How to brainstorm the future

Photo: Russell Meseroll

Every strategy book I’ve ever written includes a final chapter about the future. Here’s how I do the brainstorms that turn into those chapters — and how you can run your own brainstorms about the future, whether you’re writing a book or just planning for scenarios.

The objective of a brainstorm like this is to generate as many plausible (and sometimes implausible) ideas as possible, to give you a diverse set of futures to think and write about.

Step 1: Invite the right people

The key a great futures brainstorm is diversity and intelligence.

In my experience, a group of five to ten people is ideal. More than that, and shyer people probably won’t get a chance to talk. Fewer, and you won’t get enough diversity in the ideas generated.

Diversity is more important than intelligence. Invite people with different perspectives — marketing people, salespeople, strategists, business analysts, financial thinkers, customer service folks, product managers, executives, and frontline customer workers. Invite young people and those with more experience; men and women; and people with diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds.

The reason for the diversity is not just the different points of view. People from one background will often react creatively to ideas from people with a different background, because they’ll see the ideas differently. This causes ideas to multiply and go in unexpected directions.

Regarding intelligence — you want people in the room who can project trends they see into an unknown possible set of futures. In my experience, this works better with people who are used to seeing the big picture and thinking about the broader world, not just their little world. But if 70% of the people in the brainstorm are already thinkers like this, the remainder will get in the act as they see the ideas unfold. This can get you to ideas from those other perspectives, even as it improves the creativity of the people who aren’t already big thinkers.

One final note about people: the objective of a meeting like this is not to generate consensus. Sometimes the presence of senior executives can cause others in the room to be shy about expressing their opinions. If the presence of boss will make everyone else agree and clam up, then leave the boss out of it — get her ideas separately.

Step 2: Schedule the meeting, in person if possible

Organic creativity grows when people are in a room together. If it’s possible, try to set up your meeting when nearly all of the people can physically be in the room. If your people work remotely or in different locations, then look for opportunities when they’re all together, like planning meetings, customer events, or sales kickoffs. Brainstorms can offer a welcome low-stress break from the complexity and stress of intense corporate planning meetings.

Given the challenge of scheduling so many people, you may have to schedule the meeting several weeks in advance. It’s more important to get a quorum of interesting people than to ensure that every single person can make it. You can always follow up with people individually if they can’t make it.

If one or two people have to dial in or connect by video, you’ll have to make extra effort to involve them during the meeting. It harder for people connected this way to speak up or interrupt and be heard.

I’ve also conducted meetings like this by phone and videoconference, where nearly all the people were in different locations. If workers are used to virtual meetings like this, you can use these connection technologies to conduct a brainstorm, but such brainstorms tend to be harder to make effective. There’s just something special that happens when people can effectively interrupt and riff off of each other. If you must conduct the meeting virtually, you’re probably better off with at most eight participants.

For a brainstorm like this, 60 to 75 minutes should be sufficient to get a bunch of interesting ideas.

Step 3: Prepare participants

Preparations for a futures brainstorm should be minimal.

In the meeting invitation, you can say something like this:

We are generating ideas for a book chapter about the possible futures in the xxxx trend. We are looking three to five years out.

Please come prepared with a few ideas about what you think might happen.

Step 4: Arrange to record what you come up with

I’ve found it useful to designate three special participants in the meeting.

The leader is typically the person who is responsible for producing a document or chapter. They also preside over the meeting.

The recorder is responsible for taking notes.

It’s also useful to have a scribe writing ideas on a whiteboard or flipchart so people can see them and react to them.

While the leader can also be the whiteboard scribe, that tends to be a little frantic. The leader and recorder must be different — taking notes and leading the meeting are incompatible.

These days it’s easy to record meetings and get transcriptions from services like Rev.com. And if you convene the meeting on Zoom, it can make recordings and machine transcriptions as well. These transcriptions are typically not completely accurate, but combined with your notes and the recordings, they’ll help you recall and assemble the ideas.

It also helps to take photos of the whiteboard after the meeting.

