Strategic Thinking Articles

What If the South Had Won the War? – Imagining Differences

This is the fourth article in a series on "How to be a Futurist"

What would the world look like today if things had gone just a little differently back in 1865?  How would our government be structured?  How would industry and financial markets work?  How about our cultural and values systems?  Technology?  Silly questions, right?  Something that's probably best left to the country music crooner who actually answers this question with a tongue-in-cheek ditty.  Or is it?  Think about how close things were to having a very different outcome and you ll begin to understand the concept of imagining differences between possible or alternative futures.

Thinking about the future and all its possibilities is crucial for numerous reasons:

·        Decisions have long-term consequences

·        Future alternatives involve present choices

·        The future is the only time we can affect

·        Imagining the future prepares us for unexpected events

·        Planning for the future gives meaning to the present

Thus far in this series we ve looked at how to monitor trends and emerging issues and analyze those with the greatest potential impact.  Now comes the fun part where we get to play in the future by asking what if?   Here we ll look at alternative futures, which is to say that if trend A goes in one direction, what does that mean for our members and organization?  What does the future look like given conditions X?   How does that change given conditions Y?  

There is a tendency to assume that principles long accepted as true will remain true and that the future runs in a straight line from the present.  Truth is, the future runs in all directions from the present and you have to go in all directions at once.  But how is that possible?  By painting pictures of multiple futures using scenarios.

Scenarios extrapolate the impacts of trends and emerging issues and use descriptive images of possible alternative futures.  They are tantamount to having a road map showing possible directions.  Having the ability to see the different potential directions (futures) allows organizations to better prepare for unexpected roadblocks and design a most preferred route (future).  They are useful for both maximizing differences among possible futures and maximizing focus on a set of  four realistic possibilities, which generally range from worst-case to best case. 

Think of scenarios as telling stories about the way things could be.  They are based on projections of today s facts, trends, and emerging issues onto the screen of tomorrow.  They are written as though the future were today and we are looking back to the present.  Scenarios can project far out into the future, or concentrate on a shorter time range say five to ten years. 

Ideally, scenarios will lead to an ability to identify a handful of possible futures, which lead to probable futures and, ultimately, to preferred futures.  By casting a net into the future and sifting through the potentials of several different alternatives, organizations can choose the alternative they find the most beneficial and attractive and then chart a course to steer in that direction. 


This article was published in the January 11, 2002 issue of Association Trends magazine

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