IEET > Vision > Fellows > Jamais Cascio > Futurism
Futures Thinking: Asking the Question
Jamais Cascio   Oct 22, 2009   Fast Company  

In “Futures Thinking: The Basics,” I offered up an overview of how to engage in a foresight exercise. Today, as the next piece in this occasional series, I’ll take a look at the first step in such a process.

“Asking the Question” is the first step in a formal futures thinking project. At first glance, it should be easy—after all, you should know what you’re trying to figure out. Unfortunately, while it may be simple to ask a question, asking the right question is much more challenging It’s easy to ask questions that are too vague, too narrow, or assume the answer; it’s much more difficult to ask a question that can elicit both surprises and useful results.

Remember, the goal of structured futures thinking is to come up with a picture of possible futures that will help to inform strategic decisions. The answers you’ll get from a futures exercise are rarely cut-and-dried, but ideally will help you make your decision more thoughtfully. Futures thinking isn’t a Magic 8-Ball, a process where all you need to ask is “Should we do X?” (and getting “Ask Again Later” as a result is neither useful nor surprising).

It’s a subtle point, but I tend to find it useful to talk about strategic questions in terms of dilemmas, not problems. Problem implies solution—a fix that resolves the question. Dilemmas are more difficult, typically situations where there are no clearly preferable outcomes (or where each likely outcome carries with it some difficult contingent elements). Futures thinking is less useful when trying to come up with a clear single answer to a particular problem, but can be extremely helpful when trying to determine the best response to a dilemma. The difference is that the “best response” may vary depending upon still-unresolved circumstances; futures thinking helps to illuminate possible trigger points for making a decision.

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Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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