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By J. Daniel Beckham

Enslavement to the past is really not a big problem because most have little sense of history and even less of the future. They are captives of the present caught in a cage of the mind. Historian, Stephen Ambrose, spoke to this caged mentality in his book about the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage: "Had a Roman legion set off up the Missouri River in 1804, except for the rifle and sextant, its equipment would have been the same as Lewis and Clark's, and it would have moved at the same pace...Henry Adams put it perfectly: 'Great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind. Experience forced on men's minds the conviction that what had ever been must ever be.' In 1810, nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. Nothing ever had moved any faster and, so far as the people of 1810 were aware, nothing ever would."

But according to Ambrose, things changed dramatically with the invention of the telegraph: "Before Morse and before the train (which was dependent on the telegraph for safe, efficient operation), it took a month to get information from Chicago to New York. By the 1850s, information moved all but instantly. That changed everyone's lives. It unified the nation. It made the stock market possible. Its impact on commerce and trade was beyond description." In Ambrose's view of the past there are lessons for the future. Thinking of the future in terms of the past may be insufficient, but it is still better than not thinking about the future at all.

Another way to look at the future is through the lens of the present. It's easy enough to see the various ways the present helps make the future. Many historians have suggested the tough terms of the Armistice at the end of World War I set in motion the circumstances that gave rise to World War II. These connections are easy to see in retrospect. The present always becomes clearer once you're able to look back at it from atop the high ground of the future.

But just as the present shapes the future, the future shapes the present. That's the real pragmatic power of vision. A vision involves imagining a point in the future, then reverse engineering by asking, "What must we do in the present to become our future?" As you undertake actions designed to realize your vision, the future starts to dictate the present. And the organization moves beyond reacting to the present to shaping the future.

There is a system relationship that exists between the present and the future that may be best represented by a great looping circle with outflows from the present impacting on the future and outflows from the future impacting on the present.

There are no boundaries between the present and the future. They exist in the same pond. A rock thrown into the waters of the present will set off ripples that swell into the future. Flip a stone into the waters of the future and the ripples come undulating back into the present. What you do in the present determines your ability to make the future. And what you imagine in the future can help determine the attractiveness of your present.

Foresight is not enough. Foresight implies a certain level of passivity - a willingness to react to the future. This is better than ignoring the future. But more powerful still is an "anticipative shaping" that seeks to discern not only the powerful currents of the future but also how those currents can be leveraged. The challenge is not only to anticipate the future but to wrestle with it in the present then make it your own.

But it's foolhardy to assume you can control the future. The future will consist of powerful flows that, like the weather, can be leveraged and ridden but can never be controlled. Trips to the future begin with a struggle to see and understand these powerful currents: their general direction, their power, and where they may collide and coalesce. It is these forces that determine how the beaches of the present will be eroded by the floods of the future.

Copyright © The Beckham Company             Future Scanning – Mar. 1997 (Prediction)

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