cone of possibility

In watching the terrific online class “Leading Like a Futurist” by Lisa Kay Solomon on LinkedIn Learning, I came across this great concept for a “cone of possibility” that diagrams the ability to see multiple futures – such a key innovation process but one that is routinely ignored in most business settings.

To pick apart a bit what Solomon states in her lecture:

Multiple Futures

In seeing new futures, we have to build new muscles that allow us to envision not just one future, but multiple futures. As futurist, Alvin Toffler, articulated in his book, Future Shock, we have to look at the range of possible futures, probable futures, and preferred futures. Those futures are not the same thing.

Possible Futures

Exploring possible futures demands creativity and imagination. It requires discipline to continually ask what if without boundaries or constraints.

Probable Futures

Probable futures requires systemic modeling and forecasting using logic and mathematical formulas and our preferred future requires a deep understanding of purpose, values, and shared expectations of what should unfold.

Reactive Future

We aren’t taught to examine the future through those different lenses. Instead, we tend to believe that tomorrow will most likely be a version of today, anchoring our planning and assumptions on what we know and what we can see. This is often referred to as the official future. At the organizational level, we tend to institutionalize a single version of the future with three year strategic plans and annual budgets. And we spend our time executing against those plans to minimize variance along the way. Unfortunately, we rarely check the assumptions of our official future against the perspectives of others, which can often lead to miscalculations of the future and huge blindspots. And we often don’t revise our strategic plans until we’ve missed our numbers. This is a reactive stance to the future, not a proactive and productive one. It makes us vulnerable to surprise and slow to take advantage of unfolding opportunities.

As cultural anthropologist, Grant McCracken, once said, “The Corporation is at odds with the Future.” Because organizations like predictability and control but the dynamic future doesn’t care. But we can learn to see the future and anticipate how it might play out.

Preferred Future

We can create, socialize, and build a wider set of possible futures through practices of creativity and imagination. We can evaluation probable futures with logic and emerging evidence of what might unfold. And we can articulate our preferred future through strategic conversations around shared purpose, mission, and values.

Innovation Management

Exploring multiple futures is a key early stage process of innovation management. Check out my previous post exploring the overall innovation management process.