Saturday, November 8, 2008

Future Savvy

I don’t usually discuss or review books in this space, so this is an exception. I’ve just read Future Savvy by Adam Gordon (a fellow member of the Association of Professional Futurists), and I think it’s worth sharing.

The premise of the book is that each of us is subjected to a lot of advice about the future, whether in the media, in our careers, newsletter, blogs, etc. Gordon’s point is that you need to understand how to separate the good information from the bad. How to recognize bias and spin.

Gordon lumps nearly all information about trends, forecasts, predictions, market research, and other forward looking information under the term “forecast.” I found that a little jarring at first, but got used to it. He needed a collective term, and that works. He then divides forecasts into two types, “future-aligning” forecasts which help people or organizations prepare for or deal with the future and “future-influencing” forecasts that seek to influence opinions or events in order to change the future in their preferred direction.

Gordon then lays out what I felt was a good mini-course in statistics and surveys, but without numbers or formulas. Just basic ‘how this works’ stuff. Easy to read and understand, while offering the tools for critical analysis of forecasts. He follows that with a chapter on how to recognize bias, both natural and intentional, then asks you to consider your own biases and assumptions.

From that background in critical analysis of forecasts, Gordon moves on to explaining some of the methods used in creating forecasts, including how to use the methods and describing their strengths and weaknesses. This includes a chapter on systems perspective and a chapter on scenarios that is subtitled “How it’s better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.”

The final chapters of the book offer several specific examples of forecasts (including their web addresses) followed by Gordon’s analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each forecast. He then closes with a list of questions the reader should ask (and why) about any forecast.

This book will change the way most readers look at forecasts, projections and surveys, to their benefit.

Although this book is aimed at business readers, I believe Gordon offers advice that anyone can use. We all make decisions about the future every day and we read or hear information about the future constantly. Future Savvy offers some good advice on how to filter that information and how to make better decisions about the future.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Personal Wild Cards

What is a wild card? Futurists describe a wild card event as a low probability, high impact event. Very unlikely to happen, but if it does you won’t forget it soon. Winning the lottery, becoming a parent of quadruplets, being caught up in a war or a natural disaster, or an unexpected inheritance all qualify as personal wild card events.

And why should you be interested in wild cards if they are not likely to happen? Well, actually, I should have said “low probability.”

And why do I bring up wild cards?

This is hurricane season in Texas. For years, I’ve had hurricanes on our wild card list, and we have a contingency plan. This year, we got a direct hit from Hurricane Dolly. Our children and grandchildren in Houston were hit by Hurricane Ike.

The point here is that wild cards do happen.

So when you are thinking about your future, you should try to consider/anticipate your potential wildcards. Here are a few thoughts that have been helpful to me.
1- Which wild cards are plausible or even possible? You only have to put multiple births on your list if there is going to be a pregnancy. If you don’t live near a coastline, you shouldn’t have to consider hurricanes, although you may have other natural forces to think about. If you don’t buy lottery tickets, you know you won’t win the lottery. So you can eliminate a lot of possibilities because they are not only unlikely but nearly impossible.

2- Look in each of your personal domains, the areas of your life where there are forces that bring about events. (Activities, Finances, Health, Housing, Social, Transportation). Ask yourself, “What are the potential wildcards for this domain?” As I mentioned, hurricanes are one of my wild cards, so I’ll keep that example as we go on here.

3- Once you’ve identified some wild cards, think about some “If…then…” strategies. (If this event happens, then my strategy will be…”) Back to hurricanes. Personally, we have contingency plans for hurricanes. First, we carry insurance on our home and belongings. A high deductible keeps premiums low. Second, when we see that a hurricane may hit our area, we protect our home by covering the windows with plywood and bringing outdoor potted plants, hanging stuff, and furniture inside so it can’t crash into something. Third, we pack the car and leave town to spend a few days with family not likely to be impacted by the storm. Fourth, we also have some backup in case we can’t get out of town. Emergency supplies and equipment, so we have food, light, radio, etc. When Dolly arrived, she was a late bloomer. The forecast was for a tropical storm and we got a category II (just barely) hurricane. So we went to our backup plan.

So there are some of the practical steps for dealing with wild cards:
a- Identify possible wild card events in your future.
b- Make contingency plans—If…then…
c- Execute the plan if the wild card event occurs.

Now let’s go back to “high impact events.” Psychologists have conducted research to determine which events in our lives have the greatest impacts on our lives. One study, published in 1967 by Holmes and Rahe established The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. If you Google “Social Readjustment Rating Scale,” you’ll find several entries that include the list with the rankings for each event. Miller and Rahe followed that study in 1997 with an updated version.

