A Five-Minute Practice to Future-Proof Your Organization
by Jeremy Nulik
At a loss to describe the COVID-19 disruption, Americans have settled on one word: unprecedented.
This summer, 75% of the 52 S&P 500 Index companies used the adjective on their earnings reports. Corporate America blanketed everything from supply chains shortages to retail crises with the term. According to Google Trends, the word and its cousins (unusual, unmatched, unknown) reached a usage popularity online of nearly 100-fold.
In a word, the word, unprecedented, is now precedent.
The below terms are not nearly as popular as “unprecedented,” however they may describe conditions that are widespread.
Crackpot realism — a term coined by futurist James Dator to describe the not-at-all unique mental state of feeling certain of how the “it” works. It could be your industry, your business, your community. The certainty shows up more commonly when inbound change or crisis is met with a dismissive attitude and a call to “be more realistic.”
Terminal uniqueness — a term borrowed from addiction recovery groups that describes a not-at-all unique mental state of feeling fundamental exceptionalism. Your experiences, your business, your challenge is unlike anything that anyone else has ever seen.
These conditions are naturally occurring when the world feels, well, unprecedented. When there exists overwhelming information and new challenges, humans revert to facsimiles of the familiar. This tendency can lead to disaster for our companies and the communities we care about. They can cause us to turn a blind eye to what could be and, thus, keep us shrouded in ignorance.
Thankfully, there is an antidote you can take right now to crackpot realism and terminal uniqueness. It is a game created just this past year by Jane McGonigal, a director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) called Five Minutes with the Future.
Here is how it works:
1. Gather your stakeholders, the people who are most likely to champion the future of your organization or cause.
2. Create a plausible, but shocking new reality. It is useful to create a scenario that will provoke them, and it ought to be based on some trends that you can see in the present. Make it something that hits close to home. Here is an example: Our server was hacked and our private messages and data was made available for a short time on the internet. Our main competitor potentially has had access to that data.
3. Take five minutes (only five minutes) to freewrite your answers to these prompts. Be specific and include as many details as you can:
a. What actions do you take in the first five minutes after discovering this?
b. How do you feel?
c. What possible explanations do you come up with for what’s going on?
d. What do you predict other people might do when they discover the same thing?
4. Compare your stories with your stakeholders. Discuss the differences and the common threads.
5. Answer one question together: What is one action we could take in the next few days to feel more prepared for the first five minutes if it really were to happen?
Over time, if you can develop this discipline, an unflinching look at the conditions you find most shocking, you can build your muscle memory for contending with the unknown. The initial awe will dull. While you may not be able to predict the future, you can create — inside your organization — a readiness for the revolutionary or unrivaled or extraordinary. But those challenges will no longer be unprecedented.
Jeremy Nulik (firstname.lastname@example.org) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.