Step 5: Start the meeting with a future “platform”

Everyone needs to start with a baseline idea of what the trends that you’re extending will look like.

This is the future “platform” — the common understanding of what will happen.

For example, you could start like this:

Today, we’re trying to generate as many ideas as possible how smart speakers like the Amazon Echo will change things in the future.

Our analysis reflect the following: There are devices like this in one-third of consumer homes in the U.S. Many homes have multiple speakers. They currently use them mostly for playing music and answering questions. But increasingly, companies are connecting with their customers on these devices.

So, assuming these devices will spread and become more capable, what do you think the future will bring?

The platform has to be sufficient but not overdone. A description that lasts five to eight minutes is ideal. The description should be clear and convincing, but with a limited amount of detail. A graphic or chart can help.

The key here is balance. If your description is too skeletal, people will start to argue about the platform itself, which is counterproductive — you need the participants to accept your platform, not argue it. But if you go on too long, people will get bored and are less likely generate ideas. So keep it short but solid and pithy.

Step 6: Use prompts to start the ideas flowing

Things typically start slowly, because people can be shy. Prompts can help.

At the start, or if things start to lag, you can ask questions like these:

  • How will this trend affect different industries (consumer goods, manufacturing, automotive, financial services, . . . )
  • How will this affect different departments (marketing, sales, finance, product development, . . . )
  • How will trend change the way companies compete?
  • How will it affect different groups differently (lower-income people, young professionals, people with or without college degrees, people close to retirement, . . . )
  • How will the trend’s effects vary across geographies? How will it be different in Europe, in Asia, in the Americas, in developing economies?
  • How will governments react? Will there be new regulations?
  • Who will benefit? Who will suffer?

In general, the less the leader talks, the more ideas you can get. But if people are too shy to speak up, it can help to provoke them with something absurd, like, “I wonder if this would cause people to stop using the Web altogether” or “I guess this means that Amazon will control everything about our future.” Once people disagree with you, you can get them thinking and talking further.

Step 7: Flesh out ideas

Traditionally in a brainstorm, you don’t criticize ideas, you just accept them. But in a futures brainstorm, poorly fleshed out or poorly supported ideas are not that useful.

Just as in traditional brainstorms, I avoid statements like, “Here’s why that’s wrong.” Instead, I ask questions like these:

  • That’s interesting. Do you have any examples of that?
  • Tell me more. What makes you think that might happen?
  • Does that connect to any of the other ideas we’ve heard so far?
  • If you had to convince someone that would happen, how would you do it?

The other way that such brainstorms can fall short is that they don’t go far enough. They’re only one step in the logic chain. So instead of rejection, try extension:

  • If that were true, what else would probably happen?
  • How is that idea likely to develop further into the future?
  • How would that affect workers/younger consumers/financial services/people in China?

Spinning these ideas out further allows you extend them into scenarios, fleshed out descriptions of possible futures.

We used to use this trick at Forrester Research: follow the chain of consequences out as far as you can. Keep going until you get to a clearly absurd conclusions. Then go back one step, and you will have the most far-reaching analysis possible that still remains plausible.

Step 8: Finish it off and write it up

You’ll probably run out of time before you run out of ideas. That’s fine — the meeting will go better if you can end on a high note.

Remind everyone that if they have additional ideas, they can email them to you or contact you directly. They can also recontact you with supporting evidence for ideas they had already suggested.

Your job now is to organize the ideas into collected groups or scenarios and write them up. You’ll have to do a little research to find supporting evidence.

If you are writing the last book chapter, you have an advantage. People who didn’t believe your book’s thesis have given up long before they get to the last chapter. As a result, your remaining audience (hopefully, the majority of your readers) is primed to believe you, after reading and believing eight or ten or 12 chapters of argumentation. That means you have some credibility to play with. So this is your chance to spin out fascinating scenarios about the future, even if they are not fully supported by evidence.

Even if you’re not writing a book, I recommend doing a futures brainstorm now and then. It’s a great way to train your mind — and the minds of your team — to think analytically and strategically about the future.

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