Challenge 8 – Building Strong Relationships
Another key practice challenge in improving our thinking and acting about the future is building strong relationships with our colleagues and clients. It is usually the strength of our relationships, and only very secondarily the quality of our foresight, that determines our career success. Many future thinkers ignore this truth, to their own detriment.
Thinking hard about the future inevitably makes you unique among your peers. It’s easy for others to judge that uniqueness as a weakness, labeling the future thinker as someone wrapped up in dreams and fantasies. What makes future thinking strong is when it is shared, with critical peers, and consensus foresight emerges. Building relationships, which involves caring for the whole person, not just their futures interests, are how we build shared predictions, possibilities, and visions.
You can always begin as an armchair futurist, spinning stories for your own consumption. But that is a dangerous place to stay, as you will quickly veer off into fantasy if you don’t share your future stories, and start to critique and prioritize them, within a group. It is usually easiest to develop foresight in change-permissive communities of novelty seekers, trend watchers, and futurists, so looking for a few fellow future thinkers is a great place to start, and we’ll mention a number of such groups later in this chapter. If you have an interest in the future and do not have such critical first relationships with others, it will greatly stunt your abilities to do this kind of curiosity dependent, learning oriented, imaginative, and politically sensitive thinking. Fortunately, with the rise of social networks and online communities, no one with access to the web is now likely to have their future thinking stunted by lack of access to fellow futurists and foresighters. Still, it is a challenge to the right group of individuals, and to have video and offline interactions with them to supplement the drawbacks of online relationships.
Finding a group of honest, ego-restricted, future oriented colleagues who will help you critique your own future thinking is tough, but a necessary first step. Building strong and mutually beneficial relationships with our clients is another level up in both difficulty and importance. Foresight professionals have to help others find their own visions, within their own cultures, which will often be slightly or largely different from ours and may be significantly more change-averse, with some shared values but also a few very different values. We need to respect the differing values and world views of our clients, empathize with them, and build relationships, helping as we can. Over time, as trust grows and relationships strengthen, we will have greater ability to influence our clients.
Anthropologists tell us that our human psychology has barely changed in recorded history, even as our science and technology continue to accelerate. Psychology is a feature of humanity that you can study, and become good at navigating. Being an intuitive student of psychology in all its forms, normal and abnormal, individual and group, will help you understand what is predictable in that domain. That predictive understanding will help you better navigate the myriad political and personal issues, most of which are unpredictable in their timing and specifics, that continually arise when dealing with conflicting and competing values, goals, and world views about the future among your clients and their stakeholders.
For surveys of the rich landscape of human psychology and its timeless aspirations, books of proverbs and maxims on living well, like Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 1647, and texts like Walter Mischel’s Introduction to Personality, 2007, and his excellent The Marshmallow Test, 2014, and David Myer’s Psychology, 2011 are great places to start. A healthy understanding and respect for psychology, and a commitment to building helpful, empathic relationships, will help you navigate the subtleties of interpersonal and social foresight. Ethically, you must also strive to understand the needs and issues of those who will be affected by the futures you and your clients seek to predict, create, and lead.
We will say more about managing our own and other’s predictable psychological tendencies and biases in Chapter 2. For now, let’s briefly consider two psychological challenges that seem particularly important to creating great foresight: balancing truthfulness and compassion in our work. Foresight professionals must to learn a degree of fearlessness in telling the most truthful and evidence-based stories they can. Inevitably, a truth-based approach will end up costing you business with some of your clients. How much it costs depends on how strong your relationship is with your client, how skillful you are at navigating human psychology, and the manner and timing you use to tell your truths, as you see them.
Here’s one reasonable rule of thumb for balancing fearlessness and compassion in your practice. If you don’t occasionally lose some clients, both individuals and organizations, as a result of your foresight work, and if you don’t occasionally lose some members of your audience as a futurist, you very likely aren’t being truthful enough. You’re instead being the safe, vanilla, evidence-minimized “soothsaying” futurist in Othmar’s The Futurist, 2007, first finding out what your audience wants to hear, and then telling them some version of their own perspective. This strategy, done well, will certainly pay your bills, but it will cause no meaningful change.
