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Illuminating the Path to Uncertain Possibilities: Looking at Possibilities with a Futures Telescope

by Eva Tomas Casado

Wild Card of Uncertainty #1 - Category : Scanning/Futures

A. Futures and Physics

I was always fascinated by the sunlight.

It influences how we perceive the world around us. We literally need it to live. Without light, we do not see as clearly as with bright sunshine, sometimes it is pitch black, which makes us uncomfortable and lost.

Even our emotional well-being is connected to how much sunlight we receive.

When the light is not refracted, natural light is yellow. When you use a prism to refract it, you get a rainbow. It makes the sky blue and some evenings red. It has invisible parts that make you feel warm, or change your skin tone. And its superpower — it is particle and wave at the same time.

Maybe therefore it is no wonder that I am equally fascinated by futures as I am by the light. Futures and light have so many things in common. As light shows a dual nature so does futures thinking. While this mindset acknowledges that the future can be uncertain and unpredictable, it is recognized that futures are also influenced by patterns and trends. And as light can behave as a wave or a particle depending on the experimental setup, futures thinking also involves being adaptable and agile depending on the perspectives, assumptions, and possibilities.

The dual wave-particle nature of light is exemplary for the concept of quantum uncertainty: the properties of light are uncertain and probabilistic until measured and observed. Similarly, futures thinking is based on the assumption that the futures are uncertain and are influenced by a multitude of factors, making them unpredictable. Both frameworks emphasize that we need to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity and be prepared to adapt and iterate as new information and insights emerge. Since light and the futures have so many core principles in common, it is time to consider optics in our way to navigate the future.

B. The not-magnifying telescope

Let me introduce you briefly to the futures cone, a framework used in futures studies and foresight to illustrate the range of possible future scenarios that may emerge from the present.

The cone of futures represents the idea that the future is not a single fixed outcome, but rather a multitude of potential futures that can unfold in different directions based on various factors and uncertainties. It is often depicted as a cone-shaped diagram that widens as it extends into the future, representing the increasing uncertainty and possibilities that arise over time.

The concept of the cone of futures has been widely used in strategic planning, scenario planning, and foresight exercises to explore and prepare for different future possibilities. It is a brilliant instrument to illustrate that looking into the future means looking into a space of possibilities, rather than looking into a crystal ball and seeing one outcome.

For looking into space, you use a telescope, an apparat made of mirrors and lenses used to magnify the objects you are looking at in the distance (that actually looks into the past, due to the traveling time of light, oh how lovely is the irony of this world sometimes!).

Why not look into the space of possibilities in the same manner?

The difference is though, that the focus is not to magnify objects (though diving deep into some scenarios or futures could be seen this way). The primary focus is on widening the angle in order to avoid blind spots.

But still, the futures telescope uses mirrors and lenses for looking into the space of possibilities.

And as for sunlight — the lens defines if we see rainbows or if it is dark.

Adjusting the view

If you ever had a biology, mineralogy, or chemistry class in school, for sure you remember that every pupil needed to adjust the ocular, in order to get a clear view. Otherwise, all you could see was an out-of-focus picture without any clarity and therefore also not of interest.

Looking into the futures telescope, we will have to do the same. Our ocular has a name: biases.

We are all running on biases. They are needed for us to operate in a world, where we are bombarded with information each second of each day. Biases help us to make quick, mostly unconscious, decisions.

Imagine you would have to take each decision necessary to go through the day on a conscious basis — properly you would not even get out of bed.

That means biases are not negative per se, they are needed for functionality. But looking into the future and trying to make a clear view of the possibilities out there, biases can hinder us to perceive the full space. They are narrowing the angle of our cone-telescope resulting in a blurred out-of-focus picture.

In order to create clear scenarios of the futures, we need to address our biases first. That does not mean, that we have to get rid of them (though of course there are biases, that should better be left behind, but that is yet another story), but we need to make them visible, so they can’t get into our way on our journey to the future.

There are various tools and methods to address this, one being the Causal Layered Analysis developed by Sohail Inayatullah.

In this methodology, our biases, beliefs, and narratives are described as an iceberg. The visible part of an iceberg is just its tip, the major part remains hidden under the surface. The same is valid for our biases.

