Leading Into The Futures

Written by Nick Burnett

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order” Alvin Toffler (1928-2016)

As the quote from Alvin Toffler identifies we are rarely prepared for what the future might bring, and it rarely plays out in the way ‘experts’ predict. We are about to enter a time of exponential change. So, what are the challenges and opportunities this might bring, and how might we navigate these to enable our school communities to have a sense of confidence?

Exponential Change is deceptive, then explosive

The phrase ‘Exponential Change’ is increasingly being used and heard in a wide range of contexts but what does it actually mean? Unlike linear change, which results from repeatedly adding a constant, exponential change is the repeated multiplication of a constant. If you were graphing linear change it would produces a stable straight line over time. Exponential change produces a line that skyrockets.

As David B. Petersen, Director at the Center of Expertise, Leadership Development & Executive Coaching at Google, said recently:

“Things are changing faster. We need to learn faster and better. We need to help leaders learn and adopt faster. Different kinds of things are changing in different ways. We need to learn different kinds of things faster, in different ways. We need to help leaders adapt and innovate in new ways, faster”


Futures Thinking

 “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”—Abraham Lincoln or Peter Drucker

Many in this field deliberately prefer the term ‘Futures’ as opposed to ‘Future’. Futurists use the plural of ‘futures’ because the master concept of the futures field is that of the existence of many potential alternative futures, rather than simply a single future (Voros, 2001)

Futurists work is based on the following premises:

·         The future is not predetermined. At the most fundamental level of nature, the physical processes of the universe are inherently indeterminate. Given this, how could any future stemming out of present physical processes be anything other than indeterminate also? Therefore, there is no, and cannot be, any single predetermined future; rather there are considered to be infinitely many potential alternative futures.

·         The future is not predictable. Although this sounds similar to the previous premise, it is quite different, for the following reason. Even if the future were predetermined, we could never collect enough information about it to an arbitrary degree of accuracy to construct a complete model of how it would develop. And because the future is not predetermined, predictability is doubly impossible; we are therefore able, and forced, to make choices among the many potential alternative futures.

·         Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present. Even though we can't determine which future of an infinite possible variety will eventuate, nevertheless we can influence by the shape of the future which does eventuate by the choices we make regarding our actions (or inaction) in the present (inaction is also a choice). These choices have consequences and so they need to be made as wisely as we know how. (Voros, 2001)

Therefore, in light of these premises, there is a need for us to take responsibility for our futures.

A Futures Tool

There are many ways that have been developed to help us lead into the futures but for this post I will focus on 1 specific approach; scenario planning, which is a widely used approach in the futures studies field.

Scenario Planning

There are a number of scenario planning methodologies available within the futures thinking field and I’m going to share a brief overview of Professor Sohail Inyatullah’s approach. But first it must be stated that scenarios are not predictions, policies, strategies or plans – they identify a limited set of examples of possible futures to help us review current practice and help formulate new ones.

His Futures Triangle, shown in diagram 2, is also a useful tool as it helps us to map our current views of the future through 3 dimensions:

·         The image of the future pulls us forward.

·         The pushes of the present are drivers and trends that are changing the future.

·         The weights of history are the barriers to the change we wish to see.

Nick Burnett 2.JPG

By analysing the interaction of these three forces, the futures triangle helps us better understand the challenges and guides us towards a plausible future.

In terms of developing 4 scenarios Inyatullah recommends the following as a framework:

1.      No change

2.      Marginal change

3.      Adaptive change

4.      Radical change

The following list of 7 futures questions can be helpful to reflecting on the 4 scenarios:

1.      How did we get here?

2.      What do you think the future will look like?

3.      What are the hidden or taken-for-granted assumptions of your predicted future?

4.      What are some alternatives to your predicted or feared future?

5.      What is your preferred future?

6.      How might you get there?

7.      What’s the story title or metaphor that best describes this future?

Inyatullah 2008

Step 7 is seen as important as this provides a compelling image that helps pull us forward as described in the Futures Triangle.

Final words: A note of caution.

The UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (2018) offer some useful cautions around futures thinking:

·         Futures thinking is not a universal cure to all planning ills.

·         Futures thinking is not a substitute for traditional planning.

·         Futures thinking is not an excuse to skip the hard work necessary to realise the desired future.

·         Futures thinking does not provide an alternative to tough structural choices for organisations to become more adaptable

We all know how complex schools are but hopefully this post will help leaders to have increased awareness of some tools and frameworks to lead the futures.

I am presenting a session - Leading Into The Future (s) in the Free Seminar Program at the National Education Summit Brisbane (31 May and 1 June 2019). Come along and say Hi.


Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1), pp. 4–21.

UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellent (2018). Foresight Manual: Empowered Futures for the 2030 Agenda. Singapore

Voros J 2003, ‘A generic foresight process framework’, Foresight,5(3), pp. 10-21.

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