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

Unravel the Future: Master the Art of Disruption Mapping.

Jun 25, 2024

A recent headline from the British newspaper The Guardian caught my attention: “Climate engineering off US coast could increase heatwaves in Europe, study finds.” The article explored not just the alarming possibility that geoengineering efforts in California might affect Europe’s weather, but also the broader concept of “unintended consequences.”

One of our favorite tools for clients, which consistently generates significant insights, is the “Disruption Map.” Originally invented by futurist and educator Jerome Glenn in 1972 under the name “Futures Wheel,” it’s an easy-to-use tool to systematically explore the implications of a particular change and their subsequent effects. Glenn’s insight was that while it’s intuitive to think about first-order implications—the direct outcomes of a change—exploring higher-order effects can reveal unexpected consequences.

Let’s consider an example: The widespread adoption of robo-taxis will lead to a world where fewer people actively drive cars and fewer traffic accidents occur. To start your Disruption Map, place the central change in the middle of a large piece of paper, a whiteboard, or a digital equivalent. Then, similar to creating a mind map, chart the direct or first-order implications by connecting them like satellites circling the change you’re exploring.

The next step is to ask, “What are the implications of each implication?” and map out second-, third-, fourth-, and higher-order effects. The key question is, “If this becomes true, what are the consequences?”

Continuing with our example, a world full of robo-taxis leads to fewer people driving. Consequently, there would be fewer traffic violations (if you don’t drive, you can’t run a red light or speed). Additionally, fewer accidents would result in fewer injuries and fatalities on the road.

Visually map these implications as branches extending from the primary implications. Your map will begin to resemble a complex mind map. Continue to explore higher-order implications by repeatedly asking, “What are the implications of this implication?” In our example, you might discover that widely available robo-taxis, leading to less driving and fewer traffic violations, could result in municipalities facing significant revenue shortfalls due to lost income from traffic citations. Or, following the other branch, fewer accidents leading to fewer fatalities might consequently reduce the number of organ donors (as traffic accident victims are, unfortunately, a primary source of organ donation).

These unexpected outcomes demonstrate the power of the Disruption Map. It allows us to identify unforeseen consequences, disruptions, and opportunities that aren’t immediately apparent and are often overlooked by individuals and organizations.

We find this tool so valuable that we’ve created a quick facilitation guide. We encourage you to use it with your colleagues, clients, and even family members. It’s an excellent method for gaining a broader, more nuanced, and better-informed understanding of potential futures.