The life event ranked highest for impact is “death of a spouse.” If you are young, or even middle aged, this is probably a wild card. If you are in your 80s or your spouse is in bad health (or a very reckless driver), then the event may be more plausible with a greater need for a contingency plan.

Other high impact events on the Holmes-Rahe scale include divorce or separation, jail or incarceration, death of a family member, and major illness or injury. Marriage is at the exact center of the scale.

Now, back to hurricanes. Low probability, high impact events.

A lot of people in Texas had contingency plans for a hurricane. They secured their homes, had emergency supplies and equipment (lots of people in Texas own gas powered generators), and evacuated to higher ground.

A whole lot of people had no plan. Some couldn’t evacuate because they didn’t have transportation, didn’t have anywhere to go (or any money for gas, food, hotel, etc.) or were trapped by early flooding. Some wouldn’t evacuate from high risk areas. Fear of looters, couldn’t afford to travel or had a macho “bring it on!” attitude, or maybe a death wish. Many of those people just did not understand the risks. Maybe they didn’t understand “storm surge” which temporarily raises the level of the ocean and any adjacent bays or waterways.

The lesson here is that when you think about high impact events, it can be helpful to do scenarios, even mini-scenarios: What’s the worst case? What’s the best? A futures wheel can be helpful as well to help you explore the impacts of events. I’ve developed a Personal Futures Wheel that reminds you to explore impacts of events on all six of your personal domains. You can download an example (free) at

Monday, April 21, 2008

Who are your stakeholders?

Maybe we should start with "WHAT is a stakeholder?"

Here’s my definition:

A stakeholder is anyone who has an involvement or interest in your life such that your futures may impact each other.

“..such that your futures may impact each other.” That means that events in your life may impact the stakeholder, and events in the stakeholder’s life may impact your future.

Now we can get back to the WHO. Obvious stakeholders in your life are your spouse, your children, your parents and your spouse’s parents. If you have grandchildren, they are certainly stakeholders. Siblings as well, but probably to a lesser extent because adult siblings tend to have their own families as direct stakeholders.

These are the people who will be most likely to share and benefit from your successes or failures, whether emotionally, financially, socially or physically.

How can stakeholders affect or impact your life?
  • If your father has Alzheimer’s or a serious stroke and your mother is trying to take care of him over a long period of time, your life will probably be affected.

  • If your daughter is married, has a baby or has a divorce, your future will probably be affected.

  • If YOU have Alzheimer’s or suffer a major stroke, your stakeholders will all be impacted.

  • If your child achieves greatness, goes to jail, moves to the other side of the world or just does things that make you proud or make you shake your head, you’ve been affected.

So that is just a little bit of why you should understand stakeholders.

Who has a stake in your life? And where do you have stakes? Besides your immediate family, do you have very close friends that might be stakeholders? Do you have a stake in your boss’s future? Who else has an interest in your success or failure? Your minister? Lawyer? Mortgage holder? Investment broker?

Who would benefit from your success or failure? Who would suffer loss? Or gain?

Now that you’ve explored your stakeholders, let’s bring in the time element and add ten years to your life. Does that change anything? How do any of these relationships change? You and everyone in your family will be ten years older, most of you in another stage of life. There may be new members in your family; children, in-laws, grandchildren. Your boss may be with a different company now. Does that change anything for you? Will retirement change some of your relationships? Probably.

Lots of questions --and only you have the answers. Or can guess at the answers for the future.
And that is why futurists explore stakeholders. Because stakeholders and relationships are an important part of the present, and may be an important indicator of the future.

In July, the World Future Society will be holding their annual conference, this year in Washington DC, july 26-28. Jim Mathews and I will be present a program entitled “Your Family: Stakeholders In Your Future.” As part of the presentation we will discuss the Family Worksheet, an interactive Excel worksheet that plots the relationships between family members ages and life stages. You can download a copy of the worksheet at Go to the “Downloads” page and click on the “Family Worksheet.”

Better yet, come to the World Futures Society Conference and meet us there!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Personal Futures—What?

Personal Futures is simply a system for applying futures (or futurist’s) methods to individual lives. These methods have been used (quite successfully) by corporations and governments around the world for decades. It’s just a matter of scale. And simplicity.

But scaling down was a challenge. Not so much for the futures methods, they scale easily. The problem was the research. The basic information about each individual’s life. Where does an individual start? What are the driving forces? What are plausible and probable events in one person’s future?

In building a systematic approach to personal futures, I suggest three steps:
1-Understanding your life (research).
2-Exploring alternate futures (personal scenario s).
3- Creating a vision, strategies and plans for the future (personal strategic planning).

