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Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present

Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present

by Bob Johansen

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These days, every leader struggles with a paradox: you can’t predict the future, but you have to be able to make sense of it to thrive. In the age of the Internet, everyone knows what’s new, but to succeed you have to be able to sort out what’s important, devise strategies based on your own point of view, and get there ahead of the crowd. Bob


These days, every leader struggles with a paradox: you can’t predict the future, but you have to be able to make sense of it to thrive. In the age of the Internet, everyone knows what’s new, but to succeed you have to be able to sort out what’s important, devise strategies based on your own point of view, and get there ahead of the crowd. Bob Johansen shares techniques the Institute for the Future has been refining for nearly forty years to help leaders navigate what, borrowing a term from the Army War College, he calls the VUCA world: a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As the institute’s ten-year forecast makes clear, leaders now face fewer problems with neat solutions and more dilemmas: recurring, complex, messy, and puzzling situations. Get There Early lays out the institute’s three-step Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle that will allow readers to sense, make sense of, and win with dilemmas. Johansen offers specific techniques, ranging from storytelling to simulation gaming, as well as real-world examples to help readers turn the VUCA world on its head through creative use of vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. This book offers hope for leaders facing the constant tension—a dilemma in itself—between judging too soon and deciding too late.

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Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present
By Bob Johansen

Berrett-Koehier Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Bob Johansen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-440-5

Chapter One

Thinking Ten Years Ahead to Benefit Today

The way you can go Isn't the real way. The name you can say Isn't the real name. —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Ten-year forecasting provides a unique perspective—a futures context—that helps you create your own vision, for your own organization. Leaders can learn from many different sources of foresight, and this chapter provides a taste of varied approaches. Forecasting helps leaders break out and develop new "ways you can go."

The Institute for the Future's Ten-Year Forecast was begun in 1978, when Roy Amara was president of IFTF. The ten-year time horizon was an important choice. Looking ten years ahead, one can see patterns more clearly, even if the details are still unclear. To be most useful, a forecast should be far enough into the future to go beyond an organization's normal planning horizon but not so far ahead that it becomes unbelievable, irrelevant, or too far out. Most of our forecasts focus ten years ahead, but our range for recent forecasts has been from three to fifty years. Our preference is for ten years.

Figure 1.1 shows Institute for the Future's logo, which was created by Jean Hagan. The logo is designed so that when you look at it close up, it is hard to make out the IFTF. As you hold it farther away, however, the IFTF logo becomes clear. Our goal in creating the logo was to symbolize the fact that a ten-year view is easier to make out.

For example, if we look ten years ahead, it is clear that wireless will be everywhere—even in many parts of the underdeveloped world. Cell phone sales are booming already in Latin America, Africa, China, and India. Within ten years, wireless connectivity and sensors will be ubiquitous. It is very difficult to anticipate, however, what will happen in the world of wireless and sensors when you are thinking just one year ahead.


A forecast is a plausible, internally consistent view of what might happen. It is designed to be provocative. At Institute for the Future, we don't use the word prediction. A prediction is a statement that something will happen. A prediction is almost always wrong. Journalists and others love to highlight predictions that didn't come true, but why are they surprised? If we have learned anything from forecasting, it is that nobody can predict the future. Some people who call themselves futurists are trying to predict the future, but that is more entertainment than research. Fortune-tellers predict the future; forecasters don't.

The link between thinking about the future and predicting the future, however, is built into most people's thinking, so it takes some unlearning for most people to uncouple forecasting from prediction.

A forecast doesn't need to "come true" to be worthwhile. A forecast should provoke new thought: new insights, new possible actions, or new ways of thinking about the present. You don't need to agree with a forecast to find it useful.

Herman Kahn, who invented modern scenario planning at the Rand Corporation and then founded the Hudson Institute, had a unique disclaimer in the front of some of his reports that read something like this: "Some of the ideas in this report are deliberately misleading, in order to provoke thought." He didn't tell readers which ideas were deliberately misleading.

By using this disclaimer, Kahn was cleverly opening his readers up, preparing their minds to stay at the perception stage longer. Readers needed time to sense what Kahn's forecast was probing, if only they were patient and open-minded enough to be provoked. He was teaching his readers how to use future scenarios to stimulate their thoughts about possibilities.

One of Kahn's most important books is Thinking about the Unthinkable. Forecasting is a way to help us all think in ways we don't normally think. Kahn's unthinkable thinking fueled military strategy. He framed the debate about thermonuclear war in new ways by describing a frightening future in a vivid way that helped policy makers consider the future implications of their action or inaction. The scenarios were designed for the military, but they proved just as useful for war protesters—if they were open-minded enough to read them.

What a wonderful leadership skill: the ability to think the unthinkable and create futures that nobody else can imagine—or to prepare for futures that nobody else thought to protect themselves against.

When I use the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle with groups, I used to start with a provocative forecast to stretch people so they could think the unthinkable. Foresight is a very interesting place to start, since almost anyone can get excited thinking about the future. It is relatively easy to engage people in a very interesting conversation about the future. It is much harder, however, to link that stimulating conversation to practical things that people can do to make their organization better in the present. You don't want people to look back on a foresight conversation and remember it as stimulating but irrelevant to their present decisions. For this reason, rather than starting with foresight, I now start with preparing the group—before considering what foresight might be most usefully provocative.


