Possible, imaginary or plausible...they define all different futures. Although, the describe different sets of hypotheses, they are somehow already part of strategy planning, product development or the innovation process. The open questions is: When do you apply what type?
The four future types
Possible Futures describe future realities we can imagine today. They inspire us to work toward their existence. Star Trek Warp Drive, Holodecks or their utopian societal structure may sound futuristic. But futures can mobilize the present to transform the as yet impossible into reality. The challenge lies in not knowing how to get there, and when it might turn into reality. Each vision is universally possible[ii] and atemporal. In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties are, if desired greatly enough.”[iii] The question is… when?
Described by arguments and hypotheses, Plausible Futures are those that logically make sense. They describe logical, coherent and understandable realities that could happen. Plausible Futures are part of the Possible Futures. Yet not every Possible state is Plausible. This future type searches for logical, coherent patterns in the space of possibility. It is key to ratify the arguments and hypothesis over time.
Probable Futures are those that are highly likely to happen. They connect with the Plausible and Preferable. I prefer to reference to them not as a “future space” in the same sense as the others. Practically, they describe the a journey of reaching the future (aligned with the purpose). We create higher levels of probability through a constant validation, adding new variables, updating the speed of change, viral factor, and maturity of the shifts.
Preferred Futures describe our “desired outcome,” which exist for any organization and individual. They help to mobilize and prepare a strategic north around the desire and the purpose, and with it create the connection with the present—which allows it to take action in creating the future. Preferred Futures are important to inspiring the proactive attitude of the organization toward the future, and are in essence about sense-making.
Unknown Unimaginable represent the elements that we couldn't possibly even know that we don’t know. Uncertainties that always will prevail, and which make the future dialectic.
What does this mean for your organization?
If you identify with the possible than you are driven by insights and new perspectives. From Wildcards to environmental scanning, your organization explores divergent thinking. Your goal...to generate many potential ideas - everything is possible. In such futures thinking style, prioritization is a challenge and new concepts and old backlog projects fight for the same resources. The challenge is execution - and missing are clear definitions how to freeze, kill or prioritize potential opportunities. The futures style is about the "theoretically yes". The challenge lies in the second part of the saying: but "practically not". [iv].
If you embrace the plausible than you believe in "pattern" and argue hypothesis. Your organization focus on "connecting the dots" valuing insights from experts of any field as long as they can increase the clarity of the overall picture. Where the possible thinker asks for divergence, the plausible is about system thinking and what "could happen". From scientific research, expert panels, Delphi, sematic analysis, AI, patents mapping or scenario development. It is about finding structure in the noise. The challenge is, that not all variables of the future are known, perhaps never will be...and that avoiding the exploration of future changes reduces the organizational agility to act upon surprises. Decisions have to be made in an environment of uncertainty.
The probable is about the evidence. Validation is its key action trying to map the implications of possible actions and changes. If your organizations represents such a future style, then you are endless curious to understand “What drives the change?”, “How does the future connect with the present?” and especially “What could be risk factors?”. A strategic mindset drives the exploration of what is evident to happen - in the end probable futures represent a journey of validation between locked in strategy and the future potential. Tools from cross-impact analysis, causal layer, backcasting or future wheel is part of your strategy. The goal to keep the balance between the larger potential and the present feasible.
Finally, the preferred. We desire an outcome through believing…mobilize, align and create mindmodels of a future that make sense for us. The preferred can be found in vision statements and importantly is part of any group of people. Organizations have certain ways of seeing the future and with it comes an Official Future, intrinsic ways that guide today’s decision making. The preferred can easily shift to a biased and blindsided way of looking at change and potentials. For that reason, validation against the outside world perspectives - present and future - is important. What will people value in the future? What is our organizational velocity and potential of change to create value in the future? How could the society work in the future?
It goes without saying, that not yourself, neither your company has only a future thinking styles - they are blended, although with preferences.
Each of the future types—Possible, Plausible, Probable, and then Preferred—has its benefits. We use the Possible to inspire, the Plausible and Preferred to set a strategic north. The Probable is part of the continuous process of execution and adaptation to keep the implementation on track. We should use each type to our benefit, based on what the organizational challenges are. The future is more than a single “one.” It determines itself by the plurality of realities and opportunities, the futures.