A generation ago the saying "The Future is Now!" celebrated the presentness of a hope in the future. It foresaw the acceleration of change that compresses our experience of time.
I used to see this frequently in planning projects. The five year plans we'd create, often would take only 18 to 24 months to complete. The sense of time that people had was off kilter. Much more could be done than they imagined. The limiting factor? Seeing beyond the present. Or, to put it another way, being able to identify a future that was truly tangible, beyond the aspirations of today, in which they could root their present actions.
Through these experiences, I often saw its contrasting attitude, not the inability to truly grasp the future, but rather resistance to it. I would hear,"What's wrong with the way we've always done things?"
The traditions and cultural forms, as I wrote about in Bringing the Past into Future, replaced the values that were their inspiration. Instead of a vision of the future, a nostalgia for the golden days of the past provided motivation of resistance to the future rather than engagement.
Whether it is a nostalgia for the past, or a shallow adherence to current organizational fads, the lack of a tangible vision of the future makes it difficult for people and their organizations to develop the adaptive skills needed in a environment of accelerating change.
Resistance to the Future
A resistance to the future is based in part on the lack of personal confidence to venture into the unknown of the future. It is easier to stay with what is comfortable and known of past ways of doing things. It is also in part how we approach the future, or how we bring our past experience to the task of envisioning the future. It is worth restating what I wrote in The End and the Beginning.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
If resistance to the future is part confidence, part approach, its also part, the lack of skills in managing change or in knowing how to adapt.
Adapting to the Future already in the Present
To adapt is to change on the fly. It isn't a linear process. It is an emergent process. Each adaptive moment moves into a new context of change. It isn't staying in one place and defending the palace against the barbarian hords of change. It is rather like being in conversation with different aspects of the future, very quickly and progressively.
For example, you walk into a room and within two minutes have a twenty second conversation with a 90 year German World War II veteran, a 10 year old girl from St. Louis in a soccer uniform, a thrity five year old couple from Miami with twin 6 year old boys, the 65 year old Japanese CEO of a global communications business, a 16 year old social entrepreneur from Sri Lanka and your great grandmother. Each encounter requires you to shift your attention from one person to the next. And if each relationship was intended to go somewhere, then within those twenty seconds, you'd have to quickly be engaged in who they were, find common ground and define a shared responsibility for the relationship in the future.
Sounds daunting. But that is what adapting means. The needed skills are a quiet personal confidence that enables you to be the same person with each of those listed in the example, and a tangible vision of the future that provides a conceptual context for the relationship.
This sort of adaptation goes hand in hand with innovation. It is a learned skill, not a personality trait.
See Social Creatives' Six Habits of Highly Effective Social Entrepreneurs as a model for creating a tangible future in the present.
Those who are involve in technological innovation work in an arena where adaptation is central to their experience of bringing the future into the present. See my post about 3D printing and watch Tony Atala's TED video on regenerative medicine.
These examples may suggest that these are for extraordinary people in unique places. Yes and No. In one sense this is true. They are extraordinary people, but only because the learned to become extraordinary. They developed the confidence and the capacity to adapt. In another sense, they are no different than you or I. They are just further down the path toward the future than most of us. This is one of the core values behind the children and youth social entrepreneur site, RandomKid: The Power of ANYone, (Disclaimer: I chair the board of RandomKid).
Creating a Vision of a Tangible Future
Ask this question of yourself and your organization.
Are you best days / years ahead of you or behind you?
How you answer that question will determine how you relate to the future.
A tangible future can be difficult to imagine because the past is actually not very tangible either. It is an amalgam of memories and impressions attached to random situations, people and objects that represent to us what we selectively remember our past to be. One person remembers a conversation one way, and another a different way.
Our remembrance of the past changes day to day. It is constantly shifting. We can remember a traumatic situation that leads us to view the future with bitterness and cynicism. Then, encounter someone who's perspective sheds light on our experience so that we see it differently. In the space of a few moments, our feelings that our best years are behind us shift to hope and optimism about the future. All of sudden a tangible future begins to form in our minds.
What has taken place within us? What is the source of this change? It isn't simply the influence of someone's different perspective.
What we've experience is the Future being brought into the Present. All of a sudden, with a flash insight, we see something in the future which is real. It is tangible. We feel we can reach out and grasp it. We want it. Our sense of purpose and self-confidence in a moment has changed. We are different. We have adapted to a new context, a context where the future is here now.
The Future Begins with an Idea
This question about the relation of time to our lives is one that I've reflected upon for a long time. The relation of the past to the future and of the future to the present exists in time. It also exists outside of time. What we remember about the past that we wish to be a part of our future are conceptions of the way we want our life and work to be.
At the most fundamental level, we are talking about ideas.
