Dr David Trafford & Peter Boggis
Individually, each of us have a default future; as do our businesses, families, communities and societies. It’s the place we will end up if we take no action other than that currently planned. If the default future is aligned with your ambition and aspirations, then simply enjoy the experience and be sure to keep on track. If it is not aligned, then a sense of anxiety, frustration and helplessness can result.
It’s part of the human condition to wonder what our default future will be. It’s something we all do to a degree – and for some of us it’s something we worry about deeply. When parents see their child missing school or getting in with the wrong crowd, they think of what the future will hold if they continue on this path. When a person is told they have a life-threatening illness, they immediately want to know what their chances of survival are and what quality of life they should expect. Equally, leaders of businesses, both small and large, constantly think about the future of the organisation for which they are accountable, including the people whose livelihoods depend upon their leadership. Thinking about our default future is something we do every day; we create a mental model of that future and wonder what it would be like to live that experience.
But it’s one thing thinking about our default future, it’s another to confront it. Confronting your default future is not only about understanding that future, but also exploring what options are possible to change your trajectory, to one that leads to a different – and better – future. A process that involves:
1. Understanding your default future. As we have already discussed, this involves mentally modelling what the future might be if you take no action, other than that currently planned. It’s essentially doing a ‘fast forward’ assuming that the current context doesn’t significantly change. A good place to start is assuming that the future is a continuation of the past.
2. Assessing the current trajectory. The trajectory that is taking you to your default future is determined by the context within which you operate. And this context is defined by a set of forces, some of which are within our control and some which are not. At a personal level these forces include your environment, physical and mental health, age, sex, family, community and, of course, the organisation within which we work. At an organisational level they include regulatory controls, technology, population dynamics, climate change, leadership capability, the internet, customers, suppliers and capabilities of colleagues. Individually and collectively these forces determine the context and thereby trajectory upon which you’re currently travelling – and the default future it will bring. While it’s important to identify these forces it’s more important to assess their level of influence and how difficult they are to change.
3. Defining a new trajectory. Going beyond your default future, to one that is more aligned with your ambition and intent, involves changing your current (default) trajectory, which in turn involves changing the context within which you currently operate. And changing context involves changing the influence of the forces identified in step 2. While some of these forces are to some degree under your control, others like regulatory controls and population dynamics, are not. It’s therefore important to identify those that you can influence and those that you need to operate within. For example, you may have passion and talent in an area that you’ve not, as yet, had an opportunity to use; or you may have ambition to expand or diversify your business. These are powerful forces that are within your control. Equally, those forces outside your control, for example developments in digital technology, can open up opportunities to pursue quite different trajectories. A case in point being the many successful Fintech start-ups.
Confronting your default future – as opposed to accepting it – is a personal choice. Doing so is not easy and what you discover, particularly during the early stages, can be dispiriting. But as the forces determining your current trajectory, and resultant default future, are better understood, alternative trajectories will emerge: trajectories that could take you closer to a future that is more aligned with your ambition.
About the authors: Dr David Trafford and Peter Boggis help executives and leadership teams deliver successful change, specifically technology-enabled change. They provide thought leadership and thought partnership on all aspects of assessing, developing and operationalising strategy. They are also founding partners of Formicio and authors of the book Beyond Default.