Which brings us back to that first step, personal research. What can you expect in your future? What are the patterns? What are the universals?

One “universal” is biology, the human life cycle, which breaks down into stages. Life stages were identified centuries ago and can be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks. Psychologists today still recognize life stages. For an individual, each life stage can represent a planning period, and each change of stages represents change in the individual’s life. If one understands or has mental images of the future stages of life, they provide a frame upon which planning can begin.

Another universal lies in six personal domains. Each domain represents a category of forces that exist in every person’s life from birth to death. Recognizing these domains and the forces within them is an important part of understanding your future, because these are the forces that bring about change in your life. The six personal domains include:
Activities- the things we do, including education, career, sports, religion, hobbies, etc.
Finances- everything to do with money, assets, liabilities, and risk.
Health- your health, both physical and mental and any care or medications you receive.
Housing- your home, community, country, climate. All about where you live.
Social- family, friends, neighbors, co-workers. All the people in your life.
Transportation- relates to all modes and aspects of transportation including walking
and distance.

Generally, during any life stage, forces from at least two domains will be dominant during that stage. So, understanding the domains and the forces can help you understand how changes in the forces can produce changes in your life. By projecting how each of the domains, and particularly the dominant domains might behave in the future, it is possible to anticipate changes in your future. For example, if you think of your career as a force of change, how will your career change over the next ten years? How will those changes impact your life?

When something specific happens in your life, we call it an event. Each event in life is part of one of your six domains. Also, each event will occur during one of your life stages. During your lifetime many events occur, and they have two common characteristics that make them of interest to your future:

Although some events are highly probable in your life, many have very little impact on your life. Birthdays for example. Very predictable, but not much impact. As you think about the future, your greatest consideration should be for those events that have both high probability and high impact. These are the events for which you will want to create strategies and plans for your future. These are events that you will have in your personal scenarios and your strategic plan.
Another factor to consider in your personal life is your values. What’s important in your life? Family? Ethics? Career? Money? Power? Which is most important of all? What’s next?
Why values? Because your values are your rudder, steering you through your life. If you really understand what your values really are, you’ll be more likely to choose the right value when you’re under pressure. Little things and big things.

These four areas, life stages, personal domains, life events and personal values contain enough information about your life to help you start looking at your future. Preparing for it. Planning for it. Going beyond wishing and starting to work toward the future you want.

There are some worksheets on my web site that will help you with all this: Or, you can download a free copy of the Personal Futures Workbook there that includes all the worksheets and will take you through the entire personal futuring process.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Using a workbook

When I was doing the research for my dissertation, the intended outcome was simply a system that would allow individuals to apply futures methods to their personal lives. A byproduct of that process was a 20 page workbook that consisted mostly of worksheets.

After I completed the dissertation and the defense, I expanded the workbook, adding some explanation to go along with the worksheets. With that workbook, I conducted some workshops.
In each workshop, I learned something from my students and soon the workbook included more explanation and lots of examples. Eventually it was over 90 pages. Then I added a CD of narrated PowerPoint slides---a workshop in a package.

But printing, distribution costs and shipping all made it a pretty expensive package in my mind, so when I was asked to speak to a group of Engineers in Austin, Texas early in February, I asked if they'd like to try a new approach. I'd send them the Personal Futures Workbook in digital format and they could come to the short (90 minute) workshop with their notebook computers or a printed copy. They liked the idea, so we agreed.

The execution was a bit more complicated than the idea! I had known that there was software available to create and fill out forms, so I was confident I could create the workbook in one of those. Well, yes and no. All the software programs had one or more shortcomings. Many would allow me to create a form that people could fill out. But for some reason, they could not save the completed form on their computer. Except in the new version of Adobe Acrobat

Frankly I had avoided Acrobat for two reasons. It was expensive and I had purchased Adobe software before. I had used that software to write a book, which was such a painful experience that I've never used it since. But I put that behind me and purchased the Acrobat software, figuring I'd get through the experience somehow. Then, surprise! Adobe gave me acess to about 12 hours of tutorial videos. Wow! That made the difference.

I slimmed the workbook down to just over 50 pages, created forms fields with my new Acrobat software, had several futurist friends try it out and tweaked it some more. Then I sent it to the engineers in Austin.

Two weeks later I went to Austin for the meeting. I was told that their organization had never had so many people show up at a meeting. I spoke to them about Personal Futures and how to use the workbook. I answered questions from time to time as we went along, and at the end had a lot of questions. GOOD questions. A good experience.

