Long-term thinking is important, but it’s surprisingly difficult to do well. Humans are, at our core, very short-term creatures. We find it challenging to invest our time and energy in the practice of thinking systematically about things that might happen, so we can be better prepared for them if they eventuate.
However, we know that we live with major challenges today due to the myopic decisions of the past. The more we build capability in futures thinking, and share insights across diverse disciplines, the better chance we will have of realizing a preferred future, as well as managing risks from potential futures that are inconsistent with our society’s aspirations.
So, what do we need to become better at long-term thinking and leadership? In an effort to know what the prerequisites are for a successful career in futures, I recently asked ChatGPT the following:
What do you think are 10 important capabilities and skills for people working in the field of strategic foresight?
It replied: “Sure, here are ten important capabilities and skills for people working in the field of strategic foresight:
Future thinking: The ability to think critically and creatively about the future, and to imagine a range of possible scenarios and outcomes.
Systems thinking: The ability to think holistically about complex systems and understand how different variables and factors interact and influence each other.
Data analysis: The ability to collect, analyze, and interpret data from a wide range of sources, including quantitative and qualitative data.
Communication skills: The ability to communicate complex ideas and data in a clear and compelling way, both orally and in writing.
Collaboration: The ability to work effectively in interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams, and to build consensus around strategic options.
Strategic planning: The ability to develop long-term strategic plans that are flexible, adaptable, and responsive to changing circumstances.
Innovation: The ability to think creatively and identify new and innovative solutions to complex challenges.
Risk management: The ability to identify and mitigate potential risks and uncertainties, and to develop contingency plans for different scenarios.
Leadership: The ability to inspire and motivate others, and to guide teams and organizations towards a shared vision of the future.
Continuous learning: The ability to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and developments in the field of strategic foresight, and to continuously learn and improve one's skills and capabilities.”
On the face of it, this seemed a perfectly reasonable and comprehensive reply. I might have added a few ideas of my own around opportunity identification (not just risk management), horizon scanning, as well as design thinking and facilitation skills. But the list looked solid as a start. So, I posted it to LinkedIn to see if anyone had any thoughts on potential gaps. Predictably, people had opinions and some other interesting capabilities were proposed. I asked Chat GPT to consider a few of these:
Could you (ChatGPT) please provide an overview of any gaps in your list around applied imagination, participatory futuring, and the importance of pattern recognition capability?
It replied: “Yes, certainly. While the list of capabilities and skills I provided for strategic foresight practitioners is comprehensive, there are some important areas that could be further emphasized.
“One of these areas is applied imagination, which involves using creative and imaginative thinking to explore and develop new ideas, scenarios, and possibilities. In the field of strategic foresight, applied imagination can help practitioners to generate novel and innovative solutions to complex challenges, and to envision future scenarios that might not be immediately obvious. By fostering a culture of applied imagination, strategic foresight practitioners can push the boundaries of what is possible and explore new avenues for growth and success.
“Another area that could be further emphasized is participatory futuring. Participatory futuring involves engaging a diverse range of stakeholders, including customers, employees, and community members, in the process of envisioning and shaping the future. By involving stakeholders in the foresight process, practitioners can gain valuable insights and perspectives that might not otherwise be considered and can build buy-in and support for future initiatives. Participatory futuring can also help to ensure that future visions and strategies are aligned with the needs and priorities of key stakeholders.
Finally, pattern recognition involves identifying and analyzing patterns in data and information from a range of sources, in order to identify trends and patterns that can help to inform strategic decision-making. By recognizing patterns, strategic foresight practitioners can gain insights into potential future scenarios and identify emerging trends and opportunities.”
Just a Cookie-Cutter List
Not bad, I thought.
This gave me a few ideas about areas where I could develop professionally, and how inspiring foresight capability in my colleagues and stakeholders could link to existing strengths, while identifying weaknesses.
But, I then had a feeling of unease.
Many of the skills and capabilities ChatGPT identified in the original list are skills usually acquired by certain kinds of people, with access to certain kinds of educational opportunities. We know that good, long-term thinking requires cognitive diversity and multi-disciplinary perspectives. The last thing we want is a cookie-cutter list of exactly what a budding futurist needs to tick off before they consider themselves a professional.
In other words, who might this list be excluding? What worldviews and assumptions are baked in?
Upon reflection, I think these responses are a good start. But what I truly believe is that diverse groups and teams are best at long-term thinking, not individuals; and what we should strive for as foresight professionals is honing our collaboration and engagement skills as first priority.
We should also think about the qualities that make a good futurist, so I asked ChatGPT:
Which qualities should a person have to succeed in a career in strategic foresight and futures?
It replied: “Great question! In addition to the skills and capabilities I listed earlier, there are also some important qualities that can help someone succeed in a career in strategic foresight and futures. Here are a few:
Curiosity: Strategic foresight practitioners are often curious about the world around them and have a deep desire to understand the complex systems and trends that shape the future. Curiosity can drive a person to seek out new information, ask questions, and explore alternative futures.
Adaptability: The future is inherently uncertain, and strategic foresight practitioners need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and unexpected developments. This requires flexibility, resilience, and a willingness to experiment and try new approaches.
Creativity: Strategic foresight practitioners need to be able to think creatively and imaginatively in order to envision and design new futures. Creativity can help practitioners to generate new ideas, identify emerging trends, and develop innovative solutions to complex challenges.
Critical thinking: Critical thinking involves the ability to analyze and evaluate information, identify assumptions and biases, and develop evidence-based conclusions. In the context of strategic foresight, critical thinking is essential for making sound decisions and identifying potential risks and opportunities.
Empathy: Empathy involves the ability to understand and connect with others, and to consider the perspectives and needs of diverse stakeholders. In the context of strategic foresight, empathy can help practitioners to identify emerging trends and changes in consumer behavior, as well as to build support and buy-in for new initiatives.
Vision: Strategic foresight practitioners need to be able to envision and articulate compelling visions of the future, and to inspire others to work towards these visions. A strong sense of purpose and a clear vision can help practitioners to stay focused and motivated in the face of uncertainty and complexity.
These are just a few of the qualities that can help someone succeed in a career in strategic foresight and futures. By combining these qualities with the skills and capabilities I mentioned earlier, strategic foresight practitioners can develop the expertise and perspective needed to navigate the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly complex and uncertain world.”
I’d like to think that aside from possessing advanced skillsets, our field should be championed by those who cultivate empathy, wisdom, and humility. I really like that ChatGPT picked up on empathy and curiosity.
However, one quality that I think is missing, which is absolutely critical, is humility. This relates to ‘holding strong opinions weakly’ and being ready to challenge our own assumptions, update our thinking, and know well what we are not knowledgeable about. In the age of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which everyone who knows a little about something somehow then considers themselves an expert, I think humility is very important to cultivating long term thinking.
The future is both shared and entirely unknowable; our greatest asset then, is our ability to harness the curiosity and creativity of others, reign in our own assumptions and ego, and explore what is possible, together.
 The concept of applied imagination has been explored by several scholars and practitioners over the years. However, one of the most well-known figures associated with the concept is Alex Faickney Osborn, who is often credited as the father of brainstorming. In his book "Applied Imagination," which was first published in1953, Osborn explored the nature of creativity and the importance of imagination in problem-solving and decision-making.
Claire Havens is an Advisor at the National Security College Futures Hub at The Australian National University. The Futures Hub can be contacted via https://nsc.crawford.anu.edu.au/policy-engagement/futures-hub.