A good leader has a prepared mind—a mind prepared for the always-uncertain future, prepared to think the unthinkable. It means being able to hold multiple realities in your mind simultaneously without jumping to judgment too early.

Preparing your mind is a readiness exercise, to probe where you are as a leader and as an organization, before the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle begins. Once you know where you are, it is much easier to sense where to start in the vast array of future options that you might consider.

The best sensing is done with an open mind that resists judgment long enough to figure out what is going on—even if what is going on does not fit one's expectations or honor one's values. Often, the most innovative ideas come from engaging with what feels most foreign, from those moments when you have a strange sense in the pit of your stomach that something doesn't fit.

Leaders must resist shutting down or responding instinctively when what is going on does not fit their expectations. The first question to ask when you arrive early in a new situation is, "What's going on here?" If you are having strong reactions, ask yourself, "Why am I reacting this way? Which of my assumptions are being challenged? Do those assumptions deserve to be challenged?"

In business, deep sensing is difficult because we are often rushing for judgment and are rewarded for speed in decision making. Sensing requires a pause, sometimes a long pause. Foresight allows time for a pause. Getting there early implies speed, but you want to get there with enough time to think before you have to act. Sensing requires reflection to get beneath surface reactions and see what is really going on, beneath what it looks like is going on or what others might like you to believe is going on.

True sensing is hard work because it requires not only watching and listening but also rethinking your own frame for understanding what you are seeing and hearing. Sensing is a discipline of waiting actively—but acting when the timing is right.

Many readers of this book will have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is derived from the work of Carl Jung. Jung distinguished between perception and judgment as the basic stages in our ability to engage with the world around us. Jung pointed out that people have differing ways of perceiving and making judgments about life, differing "ways of coming to know." The Myers-Briggs assessment helps us understand our core tendencies: how we tend to perceive and how we tend to make judgments.

Sensing happens first, then judging, but the speed of the shift varies from person to person. The speed with which we move from perception to judgment is especially important when it comes to dealing with dilemmas. Problem solvers cut to the chase right away. Sense makers go slowly at first when dealing with dilemmas so they can go fast later.

Sensing requires the discipline to hold at the perception stage just long enough, before moving to judgment. Foresight encourages you to spend more time sensing, to develop skills in asking questions that matter and resisting answers that don't. The quest is to avoid answers that are premature, answers that reflect only your assumptions—and get to the new insight that might be revealed from more careful consideration.

Roy Amara is the most disciplined futures researcher I have ever met. During his career, Roy emphasized futures research methodology and its importance. But he concluded later in his life that perhaps he had overemphasized methodology. "Futures methodology is less important than I thought," he said at a recent IFTF History Day. This observation came as a surprise to me. He now stresses the importance of thinking through what it is that you want to accomplish in your futures project and then determining what methodology is most appropriate. Preparing your mind may be the most important stage, so that the forecast is most likely to be useful.


Forecasting is a kind of mental fitness practice, comparable to the process of physical fitness. At a gym, for example, you can use tools like weight machines, free weights, a treadmill, a stair-climbing machine, an exercise bicycle, and an elliptical trainer. A cross-training approach is best, using a mix of approaches. And, of course, you need some coaching to put together an exercise program that works for you. Forecasting is a lot like that. Forecasters (like personal trainers) have a range of tools that they use to enhance the development of foresight and sensory skills.

There are many approaches to forecasting that leaders can use to improve their sensory capabilities. These are the core methodologies that we use at Institute for the Future to develop our forecasts:

Expert Opinion Aggregation defines who is most proficient in understanding a possible future and provides a systematic process for articulating and synthesizing expert opinions into a forecast.

Expert Workshops are a specific form of expert opinion aggregation. Expert workshops are typically composed of groups of twelve to twenty-five diverse experts called together as part of a forecasting process.

Content Synthesis draws together the forecasts of others to create a synthesized view.

Historical Analogy draws lessons from the past. Even in times of great change many aspects of life do not change. A historical approach explores what is not likely to change and what lessons have been learned so you don't repeat old mistakes.

Scenarios bring forecasts to life through stories, some of which may include characters and dialogue to help bring people into the daily life of future worlds.

Survey Research uses questionnaires or interviews to elicit attitudes about the future. Although surveys cannot go deep, they have the advantage of providing access to wide ranges of people through stratified samples (across the categories of populations that are important to you) and random samples to draw wide conclusions. Internet survey research has extended this reach even further.

Ethnography is derived from the discipline of anthropology and provides a way to explore underlying culture and values—as well as the patterns of how things work or what's going on in a given setting.

Visualization brings a forecast to life through pictures, human art, digital art, and a variety of other means to help visualize possible futures. The map inside the book jacket is an example of the forecast maps that we do at IFTF.