At the same time, if you don’t have at least a handful of strong relationships, advisors, and ideally, paying clients in every industry and profession that you tell stories about, you may not be being sufficiently compassionate or accurate with respect to that profession. For a common example for those on the left of the political spectrum, if your foresight stories paint all big corporations, the defense department, or the executive branch as “the enemy”, or for those on the right, the immigrants, criminals, certain ethic or religious groups, public schools, welfare, or the nanny state as “the enemy”, without seeing, championing, and working with the heroes, reformers and innovators within each of these and any other oft-vilified groups, you may be becoming too extreme in your views, and your foresight quality will suffer.
Insufficient truthtelling in their foresight work is a common problem in many large management consultancies. It can be less common in boutique consultancies, if they are run leanly, are fiscally conservative (maintaining a surplus for lean times), and if they have the discipline to pick and choose clients they are most likely to be able to help. A good foresighter tells their uncomfortable evidence-based stories as gently as they can, while treading lightly around client fears and arrogances. They do so despite their own reasonable fears of unjust retaliation (“killing the messenger”). They do this in order to best catalyze positive change.
If the foresighter remains empathetic and compassionate, while they may occasionally lose some clients with their truthtelling, they will also gain loyal new allies in others if their foresight is valuable. If you find your consultancy constantly forcing you to cater to faulty, fearful, or arrogant client assumptions and biases, and to greatly water down the truth of what you have to say, it’s probably time for you to change jobs. Just be sure you and your family haven’t gotten dependent on that great salary, and you’ll have the freedom to overcome your own fear of change.
Another important balance in building strong relationships, both with your clients and within their own organizations, is between fear and confidence. It is easy to be either too fearful or too confident. We need always need a little of both.
Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit Crisis Points that Challenge Every Company (1999) is still my top-recommended book for understanding the great value of reasonable fear, and crisis exploitation, for generating change in large organizations. But fear can easily go too far, or go on too long. If you think your client’s workplace is too fearbound, with leaders stifling individual contributions, Rieger’s Breaking the Fear Barrier, 2011, a Gallup book, will diagnose fear levels on the team. Have the relevant stakeholders take the test anonymously, and it will tell you how fearful folks are of speaking and acting on their own initiative. Simon’s In Sheep’s Clothing, 2010 explores organizational conditions that allow abusive, manipulative, deceptive, and unfair managers and leaders, the ones that cause the most drama and fear in any team. If a team is unable to diagnose and move their more autocratic and abusive leaders out of direct management positions, or at least restrict their input to strategy, that team will likely remain too fearful and restricted for effective group foresight to emerge.
Overconfidence brings its own challenges. Carroll and Mui’s Billion Dollar Lessons, 2009, explores how groupthink (overconfidence in one particular story, and group punishment of those who speak out against it) have combined to lead many well-funded star management teams into some of the greatest business failures in history. Think of Kodak, Xerox, BlackBerry, Sears, Kmart, IBM, Enron, Conseco, GM, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, and many others. Carroll and Mui cover classic high-risk activities associated with failures, and offer practical ways to avoid groupthink. See Janus’s classic, Groupthink, 1982 for older examples.
As you experience career success, you will have to keep your growing confidence in your abilities from becoming overconfidence. If you become a leader, you will also have to learn how to help others find that balance as well. Leadership methods that teach you how to develop your direct reports as leaders themselves, like Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, 2002, and David Marquet’s Intent-Based Leadership, covered in Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (2013) are excellent tools in striking that balance.
In sum, all your relationship building and foresight work will move, as the late management scholar Stephen Covey said, at the “speed of trust.” It will depend directly on the strength of your personal and professional relationships. His son, Stephen M.R. Covey, conveys this well in The Speed of Trust, 2008. It offers practical steps any organization can take to grow interpersonal and group trust, and is a great place to start in putting relationships first in your foresight work. We’ve ended our “sins of foresight” on this, challenge, to keep it fresh in your mind, as it really is one of the top challenges of any career in helping others to look further and act better in their own futures.