When starting a futures-thinking-fueled strategic process, like in biology class, this exercise can and should be used to adjust the ocular at the beginning. Being aware of the metaphors in place can help to design the systems in a highly effective way. Which lead to a well-organized crew steering all in the same direction on our journey into the space of possibilities.

Now that we adjusted the ocular, and see the same angle in our telescope, what do we actually see?

The kaleidoscope of uncertainty

Our strategic and organizational approaches are widely inspired and designed out of a modern world mindset. Strategy is the road ahead — a clear destination, defined paths, and clear hierarchies of who goes first. We were not looking into a cone-shaped telescope to design our journey to the future, but in a rather narrow-shaped pipe, searching the horizon for the one future to head to.

But our world changed tremendously over the course of the last 30 years. Since we include multiple perspectives, complex systems, and diversity in our worldviews, the clear picture ahead got fragmented. Instead of a clear path ahead, now we look into a kaleidoscope.

A kaleidoscope produces constantly changing patterns and images through the reflections and rearrangement of small colored objects, representing the idea of multiple perspectives and shifting realities.

While the positive effect of this development is, that the angle of our futures cone widened, and we can now look at a wider set of possibilities, the negative effect of using the fragmenting  lens is, that we look into a beautiful, sometimes scary, endless space of millions of sparkling colors leaving us in the state of an overwhelmed freeze mode. There is no clear path ahead, not even a clear destination.

How can we effectively navigate these fragmented surroundings?

If you can’t win, change the rules.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

Instead of trying to build a clear road to a clear goal in this fragmented sparkling surrounding (which by the way looks different depending on who is looking), we have to embrace the ever-changing nature of the space of possibilities.

By adopting a futures-thinking mindset, we can effectively use foresight methodologies to pick up the sparkling diamonds and build an upward spiral staircase of evolution and growth.

The upward spiral symbolizes progress, evolution, and growth, while the staircase represents a structured and organized approach, where different perspectives, ideas, and values are synthesized and integrated into a higher level of coherence and meaning.

The goal of a strategic process should not be designing the road to take. But to build awareness of sparkling diamonds around us, that can be used in building our staircase in the preferred direction.

The task of the leader is therefore not anymore to name the direction and the goal and supervise the roadworks, but to enable and encourage to look for sparkling diamonds, pick them up, look for the best spot to put them, and build the next step upwards. This does not eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. Because in the reality of our world, this is an impossible task.

But instead of looking into a fragmented fog of uncertainty, you can see a clear path into an ever-rescinding horizon.

Bridges don’t guide rivers

A process is like a river that flows continuously, guiding and shaping our actions, while a project is like a bridge that we build to cross from one side to the other or also to watch the river flow.

A process is ongoing and adaptable, serving as the foundation for consistent and efficient work, while a project is a temporary endeavor with specific goals, timelines, and deliverables.

Although most organizations call it a strategic process, strategy development is widely still treated as a project, with a clear start and a clear end. In order to successfully navigate the space of possibilities and start building your upward spiral staircase, leaders and organization have to embrace the process nature of strategy. It starts with acknowledging and recognizing the multiple, complex, and diverse nature of the space of possibility we call futures.

By uncovering hidden biases and narratives, we ensure that the ocular shows the same angle for all and that everyone has a clear look into space. Changing the rules of the game, not aiming for building a road to a defined destiny, but an upward staircase, ensures that the fragmented complexity of our times, does not leave us behind in an overwhelmed freeze mode, but enables us to create the futures we want to see.

With a broadly implemented futures mindset, helping to adjust the lenses of the telescope in use, the space of possibilities can be successfully navigated.

You might even enjoy the ride.

This article was contributed by Eva Tomas Casado, valued Grey Swan Guild leader and Executive Principal, Cygnus Sprints. Eva is a futurist and foresight practitioner that brings years of experience and a deep passion for exploring what's next as an Executive Principal of Cygnus Sprints. Her enthusiasm for futures development is matched by her commitment to using structured methodologies and content to bring clarity and insight to complex topics. Whether working with organizations or individuals, she thrives on helping others anticipate and prepare for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

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