So now the Personal Futures Workbook is available on my web site, free. It includes a Creative Commons license that permits copying and sharing. Teachers can freely give copies to their students. You can send them to friends, grandkids or anyone else.
You can download it free at

One more feature. All copies carry permission to make comments via Adobe Reader about any portion of the workbook. Anyone can make suggestions, comments, criticisms about anything in the workbook and send their comments to me by email. Hopefully, this workbook will just get better.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beta test the future

For the past few weeks, I’ve been going through the Personal Futures Workbook, trying to review and re-think everything in it. I’m slimming it down, trying to make everything clear and simple, yet retaining the stuff that works. Ultimately, this will be the electronic version. Save it in your computer, make a copy and start typing, filling in and planning your future.

What got me moving in this direction was an invitation to speak to a group of technology managers in Austin in February. They had seen an article on personal futuring that I had written for The Futurist a year and a half ago. I decided to turn the talk into a mini-workshop. The electronic version of the workbook will be posted on the group’s web site and they will be asked to either print out a copy or load it into a notebook and bring it to the meeting. Then we’ll go through the steps of how to fill out and use the workbook.

In the past, when I’ve spoken to groups, I’ve handed out a miniature version of the workbook. It was enough to give an idea of what the workbook was about, but not anything you could really use to plan your future. Of course, you could go to my web site and order the workbook, but… even doing everything myself, printing costs and postage costs made the workbooks expensive. Especially overseas. Although I was selling workbooks, I decided that was not what I was really after. And I had to stop and think about that. What am I after here? What do I want to accomplish with my concepts about applying futurist methods to personal lives?

The answer is distribution. As widely as possible. I really believe that long-term thinking and planning can change people’s lives. I have been told by people who attended my workshops that their lives had been changed, but I’m not likely to talk to enough people, conduct enough workshops or sell enough workbooks to make much of a difference.
So, the decision to go to an electronic version that can be shared, emailed, copied, translated.


But first, I need some help. Beta testers. You?

I’d like help to test the electronic workbook in every sense. Does it really work? Can individuals successfully plan for the future? Does it work mechanically…easy to copy, easy to use, fill in the blanks and save. Does it work with your computer operating system and software?

Would you like to be a Beta tester for the future? If so, send me an email with “Beta” on the subject line. I will not share your email address with anyone, but I will send you a “Beta” copy of the Personal Futures Workbook. And I’ll ask for your opinions.

I’ll hope to hear from you.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Basics: What futurists believe

Obviously, I can’t speak for all futurists, but the futurists I know share some common beliefs about the future. Understanding these beliefs may be helpful as you think about your own future. One scholar/futurist, Dr. Wendell Bell, has summarized these core beliefs in a list of twelve assumptions that futurists make when they consider the future. Bell’s two-volume, Foundations of Future Studies (1997) is a classic among futurists.

I’m not going to go into all twelve of Bell’s assumptions, but I will discuss three beliefs that I think are at the core of futurist belief and most important to individuals.

The first is that the future is not predetermined.
Bell and other futurists add the qualifier “totally” as in “not totally predetermined.” OK. But the important point here is that if the future is not totally pre-determined, there is more than one possible future. There are alternative futures. There may be good futures, bad futures, unimagined futures… but there is more than one future. This concept of alternative futures leads us to scenarios. The scenario methods (there are at least a dozen variations) are all based on the concept of alternate futures.

Which brings up the next belief, some futures are better than others.
Some futures may be really good and others may be really bad. Do we have choices? If you could choose your future, you would probably choose the future that is best for you. Futurists call this the “preferred” future. By itself, this belief seems small, obvious, not really too important. But, when combined with the third belief, preferred futures take on considerable importance.

The third core belief is that actions we take in the present can influence the future. Notice that statement says “can” not “will.” No promises! This is why strategic plans contain an action plan. Exploring the future does not change anything. Exploring the future, with scenarios for example, only tells you what may be or could be. Developing strategies and making plans does not change the future. Not until actions are taken can change begin.

Contingency plans do not change the future. They provide strategies for dealing with the future when it arrives. And this is one of the key faults or weaknesses of strategic planning. The future does not begin to take direction or change until action is taken.

That simple.

To achieve a preferred future, or your vision of the future, you must take action. You can make great plans and develop excellent strategies, but until you act on either your plans or your strategies, they are simply wishes for the future.

In my first personal strategic plan, about ten years ago, I determined that I wanted to write. Be published. I had known all my life that I liked to write and wanted to write, but I hadn’t. I put writing in my plan and started taking action. I’m writing now. I’ve been published, even paid for writing. That will continue to be a part of my future. But it wasn’t until I made the decision to act, and write.

Futures methods work.
You can make decisions about your future, now.
You can act on those decisions.
That is how you make your future.