When you are imagining how an organisation might pursue an exciting new future you also need to contend with those who will do everything in their power to keep things exactly how they are.
Why change when you can keep the status quo?
Why change when change might mean that some might lose the power they have become accustom to?
Why change for the better when that change might mean that some are not longer in control?
Sohail Inayatullah is one of the world's leading futurists; and a recent story that he shared from his experience with a group of Australian medical professionals, where he was facilitating a session to reimagine the future of their profession, perfectly illustrates this point:
'At a recent national meeting of medical practitioners in Australia, we were at the peak of creativity. Leading doctors imagined the futures of general practice.
Numerous futures were developed. These included:
• Star Trek medicine, wherein physicians use handheld devices for all diagnoses and most treatment;
• Multi-door medicine, wherein doctors are the gatekeepers of different evidence-based traditions, with the primary role to listen and direct patients to the appropriate door – whether it be meditation, gene therapy, surgery, dietary changes or other;
• Corporatization, wherein local doctors sell their practices for the safety and regular income of working for a large provider;
• Virtual doctors, where patients are able to send their holograms anywhere in the world to heal.
In each scenario, they discussed not just the economic costs-benefits, but how they would have to transform and re-learn who they are.
Sadly though, as the meeting was about to close, instead of relishing in the alternative futures, and using the scenarios to develop strategy and policy by pondering which future to encourage and invest in, to track and monitor, or to avoid, the CEO stood up and berated the entire audience.
“You have it wrong. All of you are incorrect,” he said. He then proceeded to outline his vision, which was essentially a continuation of the present.
At that moment the project died, everyone looked down and alternative futures became the official or institutional future. The present had won, and innovation was dead.
Instead of alternative visions of what could be, there was the predictable status-quo.
Standing up on stage as the earlier keynote speaker and the futures facilitator for the day, I was uncertain how I, and colleagues, should respond. He was the CEO who had funded the project. I was lost for words and did not say anything.
Later, on reflection, it became clear to me that there were three errors on our part. First, we did not clearly communicate to him that it was not the future, but the alternative futures of health that were most important. Second, we are unable to demonstrate how the future could be used to change today. Third, the project was not about getting the future right per se, the accurate and precise forecast, but about ensuring that doctors continued to expand their education, shifting from technical skills to a learning journey.
Part of that journey was gaining futures literacy (Miller, 2018), understanding how the external world as well as how medicine was changing, and how they could best adapt and create a desired future for their profession.
The CEO assumed it was getting the right model for the future. He wanted a concrete answer from the physicians that did not shift directions, not a search for alternatives, and certainly, not a learning journey toward futures literacy. Mindful of this experience, I now ensure that all foresight activities are structured, beginning and ending with seeing and using the future as a transformative process.'
For many futurists who have facilitated imaginative sessions to explore alternatives as too 'what the future might be' with a group of people - this story of resistance might sound very familiar.
Entrenched, status quo mindsets are fearful of change - fearful of exploring the unknown. This is no reason not to pursue a collective visioning exercise, but it is a tale of caution to highlight the need for very clear rules, structured frameworks and transparent communication as to what the ultimate intention is of the exercise.