Artifacts from the Future are hybrids of archaeology and design that use imagined objects to bring a forecast to life. An artifact from the future is a scenario in physical form.

My purpose here is not to do a detailed analysis of futures research methodology, but I do think it is important to give a taste for how forecasting is done before introducing our forecast. At IFTF, we rely heavily on experts. The challenge in expert opinion aggregation is finding the best experts and then reducing uncertainty in their forecasts—while avoiding false consensus.

The Delphi Technique, created by Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey at RAND and expanded when Helmer left RAND to become one of the founders of IFTF, is the best known of the opinion aggregation techniques. Delphi is basically an iterative series of anonymous questionnaire rounds among experts, a process designed to explore the uncertainty space and attempt to reduce it. In the early days of Delphi, either a consensus developed around a future forecast or a distinct divide arose that was defended round after round. At IFTF, we still use derivatives of Delphi, although the term Delphi is not used as much anymore. Expert opinion aggregation is typically one of several inputs to our forecasts.

The selection of experts is critical. The best experts at exploring the future are rarely the celebrities of today, since celebrity status often reduces one's humility and openness to alternative futures. The best forecasting experts are those who are either not yet celebrities or don't want to be celebrities. We have learned to be very cautious about celebrity experts, although occasionally we find celebrities who still have the ability to forecast beyond the core ideas that brought them fame. In my experience, celebrity and good forecasting rarely mix well.

Typically, we develop data books of relevant facts in advance of any forecast, to get our core team and all the experts at a similar starting point—at least with regard to base data relevant to the forecast. A skilled facilitator runs the expert workshops to ensure that all the experts have a voice and that they "play well" together as they explore all aspects of the forecast. The forecast itself, however, is typically done after the expert input, by people who are expert at content synthesis.

Expert workshops can be a useful input to a forecast. For example, IFTF did a project for the government of the United Kingdom to synthesize views on the future of science and technology looking ahead ten, twenty, and fifty years. We used a variety of published and unpublished sources, with a wiki (an online text-based discussion medium) as a gathering ground for the synthesis and expert panels to review the results of the draft synthesis efforts. In this global expert survey we used in-person workshops, interviews, and an online wiki to gather and synthesize expert inputs. The end product was a forecast map that identified driving forces as well as thematic patterns.

Scenarios, both written and in artifact form, bring a forecast to life. Scenarios can be either more or less quantitative. Some scenarios, in fact, are focused on numbers. Other scenarios are more literary, with characters and dialogue, as in the stories written with the novelist Rob Swigart in Chapters 3, 5, and 10. Scenarios can be used to create and expand a forecast, or they can be used to present the results. Scenarios are also used in some organizations to test or explore strategies after they have been created. The Forecast Map, described in Chapter 2, will provide a rich structure from which scenarios can be generated.

Questionnaire results from large samples lend themselves to quantitative analysis, which can provide a greater sense of confidence in a forecast. Surveys about the future, however, run the risk of not going deep enough with the respondents. Most people just don't think about the future very much or very systematically, and asking them questions about it may not yield valid responses. Surveys allow breadth in sampling, but they do not allow depth—and depth is often important in making a forecast. Surveys are best as one of several inputs to a forecast. In our forecasting practice, we now tend to use surveys later in the research process, to test hypotheses that were developed using more qualitative methods such as ethnography.


Excerpted from GET THERE EARLY by Bob Johansen Copyright © 2007 by Bob Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehier Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Robert McDonald
"Get There Early is an indispensable new book for today's business leaders. We at Procter & Gamble having been working with IFTF and Johansen for many years, and have found their forecasts of the future and the process of taking these to action extremely helpful."--(Robert McDonald, Vice Chairman for Global Operations, The Procter & Gamble Company)
Stephen Bennett
"Charities seek to make the world a better place. Get There Early is essential reading for us, since it teaches the why, what, and how in one source. If we don't get there early, we probably won't get there at all."--(Stephen Bennett, President and CEO, United Cerebral Palsy)
David Pescovitz
"Johansen demystifies the proven tools of forecasting so they're accessible to everyone. Get There Early is a DIY handbook for anyone curious about the future."--(David Pescovitz, Co-Editor, BoingBoing.

et; Editor-at-Large, MAKE; and Contributing Writer, Wired)

Denise M. Morrison
"'Foresight to Insight' has been extremely valuable to inform and provoke the Campbells s strategy. We worked with Johansen and IFTF to identify the Driving Forces and Impact Areas through a ten-year lens. The map we created will continue to influence how we lead and deliver on our mission to 'nourish people's lives everywhere, everyday.'"--(Denise M. Morrison, President, Campbell USA)
David E. Hayes-Bautista
"Johansen's methodology of using foresight to stimulate insight is a starting point for understanding the effects of current demographic shifts on tomorrow's world."--(David E. Hayes-Bautista, Professor of Medicine, UCLA, and author of La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State)

Meet the Author

Bob Johansen was president and CEO of the Institute for the Future from 1996 to 2004 and is now the IFTF Distinguished Fellow, as well as serving on its board. He is the author of six books, including GlobalWork: Bridging Distance, Culture, and Time.

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