Different ways to envisage the future

Posted by  Kevin Bishop —July 29, 2011
Filed in Communication, Employee Engagement, Leadership Posts, Strategy

How do you get your people to think about what the future could be, in a way that inspires them and starts to spark action, but also takes into account the simple fact that the future is unpredictable?
I was reminded of this challenge, yet again, last week.
We were working with a client on developing a session for a two day leadership conference focussing on bringing their strategy to life. As we were throwing round ideas on the types of things we could do, someone suggested an exercise that involved the participants spending time writing a magazine article about how things are for that organisation in 5 years time.
This triggered a recollection when we did a similar thing when I was working in the UK for the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). I was involved in planning and running a series of workshops for the management population of my division, working with American management guru Noel Tichy to bring his concept of ” cycle of leadership to life. These were 2 day courses, and we ended up running them for nearly 5000 leaders, over a two year period in 2006 and 2007.
On day two there was an exercise where everyone had to draft a magazine article, for the leading business magazine The Economist, with these instructions:

You are assigned to write a cover story for the Economist – dated September 21st, 2012. The story is about the dramatic transformation of RBS, and how through your leadership and outstanding execution, RBS is achieving unprecedented success. The article should be written as if it were 2012 and should discuss the challenges RBS has overcome, how that was done and what the business now looks like.

Now to understand the rest of this story you need to know that RBS during that time was one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. In 2005 it announced a profit of $A10.27bn, up 14% from the year before, and in
2006 the profit increased another 16% to $A13.69bn. By 2007 the profit stood at a very impressive A$15.33bn and the share price stood at $A8.94.
It was held up as a major success story in the UK corporate world, and its Chief Executive, Sir Fred Goodwin, who had been knighted in 2004, was a darling of Wall Street and the city in London. The feeling was that we could do no wrong, the business would just keep growing and growing, and become even more and more successful.
People spend an hour crafting these beautiful magazine articles talking about RBS and its success five years in the future. They then worked in three’s sharing each other stories, before three or four of the best ones were shared with the whole group. I remember they talked about things like how RBS now had 500,000 staff (up from its 120,000 at the time), that its market share has gone through the roof (i.e. its share of the credit card market was now 80%, up from 20%), that the world’s most innovative companies came to RBS to learn how to do it, and that its profit had just hit A$30bn a year.
At the time I thought the exercise was very useful. It created energy in the room, made people feel good about themselves and the organisation and all of what was mentioned seemed realistic and achievable.
On the 19 January 2009, RBS announced a loss of AS41.65bn, the biggest ever annual loss in UK corporate history. On that same day the British Government increased its holding in the bank to 70%, and the share price stood at less than 14 cents. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, businesses within the RBS Group were sold and Sir Fred resigned, he was vilified by the British press, and his house was even attacked by angry protestors.
There is no way in 2006 or 2007 that we could see this downfall happening. It was completely realistic to think of continued success and global domination. The exercise seemed to do exactly what Tichy had wanted it to do, and people were still talking about months after the events. But every single prediction that 5000 people made about the future proved to be wrong.
How do you get your people to think about the future, and what it could be, but which also takes into account its unpredictability? How do you manage and deal with that paradox? Was the exercise we did at RBS ‘wrong’, or did it achieve what it wanted, if its purpose was to get people excited about RBS’ future, and reinforced to them why they wanted to be there. Is it more of an engagement technique than a strategic visioning exercise?
I would really like to hear your views on exercises like this and your experiences of dealing with the challenge of trying to envisage a rapidly changing, unpredictable future and the value in doing so.

About  Kevin Bishop


  1. Indy says:

    I know Anecdote has had plenty of exposure to Cognitive Edge tools, but this seems like an obvious place to mention the “Future Backwards” technique as one that can at least get people to consider “hell” as well as “heaven” for a little while…

  2. Ian Wallace says:

    Hi Kevin
    Great post! I have used the cover story process with a number of clients and depending on the mood and engagement level of the clients, it can also be illuminating to create a less positive version of the future as well as the idealised one. This is similar to a pre-mortem and gives a good spread of perspectives.
    However, it does tend to polarise opinion, giving an either/or outcome, rather than embracing wider and more valuable perspectives.
    Most of the processes I use now are designed to bring unspoken and unowned awareness to the surface in a safe and relaxed environment and use this as a way of anticipating future events.
    This usually enables participants to own many future outcomes by co-creating them rather than feeling that they have to wait for permission to respond to unforeseen circumstances.
    The best model for an organisation in rapidly changing and unpredictable situations is the organisation itself so it can be really valuable to guide participants through a process that seems quite simple but unconsciously mirrors what is actually happening for them in every day operations.
    This is not role playing or scenario planning but simply helping them to make individual shifts that will enable them to see any disruption as an opportunity rather than a threat.

  3. Nat Maras says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I do not think there is anything wrong with doing these exercises. The idea that the future is unpredictable renders the possibility of positive outcomes as well.
    The events at RBS would have had numerous parameters converging including those in other systems which affected it over a period. It may have been well outside the leaders thinking space what transpired years after your workshop. Had anyone thought about these even as a scenario – the companies strategists should of been mitigating this or at least putting the business cases forward to steer that ship if possible.
    I think most leaders are caught in the mindset about being positive, about generating growth, about how to achieve goals and motivate workforces down particular directions. In todays ultra competitive world – playing it too safe doesn’t get the CEO rewarded either, unless shareholders and the board alike can see the trouble brewing ahead.
    Nowadays doom and gloom is across the news daily. Its almost like each industry captain sales his ship through Atlantic theatre of sea-war. However back several years ago captains were navigating paths that did not include mega-mines and the risks of encountering danger was probably considered ‘manageable’.
    In this sense, the facilitator provides the ‘space’ to think and encourage it. Its the audience that brings their world views and goals, aspirations or fears into the sessions.

  4. Simon says:

    This story makes it seem as if the terrible future that awaited RBS was a random event like an earthquake or hurricane, rather than the end-result of the actions of the people you had in the room at the time. Getting them to think about a rosy future may have been one more thing that blinded them to the terrible mistakes they were making at that time, the mistakes that led to their downfall.
    I don’t believe that there was “no way in 2006 or 2007 that [you] could see this downfall happening”. It might not have been common knowledge, and it certainly wasn’t *popular* knowledge, but the knowledge existed.

  5. Janet Jones says:

    Hi Kevin – my thoughts, for whatever they are worth, are that it is definitely a useful engagement exercise, but in order for it to also be a future building exercise it needs to also incorporate the kinds of obstacles that must be overcome. Then – in light of the financial crisis – they could review these stories in a different context: i.e. did I really understand the challenges I was facing in the first place? did I get the challenges right but simply fail to overcome them? And either way, they could still view the business as the “hero” on a journey, and confronting a daunting set of circumstances. It reminds me very much of Benjamin Zander’s practice of “Giving an A”, which I’ve found extremely useful. It may also help them to see the role the organization plays in the world in a new light?
    Thanks for very interesting post!

  6. Aprila says:

    I’d be curious to know how the story since unfolded~
    I think it also speaks to the challenge of external forces that may be unknown/unknowable to workshop participants. or if the participants were indeed key influencers whose present decisions were laying the groundwork for a coming decline, the exercise may not have been the appropriate technique for ‘making the blind to see.’ the question is whether there is such an exercise, whether the key people in question want to see in the first place, and whether it is even possible to foresee in highly complex and dynamic environments characterized by high levels of uncertainty.

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