Understanding the future in a tangible way

Tangible Futures, Part 1: Background

I’m starting a series of posts to talk about something we’re calling Tangible Futures, which are tangible expressions of visions for the future. That might sound quite ordinary or quite esoteric depending on your point of view, but having worked on it for several months I’m finding it to be a useful practice for the business community in a number of ways.

In this post I’ll try to tie together some important ideas that people have been brave enough to express:

Companies Need a Vision of the Future. John Hagel:

…Ask these same CEOs and their management teams two simple questions:

  1. What will your relevant markets look like five to ten years from now?
  2. What will your company need to do in order to thrive in these markets five to ten years from now?

Almost always, the answer will come back that there’s just too much uncertainty to have a clear point of view on this. But, here’s the rub: If the senior management team of a company doesn’t have a clear point of view on where the company is headed, why should investors put a lot of faith in the long-term performance of the company?

Business ideas must go beyond communication and help people change. David Maister:

The real question is: what are the methodologies that really help people change their lives when they understand messages like [Peter] Drucker’s and Tom [Peters]’s? What should they/we be doing differently with our books, our speeches, our videos? Is there a more effective way to actually help people change and make a difference on the world?

Strategic Change Is Useless Without Cultural Change. Tom Peters:

If Drucker and Bennis and Collins and Peters and Co… are/were so damn smart-wise, why is corporate performance so shabby in general?… Strategy don’t matter for diddly if the corporate culture is disfunctional or mis-aligned.

To combine these ideas, we could say that companies need a vision of the future that helps them achieve cultural change. This vision could help executives see future opportunities in a new way. The vision could help executives communicate these opportunities downward (or the reverse could happen, employees communicating opportunities upward).

But this doesn’t often happen now. Some of the problem has to do with the way strategies and forecasts are constructed, which I’ll address in an upcoming post. Some of the problem is simply a fault of the media employed: text and images can communicate ideas, but (at least in a business setting) fail to impart the richness of future situations. And they don’t spark strong emotional reactions that inspire people to care and act differently. We have richer, more interactive media at our disposal: film, theater, environments, computer simulation, and so on. It’s time to start employing them in the service of business strategy.

In the next few posts I’ll show some examples, look at how we can integrate this practice with futures studies, and talk a little about how we can start making tangible futures.


  1. I guess this adds a fourth circle to your MIG diagram.

    I believe vision is central to any organization. I have been in organizations with strong focus on vision (lucky enough I started my career here) and ones in which there was a stated Vision, but it was not believed in or communicated.

    Vision ties employees emotionally to an organization – we are all humans finally, just running after dollars is not as exciting as building the best product.

    Which get to your point about communicating it well, as it should excite people. One of the earliest implementations of Design Thinking that I have seen corporate circle was about a decade ago.. On the company’s annual day, the leadership team decided to shrink the size of the Podium, so that all employees (about 2000 in a single auditorium) could see them. It had an impact, as employees could see the body language of these guys and not just hear their words. They could communicate their passion towards next years plan much better.


  2. Thanks for citing me in this piece. I think some light is shed on the discussion by bringing it closer to home for each of us as individuals.

    In my article “Strategy and the Fat SMoker” ( http://davidmaister.com/articles/4/42/ ) I point out that the barrier to improvement for all of us is not that we don’t know what to do, or why, or how.

    We are even, on occasions, inspired by the vison (I can be an exercising, fit non-smoker?)

    However, like most businesses we are not working the program because it’s “pain today, gain tomorrow.” If we are to improve, we need great coaches who will help us stick to the program.

  3. Thanks David, I enjoyed that article and agree with it (as with your books that I’ve read!).

    I should explicitly position Tangible Futures in terms of innovation. In this kind of change we don’t know what to do, by definition, because we haven’t invented it yet. We know smoking is bad for us and what it looks like to stop. But, to take a hypothetical example, what does it look like for General Motors to stop selling cars and be a sub-contractor to Toyota? It’s barely imaginable to GM now, but as an alternate future it might be a desirable strategic goal.

    I think a tangible future like this could help build the resolve you discuss in your article. Once the client has the will, the kind of coaching and leadership you discuss comes into play, and I agree is vital to achieving real improvement.

  4. Much like your “biz-unit managers who want to innovatively disrupt their own market” post, I think it might be worth questioning whether it’s even realistic/appropriate to aim for such a transition.

    It’s very hard to serve both a current and future environment with the same resources. You almost have to create a completely parallel skunkworks organization (other than infrastruture). Are you going to have some of your most innovative people stop creating new stuff for your “current” market, so they can work on the future? How are your customers going to feel about that?

  5. I agree, but we’re not (always) using tangible futures for new development purposes. Having a tangible vision of the future that everyone agrees on could help align current work. For example, one of my clients, a software company, has salespeople that promise each customer a new feature enhancement, which drives the product managers crazy. Perhaps if the salespeople saw what the next generation of the product could do they would have a way to excite and appease the customers, essentially leading the way instead of passively responding to requests.

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