Help sheet: Five principles for thinking about the future

Posted on 07 Feb 2024

By Paul Higgins

Navigate uncertainty

Not-for-profits wanting to face the future with confidence need to do so strategically. Here are five tips to help your organisation navigate uncertainty, from Paul Higgins, futurist, Emergent Futures.

Consider your resources

Before you start thinking about the future, think about the resources you want to commit to the exercise. The reason for thinking about the future is to disturb the present – to change what you do.

This means that if you are committing resources to the thinking, you need to be committing resources to the doing. Otherwise, you are wasting energy and will be worse off.

As a general rule, larger organisations in complex environments should commit more resources than smaller organisations in simple environments.

Futurist Paul Higgins
Futurist Paul Higgins

Pick your time frame

Again, this is very specific to your organisation. If you are in the long-term infrastructure business (e.g. social housing), you need to take a long-term view. If you are in a fast-moving environment with a lot of change, then take a shorter view.

As a general rule, Emergent Futures works in the five- to seven-year time frame. This goes beyond any strategic plan, which reduces the friction people feel when they are asked to reconsider a strategy they think is settled, yet it’s not so far out that people feel disconnected from it.

This is not to say that people should not contest the current strategic plan.

What happens in practice is that people are freed up by going beyond the current plan and then realise that some of the stuff they have talked about should be started straight away. You have to allow that self-realisation to occur.

Involve multiple perspectives

All organisations have biases and blind spots. Involving as many people as possible from inside and outside your organisation is critical to creating insights that deal with this. This should involve people from other sectors, individuals with different cultural backgrounds, a spread of young and older people, and people with different expertise and experience. If you are a small organisation, then involve other not-for-profit organisations in a joint effort and involve your supporters and donors.

Have fun

Many people find thinking about the future hard, but it can be fun. Get people to write short stories or plays and act them out, record TikTok videos, and get access to 3D printers to make stuff. Allow people to look at the improbable and the preposterous.

Create an ongoing system

If you are a large organisation, this may mean designating a group of staff to review the scenarios and stories you have created every six months. Then have them present what has changed and what has not changed and what that might mean to a board meeting for discussion. In smaller organisations, it might mean just allocating an hour in a board meeting every six months to have a wide-ranging discussion on what might affect you in the future.

A final thought

If these principles seem a little vague, then consider the words attributed to an exasperated former US president Harry Truman: “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘On the one hand…' then ‘But on the other….’”

The reality is that what you need to do is very context-specific, and you should adapt these principles to your own needs.

Paul Higgins ([email protected]) is a futurist with Emergent Futures, and is chair of Social Venture Partners Melbourne, which assists not-for-profits that work with disadvantaged young people by providing pro-bono capacity-building and grants.

More information

Paul Higgins: How not-for-profits can face the future

Strategic planning guidance and help sheets

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