Envisioning the Future (It’s a Process)

 By: Dave Nelsen

Here’s something obvious: If you knew what was going to happen in the future, you could make better business decisions, better resource allocations, better investments… today.

Sorry to break the news: We can’t exactly see the future. But what if I told you that I have a simple (and fun) 3-step process that can help you and your team build a more concrete, more probable, and more accurate vision of what’s likely to happen. Then you could make better business decisions, better resource allocations, better investments, … today.

I hereby predict that in the very near future (less than 5 minutes), you will come to understand such a process, and that sometime thereafter, you will use this process with your team to do exactly that. Read on…

This image showcases a vibrant and advanced vision of the future. It features a futuristic cityscape at night, illuminated by bright neon lights and holographic billboards. Towering skyscrapers, a hallmark of modern architecture, are adorned with metallic and glass structures that shimmer in the city lights. The sky above teems with flying cars and drones, weaving through the buildings, while people traverse transparent, elevated walkways that connect these towering structures. The backdrop of a star-filled sky with a crescent moon adds to the scene's dynamic and futuristic aura.

I’ve used this process countless times with more than a hundred groups, with individual clients, and three times to launch my own start-ups, CoManage Corp., TalkShoe.com, and Locaitor.com, the last of which is in the process of being born and is still in stealth mode. Here’s a small hint: In the name, put the emphasis on “AI.”

D*mn this font. Who thought it was a good idea to make a capital “I” (AKA “i”) and a lower case “l” (AKA “L”) look almost identical? Clearly not somebody who wanted to avoid confusing Al (as in Alfred) with AI (as in Artificial Intelligence). In fact, I predict that in the future, when AI (Artificial Intelligence, not Al) becomes much smarter than humans, it will redesign all fonts to avoid such confusion.

What were we talking about again? Oh yes, predicting the future. Here’s the 3-step process:

Step 1:

Considering the many facets of your business, assemble as diverse a group of people as possible. I’m thinking of employees, suppliers, customers, maybe some hippies off the street … because “none of us is as smart as all of us.

We can thank COVID for making it easier than ever to assemble such ad hoc groups because video conferencing is now a universally accepted business tool/skill. Want proof? In December 2019 (pre-pandemic), peak usage on Zoom was 10MM people per day. By the following April (four short months that felt really looooooong), peak usage on Zoom hit 300 MM people. That’s amazing, to say nothing of Microsoft Teams video and other videoconferencing services.

Next, pick your date of interest. It can be any date, but I think most companies would benefit from having a more coherent 5-year vision, so let’s set the date as Jan 1, 2027. With that date in mind, brainstorm with your group, for 10 to 15 minutes, about things that might happen by that point in time. Consider possible technology developments as well as potential market developments. In this step, there are no bad ideas.

Once you have a comprehensive and wide-ranging list, pick one of those scenarios to expand in Step 2. It could be the development you consider to be the most probable, or the most damaging if it occurred, or the most interesting to explore. Step 2 can be repeated for multiple scenarios, one at a time.

Step 2:

Assume that it is now that future date and that the selected scenario has occurred. That’s the mental trick. Put yourself and your team on the other side of it. Discuss the implications of the occurrence. Go on as long as necessary. You’ll almost certainly find that as one person shares an observation, it sparks ideas in others. The conversation is likely to be lively for half an hour or longer.

If you’d like a scenario to get your group warmed up, try imagining the world of autonomous vehicles (entirely possible within 5 years). As people start talking about the implications, the discussion will ping pong from newly productive “ride” time (no longer “drive” time), to where people will choose to live, to fewer accidents, deaths, and injuries, to lower insurance rates, to more vehicles per road lane per hour, to more total miles with fewer total vehicles, to overnight sleeper cars, and so on.

An image depicting a human brain engaged in the imaginative process of contemplating the implications of a future event as if it had already occurred. The brain is vibrantly colored in neon blue, pink, and green, resonating with the color scheme of the previous futuristic cityscape. One half of the brain is detailed and realistic, representing the tangible aspect of thought. In contrast, the other half transitions into an abstract realm, symbolizing the brain's capacity for foresight and retrospection. This abstract area is filled with intertwined elements like clock gears, light trails, and ethereal shapes, creatively illustrating the concept of time being explored and reimagined within the mind.

Step 3:

Having explored the implications in Step 2, the potential threats and opportunities become more evident. You can then choose which to address, which to pursue.

There you have it! As I said in opening, it’s a simple (and fun) 3-step process.

In the late 90’s, my soon-to-be business partner Andy Fraley and I could see the coming change of telecom networks from circuit-based (relatively deterministic and predictable) to packet-based (more complex and statistical in operation). We foresaw the need for new tools to manage such networks and cofounded CoManage Corp to create these tools. Sprint and AT&T Wireless became early customers. CoManage was acquired by Syndesis in 2005.

As that acquisition was nearing completion (and because Syndesis didn’t need a second CEO), I saw a new opportunity for creating audio content for people carrying iPods. I launched TalkShoe.com to allow anybody to essentially host their own talk radio show, broadcast live or on demand to the new army of iPod owners. In 2005, there were no iPhones. That’s why it’s called podcasting. Yes, the technology marched on even as the original name did not. TalkShoe was acquired by Iotum in 2016. The service has been nicely refreshed in their hands and is still going strong after 16 years and counting. Side note: These days, there’s a new TalkShoe-like social audio app called Clubhouse. That company is valued at north of $1B. It turns out that being too early to market is a real thing.

That example notwithstanding, better vision = better business decisions = better results. Try it yourself!

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