Create the Stories that Shape the Future

From intern to manager intern to C-suite, everyone wants to predict the future. The more accurately we can predict, the better the odds that what we’re doing today will succeed.

Most of any planning exercise is an attempt to predict what’s coming. We read research, deploy technology, hire analysts, engage consultants, hold retreats, and attend conferences to attempt to see around corners into the future.

The challenge comes when we try to calculate the probability of one future, instead of understanding the variety of possibilities in front of us. We want the clearest path possible, so we use the research, analyst resources, tech, and other resources to define the clearest picture of where things are going and find a shorter path to get there.

The problem is that the one predicted path is inflexible – and usually wrong.

There’s a better way. Instead of trying to predict the future, take a hard look at the trends happening today. Then, extract all the possibilities those trends suggest and address the variety of futures that may arise from them.

For example, one marketing team may buy into the prediction that voice search will handle half of all online searches by the end of this year (a real prediction by the way), and put all their SEO resources toward being at the leading edge of voice search. That prediction might come true. But it might not. Other factors might come into play that take the industry in a completely different direction.

A different marketing team might have the same information and conclude that people are currently responding well to alternate ways of interacting with internet-connected devices. They decide to put resources behind many of the possibilities that this trend offers (including but not limited to voice). This team has created a much higher opportunity for success.

How do we extract all those possibilities from the analysis of the data? One effective way is to create the stories of the future.

One of my favorite exercises in strategy planning workshops is my take on a process that social scientists call narrative analysis. I ask attendees to take all the trends they currently understand on a topic and create a fictional story of the future that would be possible if those trends play out.

The value of the exercise isn’t to judge whether one story is better or more accurate than another. It’s rather the collected value of the stories that help us understand all the future possibilities.

We tell stories to help us make sense of our lives.

Creating narratives out of the data we have today can help us explore the future.

In some African cultures, a tradition of oral storytelling helps experiences, information, and history pass from one generation to the next. Storytellers are often considered people who can change the path to the future by telling tales of meaning, hope, or vision.

So, too, can we prepare for our futures (plural). We storytellers can use our ability to craft narratives to help define the possible, not just the probable. Instead of predicting one future, we can imagine ways we might thrive in all possible futures.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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