Organizations are now operating in a state of chaos and uncertainty, thanks to COVID-19. Planning for the threats and opportunities ahead is an unprecedented leadership challenge—and relying on trusted categories will be futile. Leaders will need to develop the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility—that is, the skill of full-spectrum thinking.
Life during a pandemic is a scramble: an asymmetrical patchwork of urgency, panic, imbalance, and hope.
The future will be a global scramble that will be very difficult to categorize. A full-spectrum mindset will be necessary to have any hint of what is going on. There is a way to see beyond the scramble by looking future-back, rather than present forward. The present is just too noisy to get a clear view.
Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility—while resisting the temptations of certainty. Full-spectrum thinking will be required for us to make sense out of new opportunities and threats amid the scramble. The future will punish categorical thinking but reward full-spectrum thinking.
The scramble will be fraught with toxic misinformation, disinformation, and distrust. In this future, it will be dangerous to force-fit new threats or new opportunities into our old categories of thought. During the scramble, many things that have been stuck will become unstuck. Some things will unravel. The scramblers of the present pandemic world—we see them all around us today—won’t be very good at putting things back together again.
In the scrambled future, you can expect an unusual number of unexpected consequences from the scrambling. You will have a range of creative new options that weren’t on the menu in the past. The future will get even more perplexing over the next decade, and most people—including most leaders—are not ready.
Our old categories will work adequately when new opportunities or threats match prior understanding. Simplistic categorization, however, will be dangerous if people stereotype others superficially or boil new experiences down too far or too fast. People categorize to try and understand, but categorization often yields a superficial or false understanding. Sometimes categorizing demeans or devalues others. Fortunately, new spectrums of thought will become possible in new ways over the next decade.
Neuroscience teaches us that our brains are very good at putting new experiences in old categories. Our brains have evolved to continually categorize and predict what’s next—to try and keep us safe and out of trouble. Even though predicting the future is impossible, our brains do it anyway. When faced with a confusing situation, our brain’s default reaction is fear and dread, fight, or flight. Our minds were programmed in the past to make a continuous prediction of what’s coming next. The brain practices of the past, however, will get us into a lot of trouble in the future.
The emerging future will require us to teach our brains new tricks, to move from unexamined categorical thinking to mindful full-spectrum thinking. Sometimes categories are weaponized to inflict violence. Sometimes people categorize to pretend they understand. Sometimes people categorize to demean or devalue others.
Full-spectrum thinking will help people think future-back (I call it Now, FUTURE, Next), which we urgently need to thrive in the scramble.
I’m often asked how I can do ten-year forecasting so accurately since most people get stuck at one or two years ahead. The answer is because ten-year forecasting is usually easier than one- or two-year prediction. The future-back view is just more clear than present forward. Since future-back thinking is easier and more precise, why not do it?
Here’s what you can do to thrive in the scramble:
Identify signals of full-spectrum thinking and full-spectrum thinkers in your life today. Reward and elevate these in any way that you can. Look for the unevenly distributed futures that are already here in your world. Indeed, there are at least a few full-spectrum thinkers around you already. Certainly, some tools are already there to help people see beyond narrow categories of thought. Find these early expressions, reward them, and build on them.
Look for examples in your world of narrow categorical thinking or labeling that limits opportunity. Certainly, there are also cases where your organization and your fellow workers are judging too soon or labeling too narrowly. Expose the limits of categorical thinking in your organization, in your industry. Seek out categorical thinking and correct it wherever you can—or at least point out the limitations.
Encourage and reward full-spectrum thinking for all levels of learning. Full-spectrum thinking will allow more people to be future-ready, more able to make sense out of new opportunities and threats. Full-spectrum thinking will allow us to make a better future through efforts like training and executive development programs for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and the military.
Imbed NOW, FUTURE, NEXT, into your strategy and innovation processes. Looking future-back makes it much easier to see the full spectrum. The present is just too noisy, and the lure of the past too strong. Most organizations and most leaders think NOW, NEXT, Future—and they don’t spend much time at all in the future. Full-spectrum thinkers should think Now, FUTURE, Next. Many organizations with which I work use something like now, next, future as a strategic framework. Others use similar models like Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3. This is a simple but profound re-ordering.
You should still spend most of your time on the business of now, what many companies call Horizon 1 since that’s where you run your business, make money, and pursue your mission. Since it is easier to see where things are going, if you think ten or more years ahead, it is much better to take this approach than to inch your way out from the present.
Categories won’t go away, and simple categories will work fine when they accurately match a new situation to an old one. But simplistic categories, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes will be exposed for what they are: sloppy and dangerous. Racism, sexism, and other prejudices will be much harder to justify in a world of ordinary full-spectrum thinking skills and capabilities. Future-back thinking will help us all be better prepared for the next pandemic, the next future shock.