Futures and Optimism Bias

Futures (thinking) and strategic foresight can be powerful tools to help us to plan and see opportunities and threats ahead of us. When we can imagine what might happen it’s easier for us to plan for it. Futures work allows us to anticipate what could be so we can adapt better to what is now.

Good strategic foresight involves drawing on trends and patterns to create scenarios, envision possible futures, and assess risks and benefits. It is, however, a product of our present. When we use futures and foresight we begin with stating our assumptions. As we wrote recently on Censemaking, it is the willingness of futurists to see preferred, positive, and optimistic futures that they often neglect things we dislike. Just listen to the assessment on the Globalist of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and you’ll hear how badly the West got its futures thinking wrong.

Assumption Building

The first step in any futures or strategic foresight project is assumption finding, building, and assessment. We begin by asking ourselves: what do we believe to be true about the situation?

We continue asking: what do we believe about the past, the present, and the future?

Another key tool we use is the Third Position Strategy where we begin asking questions about our beliefs from a ‘third’ position that is not us. Another is the What Went Wrong approach which is a post-hoc review of what we’ve already done. After-action Reviews are other ways to help assess what kind of beliefs we had about something and the effect of that thinking on action.

These two approaches combined with some exploratory design research help us surface assumptions.

Assumption Testing

We also advocate asking these questions and using these techniques ahead of engaging in futures work. There is no ‘correct’ answer to these questions and there may be multiple answers.

  1. Do we see the situation through a lens of optimism or pessimism?
  2. What would someone who is not like me to see in this situation?
  3. What are the fundamental beliefs about human nature that guide our thinking?
  4. How is the situation we are looking at (past, present, future) similar to what’s happened before?
  5. How might we see the situation differently?

By asking these questions and building narratives that can challenge and confirm the answers we can better ensure that our futures thinking is less prone to unhelpful bias.

Futures building is all about beliefs and assumptions. What’s important is that we recognize, acknowledge, and remember the ones we bring.

Futures and strategic foresight work is a means of seeing what might come before it does. It’s a big part of what we do at Cense. For help in bringing this perspective to your organization, contact us and let’s grab a coffee.

Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

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