Several years ago, I conducted a project with a mid-size corporation to develop a values statement for the company. The planning team was a mixture of mid-level managers, Union leadership and a senior vice president. One of the refrains we heard from the group was, "We want to get back to a time when the company was more like a family." Over the years, things had changed. The company had gone through a scandal with some top executives. Perception by some was that the company's best years were in the past.
Here's a situation where a rememberance of the past influences people's expectations of the future. For this team, being a family meant something. The question was what does this mean. For not every employee has a positive experience of being a family. As we went through our process, four ideas came to the front that provided a way to understand the past in order to create the future that they desired.
Those ideas were Respect, Trust, Integrity and Pride.
It would have been easy to take those words and turn them into slogans for an internal marketing campaign. The result would not have been a tangible future of respect, trust, integrity and pride in practice, but continued cyncism about the role of leadership in the company.
But that is not what happened. The company instituted a program of culture building around these ideas.
The first step was to introduce the values to the whole company through small gatherings of employees where they would participate in a discussion of the values and their historic place in the company.
Next, leadership training was instituted for middle managers so that they could implement or "operationalize" the values within their work areas. The purpose was to make the values of respect, trust, integrity and pride live in the functioning of each department. In effect, the process was equipping new leaders to solve problems and resolve issues before that became to big.
Today, the company is recognized as one of the nation's most trustworthy companies.
I share this story to emphasis a point about what it means to bring the future into the present.
For many organizations the past is represented by traditions and cultural forms. A cultural form could be any practice that is regularly done in which the original rationale has been lost. The future for those companies consists, in many respects, as an attempt to preserve those traditions and cultural forms into the future.
The alternative is to recognize that behind every tradition or cultural practice is a value that matters or at one time used to matter to people and their organization.
Another key to understanding for how to bring the future into the present is to understand where our values fit in.
Let me be clear about this. I'm not talking about those values that are divisively used to distinguish one organization or association from another. Those values of the negative other have no place in creating a positive, tangible, sustainable future. They are representative of past traditions and cultural forms that have lost their meaning. I say this primarily in anticipation of the distastful unpleasantness that is about to descend upon our country called a Presdential election.
A tangible future is one where values matter in practice, not just in theory. So, if respect, trust, integrity and pride matter, then they matter in practice. If customers matter, then they matter in practice, not just in advertising copy. If innovation and impact matter, then the organization will adapt to make it possible for those values to make a difference in the future.
In order to understand how a value matters, ask this question.
If this value was functioning at its highest capacity, if it was reaching and sustaining its potential, then what would, 1) it look like if we were to shoot a video of its performance, and, 2) be the change we would see as a result?
Impact or difference is change. If something changes, it can be measured in some way. What is it that is changing when this value is a living practice in your organization? Can you identify at what level it is operating today? Can you see things to change so that it can grow a little bit more today, tomorrow, next week? If you can, then you are seeing a tangible future being brought into the present.
If you can answer this, then you can envision the future. If you can envision the future in a tangible way, then you can identify what must change to make it happen. This is how the future is brought into the present.
This is true not just about values, but especially of each of the Connecting Ideas - Mission or Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. Make them tangible for today, then you can see how they will be in the future.
When you do, what happens is that old traditions and cultural forms that no longer are empowered by their original values can be discarded, and new ones formed.
This means that you have a reached a definitive transition point in your life and work. A clear point of change that either leads towards decline or advancement. When you do, it is important that you discard dead traditions and cultural forms in a way that becomes a tangible moment of remembrance in the future. As you do, the values that guide you forward will find new traditions and cultural forms to serve as their vehicle for their practice.
Remember, those traditions and culture forms are nothing more than tools for making our values tangible in our daily life and work. Develop new tools, hold true to your values.
Three Things We Want Now and in the Future
I've written before about my observation that people want three things in their life. They want it to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and Make a Difference that Matters. Ask yourself today the following questions.
1. Where do I find meaning in my life and work? What are the values that matter to me most in what I seek to do each day? What activities do I regularly do that support what is meaningful to me?
2. Who are the people that matter most to me? How am I fulfilled by being with them? What are the values that matter to us? How do we practice them together? What are the traditions and cultural forms that we use to celebrate the values we share with one another?
3. What do I do that I feel makes the greatest difference to people? Where do I see my actions creating change? If I was to continue to develop the confidence and skills to make this difference, what do I see myself doing in the future that is different from today? Am I at a transition point in my life and work as it relates to the impact that I am having?
What then is the tangible future that you can begin to create today?
The Future is Now. The future is an idea, a tangible idea that provides for us a point on the horizon to lead us forward. Our idea is a value or values that defines for us meaning, fulfillment and the difference we can make. When our idea becomes clear then we know what we must do. And a tangible future becomes a reality that we can reach.
Picture: Some rights reserved by H.L.I.T.