John Mahaffie: 5 Reasons Your Company Should Hire A Futurist

March 14 2008 / by Venessa Posavec
Category: Business & Work   Year: 2008   Rating: 9

Thinking about the future is a full time job, at least for futurist and business consultant John Mahaffie. With “clarity, context, and a focus on alternative futures” as a credo, he’s been helping organizations stay at the leading-edge of their industries since the mid-1980s. His consultancy, Leading Futurists LLC, focuses on workshops and exercises to build a foresight mentality and keep innovative juices flowing. Past clients have included Microsoft, GE, and Nokia, to name a few. He also authors a blog, Foresight Culture, which offers tasty nuggets of advice about the techniques and strategies that can help organizations foster a “culture of foresight”.

Yesterday, John took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the meaning of foresight, some emerging trends that may affect your life or business, and why input from a futurist is never a bad thing.

“Foresight is the act of anticipating change and drawing meaning from it. Though practices and purposes vary, there is a core set of tools in foresight, including environmental scanning and scenario building. Foresight is usually done at the front end of organization planning processes,” Mahaffie explained, “I favor working towards becoming a ‘foresight culture’ and devote a blog by that name to discussing how people can do that.”

He related that environmental scanning, or “regularly monitoring what going on across a broad landscape”, is a great tool for spotting emerging trends so that organizations can prepare for the changes that they may face.

Mahaffie stressed social networks, online virtual worlds for collaboration, and rapid prototyping for product development as three hot technologies that are already reshaping the way we do business. He also listed three interesting trends he sees taking shape right now:

1. The rising primacy of the story behind nearly anything: the story shapes our response to products, political movements, initiatives, candidates, neighborhood activism, entertainment, etc.

2. Greenwashing and greenmailing: both companies that claim green-ness (greenwashers) and those that haven’t will increasingly be subject to greenmail-they will be pressured and even forced to do things more sustainably.

3. Acceptance of climate change, and the beginnings of social response.

Mahaffie insisted it’s not always easy to be a futurist. The title has gotten a bad rap, being equated to everything from science fiction to fortune telling.

“By far the biggest misconception is that we predict the future. People do not understand and may well be impatient with the idea of alternative futures. They also routinely assume that anyone making a prediction is a futurist. Therefore, futurists are often thought to be always wrong, the ones who told us we’d have flying cars by now, or paperless offices, for example.”

“A futurist engages in foresight. Futurists use skills and techniques to explore the future and interpret it. Futurists believe in alternative futures—the future is a range of possibility, and we need to understand that range and build plans and strategies to thrive in multiple possible situations.”

He offered up 5 reasons an organization should hire a futurist instead of just relying on internal employees to conduct research:

1. Getting an outside view—a more objective take on how the world is changing, not biased by day-to-day work concerns, the company history, and conventional wisdom in the organization.

2. An additional knowledge base—a broad knowledge base on the future that can help organizations get past obstacles in their thinking and narrowness in their view.

3. Internal expertise is most likely specialized—the internal expert is understandably focus on their profession, sector, product line, process, etc. and does not have the time and practice to effective open up the question.

4. Futurists insist on actually exploring the future, rather than tinkering with the present. They help pull an organization’s thinking out beyond current planning horizons, which can be a little as three years or three months.

5. Internal employees are too busy.

Though our society might have a firmer grasp of what’s to come if we all practiced some foresight, Mahaffie doesn’t expect that to happen. “I wish it,” he said, but “people have an understandable right to be consumed by the present and the past. It’s human nature.”

Well, that’s what the futurists are for! He even gave us one little morsel of free advice here at MemeBox, which we’ll be sure to implement as Future Blogger and the other applications evolve:

“We need to get everyone to focus more clearly on societies, social change, and the social future. Too often, we look at the future through the lens of technology. Technology is cool, we get cool pictures of prototypes and concepts, and our mental templates of the future are usually textured by technology. The social future is slightly below the surface and not as striking. In truth, there’s no separation between the two, but since technology is often in front of us, I advocate for giving a bit boost to the social side.”

To read the full interview transcript, click here.

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