic conversations (facilitated – always – by asking Why?) about seeing and shaping futures, riding waves vs. making them, theories of change, philosophies of innovation – and even life, etc. And of course, the game provides an excellent opportunity for individuals to reflect on how their own feelings about the future might inform (or enhance or limit) their decision making, leadership, and partnership in the present – and to see that their particular assumptions and expectations aren’t the only possible set, which can open yet another set of valuable discussions for any group of leaders or learners interested in building the future. @Jeffrey