Once upon a time, in a land far away, a little boy sat under a tree and wondered. He wondered for most of his life. One of the things he wondered about was the future, which often left him pondering the question, “What if?” His curiosity drove him forward.

Off to his favorite tree he would go sitting in its shade and wonder “what if” we could fly with a jet pack, travel in space (and time), predict the future?  Perhaps he was a bit of a dreamer, but doesn’t everything start with a dream?

1dean2As I learned in a course on future thinking, “The future may not be knowable, but it certainly is thinkable.” To ensure a prosperous future, it is no long sufficient to react and adapt to change, but, rather, now we must anticipate it and plan for it. The accelerating pace of change has outstripped our ability to adapt quickly enough and, much like the dinosaurs, if we are unable to adapt quickly enough to change, we too, will become extinct.

Not only can we learn to anticipate change, but, we can begin to choose a preferred future within the possible and probable futures. By using a future scenario process, we can create framing questions, identify the trends impacting the future, determined those mostly likely to happen which will have the greatest impact, design scenarios to describe them, and then seize the opportunities they contain.

Take, for example, this framing question: What will work be like in the year 2025? We can begin by creating a STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) trend matrix. The purpose of the matrix is to view these trends within the context of each other.

The Future of Work – Trend Matrix


Red highlighted items in the matrix indicate those trends most likely to happen and that will likely have the greatest impact in each STEEP category

One of the benefits of future thinking is that through strategic planning we can choose a preferred future from within both the possible and probable futures.

In the midst of this dynamic, exponential rate of change, we also need to understand what stays the same. Human nature stays consistent over time.  We are motivated by the same emotions but in a new context of rapid change.

In her book, Think l Like a Futurist, Cecily Sommers points out the four static drivers behind the trends.  She says that at the base of all trends are resources.  By this she means the raw material from which everything flows.  Next is technology, the tools that we use to shape and re-shape the resources contained within our ecosystem. Above technology are demographics.  This driver is about people and their characteristics that drive many of the social and cultural changes happening. On top of these drivers is governance, or the rules by which we have agreed to live to allow our society to function.  These can be the rules of law as established by governments or the rules of the market place that control the exchange of goods and services.

Choosing a preferred future means that we will need to know what is possible and probable and then within these, choose the future we most desire. We choose a preferred future? We can do so through strategic planning.

Using the future thinking process, we begin by creating a framing question. For example, “What are the business opportunities our community will experience between now and the year 2025 for each of our major employment clusters?”  Next, we would use the STEEP matrix to look at the social, technological, economic, ecological and political trends impacting this question.

1dean4From within these trends we select two that are not easily predicted and that have a significant impact on our framing question. We then map these trends into four-quadrants ranging from, left to right, least likely to most likely and from, top to bottom, highest impact to lowest impact.  Once these trends have been mapped, we name each quadrant and list the points in each section that are likely to happen within the range of possible outcomes. We then describe a scenario of what it would be like to live in that quadrant under those constraints.

1dean5Another tool to help envision the future is the “cone of possibility.” Here, we place the scenario in a time context with the near term having the highest probability moving out to a future with increasing possibilities with an ever widening range of outcomes over time due to increasing uncertainty.

Mind map, or future wheel as it is sometimes called, is yet another helpful tool to understand the “ripple effect” of trends they set off a cascade of events.  By examining the fringe of the map we can get a glimpse of possible future events to include in the scenario.  For example, the economic bifurcation of society:


The scenarios developed from the processes will be used to engage and inform education, industries, and government as to what the possible futures are and what the preferred future is based upon a strategic plan.  Using this information, actions can be taken to support the infrastructure needed, to develop the required skills within the workforce, and seize the business opportunities that are likely to unfold. Choosing a future within the possible and probable future requires an understanding of the trends shaping the future and the ability to manipulate them.

Testing my Thesis

To test my thesis, I proposed to a client that we conduct a future scenario process to assist them in identifying the likely business opportunities to be generated from a set of trends taking place between now and the year 2020.

Here is a description of what had been proposed:

Project Objective

The objective of this effort is to create a practical framework from which to identify and evaluate potential business opportunities in the form of work that can be done by the workforce, companies in their region, and/or by firms recruited to the region.

To accomplish this objective, Whittaker Associates, working in conjunction with the client’s team, will design, create, and implement a framework through which business opportunities can be identified, evaluated, and prioritized based upon depth and magnitude of the opportunity, the fit with the region’s workforce, and/or the target industry sectors.

The opportunities will be identified using a future scenario process consisting of four steps: 1) Create a framing question, 2) Conduct an environmental scan, 3) Identify and then 4) Evaluate the future business opportunities.

Framing Question

A framing question(s) will be developed through a discussion with the client’s team, and this question(s) will be the foundation upon which the remainder of the process will hinge. An example of a framing question might be, “What business opportunities (work) are likely to be created between now and the year 2020?”

Environmental Scan

Next, using a STEEP process, a matrix will be used to identify the trends and issues impacting the framing question. A brainstorming session will be conducted to establish the social, technological, economic, ecological, and political trends and issues taking place.

Identify Business Opportunities

Then, each of the trends and issues that have a high probability of occurring but are difficult to predict and that would have a significant impact on the framing question are explored using a series of 2×2 matrices with the vertical axis ranging from lowest to highest probability and the horizontal axis ranging from lowest to highest impact. Each quadrant will be given a label summarizing the expected outcomes in each quadrant. A future scenario will be written around the highest probability and highest impact quadrant for each of the major mash-ups of trends and issues, therefore, identifying the potential future business opportunity contained within the scenario.

Evaluation of Business Opportunities

The future business opportunities will be evaluated against existing workforce occupation clusters to determine the fit between the work to be done as described in the future scenario and the skills of the workforce.  In addition, the work to be done will be compared with the target industries and the companies within each to determine the viability of performing the work locally with the existing workforce or recruiting companies from outside the region to perform the work.

Future Business Opportunity Framework

The output of the future scenario process will be a framework upon which each potential business opportunity can be evaluated and ranked as to its fit with the client’s resources and occupational demographics and also with the preferred future target industries.

Expected Results

A practical framework from which to identify and evaluate potential business opportunities in the form of work that can be done by the workforce, the companies in the client’s region, and/or by firms recruited to the region to perform the work.

After wondering about the future for his whole life, well much it anyway, the boy became an old man. He had many adventures throughout his life, but above all, he continued to wonder “why not?”