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Why Futurists Hold the Key to a Company’s Success

What is Futures Studies
  • June 06 2020
10 minutes to read

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Futures Studies may be the lesser-known cousin of the MBA, but it’s gaining recognition as an integral part of any successful business strategy. But don’t take our word for it –  we recently spoke to Adri Saayman, a Futures Studies alumnus. Since graduating from the MPhil programme, she’s gone on to apply Futurist principles successfully at PSG Consulting, as Head of Public Relations

This is her take on Futurism, and what companies can gain by incorporating its insights into their operational strategies: 

What is Futures Studies?

How do you study the future, and what do Futurists do? I’ve always opted for the straight-forward explanation that Futures Studies is focused on long-term strategy and planning, studying the macro trends that shape the future. 

Futures Studies has also evolved into a discipline that looks for solutions to complex problems, by using a specific set of tools and methodologies that have been built up over the years. The best known of these is scenario planning and causal layered analysis. 

How do futurists think about the future?

A futurist is an active participant when it comes to planning and strategy. More than anything, we understand that the future is malleable and that we can shift it depending on what we want to achieve. 

We may think of the future as clay. You can shape it, but you can’t make whatever you want either. There are limits to what you can do with the clay you’ve been given. Often, understanding the limitations or barriers to shaping our idealised future can be as valuable as coming up with that ideal in the first place. For me, the corporate set-up is often where futures thinking has helped me most. 

Is Futures Studies about predicting the future?

Very few serious futurists would claim to predict the future! The future is not singular. It’s open to many possible outcomes, and the actions we take help to shape the outcomes we achieve. However, history and current circumstance will point us in a certain direction — for this reason, the future is not a blank slate. There are some things we do know and can anticipate with a high degree of certainty, while other things are more uncertain. 

Futurists can put the puzzle pieces together for what we know and then identify potential outcomes. For example, we know that cryptocurrencies have some characteristics that make them very useful to people, and we can therefore anticipate that they may be used more widely in future. We also know there are some barriers that may mean that people won’t use them as easily as physical money, or that governments may start to regulate them (as we are now starting to see). Given these factors (or macro-trends), we can then sketch alternative futures and start mapping likely outcomes. 

How does a futurist’s approach to problem solving help in the corporate environment?

Futures Studies focuses on systems thinking, and my training has really shifted the way I approach many situations. For example, complex systems often fail to behave as we expect them to. I’m sure many of those in corporate settings are well-familiar with the phenomenon of coming up with a new strategy and trying to implement it, only to find in 12-to-18 months that little has changed in reality. 

Because complex systems comprise many different, interacting parts, and because complex systems have their own emergent properties, changes to the system can often result in unintended consequences. This is part of why corporate plans fail and why many companies never successfully implement the changes they want to. 

With a futurist’s help, companies could spend time defining the problem correctly upfront and look at the systemic interactions that shape the situation. Often, the ‘problem’ people set off to solve is only a symptom, and not the actual problem at all, or they fail to anticipate how the system will react to or resist changes. By designing a strategy with this broader understanding in mind, companies are more likely to succeed in its execution.

Do you think you need to work as a futurist to find Futures Studies valuable?

Foresight practitioners are valuable to any business, regardless of where they sit or what their job description is. Futurists bring unique, practical thinking tools to everyday situations. While Futures Studies may sound exotic, futurists are actually highly trained analytical thinkers who approach complex problems in a specific way. 

Why do you think Futurists are becoming more valuable to businesses?

We all understand that the pace of change is accelerating. The COVID-19 pandemic has just emphasised how uncertain things are, and how important it is to be adaptable to change. 

Futurists are trained to look beyond the obvious – at the often-unseen systemic interactions that shape our world. They are trained to lift their heads out of the fog of daily routine, and to plan for the future they want to realise given all the uncertainty that surrounds us. This is a valuable skill for any business — and I honestly believe having more futurists around will make a positive difference to business outcomes. 

Smart insight begins with world class training

A futurist’s discernment is backed by more than just intuition — the best are backed by world class training programmes such as those at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). 

Futures Studies graduates increasingly play key roles in business success, and you could be one of them. Cultivate an integral role in your company, by making critical, strategic decisions for long-term gains, and help your company build resilience in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing world. Learn more about the internationally accredited Futures Studies programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, along with their PGDip, Mphil and PhD offerings. Find out more about the role USB can play in your career and business growth, today.  

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