Plan Your Future in Five Easy Steps

by Simon. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

The September 2009 UK edition of Wired ran an interesting article, carrying the same title as this post, by futurist Peter Schwartz. In the article, Schwartz proposed a 5 step plan to predicting and therefore safe guarding your future. Below are the five steps.

Schwartz starts by defining a test case. This is in essence a question; How can I future-proof my career? Once you know the question, you can then set about identifying key influences on your question–e.g. technological change–scenarios that may bring about the change–e.g. new competing technologies, lack of technological development in your sector, or the collapse of a key stakeholder–and finally, future implications.

Here is what Schwartz says in more detail:

1. List driving forces

What variables, trends and events will affect your mission? The first step is to list them. Next, divide them into uncertainties (such as economic, political and social conditions) and relative certainties (such as global population growth and climate change). Finally, rank the items according to their importance, from most to least significant. The result: a catalogue of factors that will determine the future of your area.

If I take web development as an example:

  • Pace of technological change.
  • Number of companies using the chosen technology.
  • Number of people available in the industry (permanent and contract).
  • State of the [digital] economy.
  • Competing technologies, e.g. Ruby on Rails vs ColdFusion, AJAX vs Flash, offline vs online, desktop vs mobile.
  • Support of the community, e.g. open-source software, tutorials and application servers.
  • Support of key stakeholders, e.g. Adobe’s support of Flash, Flex and ColdFusion.

2. Make a scenario grid

Now it’s time to map out possible futures. The two most important uncertainties from the top of your list form the axes of the grid, with each of the quatdrants representing a potential future. Some may be more likely than others–and some may seem downright improbable–but they all depict the interplay of key forces. Thus, they’re within the range of possibility and deserve attention. They help you prepare for a range of possibilities and bolster core actions with those related to the future you deem most likely.

3. Imagine the possible futures

Sketched as a grid, these 4 possible scenarios are so abstract that it would be hard to recognise them if they merged. Make them more concrete by fleshing them out into imaginery, but plausible, news stories of the forces at play.

To continue the web development example:

  • Global financial crisis prevents companies investing in technology. They cannot raise the adequate funding to push through key development projects, even if it means increasing efficiencies within the company.
  • Adobe drops support for ColdFusion causing turmoil in the community. Railo picks up a lot of business, but can’t scale to fill the demand. Far-sighted companies migrate to other suitable platforms.
  • Ruby on Rails booms under the paradigms: Convention over Configuration and Don’t Repeat Yourself, eating into ColdFusion’s key mantra: Rapid Application Development.
  • Key advances in technology on the desktop and mobile continue at pace. Micro-payments allow people to create relatively cheap applications that appeal to a mass audience. Development frameworks allow developers to transfer their skills between technologies without the need for significant retraining.

4. Brainstorm implications and actions

Now it’s time to develop strategies for coping with each of the four possible futures you’ve imagined. Start by listing all the implications of each of the scenarios and then come up with actions that would enable you to prosper under any of the new conditions. Some actions would apply to almost any scenario: these should form the basis of your plan, since they help you to prepare for a range of possibilities. Bolster these core actions with those related to the future you deem most likely.

Examples of possible implications:

  • Scarce funding.
  • Limited demand for new technologies.
  • Few companies to work for.
  • Few new projects to work on.
  • Increased competition for places.
  • Increased demand for people with key skills, e.g. mobile.

and possible actions:

  • Concentrate on existing technologies.
  • Develop and exit strategy, e.g. cross-train into a new technology.
  • Cultivate your network, make new contacts at major development houses.
  • Polish skills in areas of uncertainty.
  • Start your own cutting-edge business.

5. Track the indicators

The main value of the scenarios is that they sensitise you to the way the future is unfolding. Over time, the world is likely to gravitate toward one of your four quadrants. The trick is to recognise the shif in progress. As you monitor the news, look for signals that a particular possibility is becoming a concrete reality. Keep a file of news relevant to your scenarios, jotting down a quick note, along with the date, whenever you come across a significant story. Evaluate these developments on a quarterly basis so you can track the trends. Keep adjusting your action strategy to anticipate the future as it emerges.

Of course it is possible that none of your four quadrants becomes true. If this is so, you will need to go back and re-evaluate your scenario grid. Keeping a critical eye on your grid and apace of industry developments, you can be assured that the future will not change so quickly that you’ll miss an opportunity.

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