Book Review: Think Like a Futurist

April 23, 2019

Cover: Think Like a FuturistYou are living in a world and subject to forces beyond your control that have been at work since before you were born. These factors influence what opportunities are available to you, how much potential you have for wealth and career development, and frankly, every part of your life.

This statement paraphrases what Boake Sells, former CEO of Revco and Dayton Hudson—the predecessor of Target— shared with my classmates at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. He noted that his year of birth, 1937, gave him an outsized chance of securing a good job. As he put it, “It was the Depression and, immediately after that, World War II. Not many babies were being born.”

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Of course, the baby boom that followed World War II drove the need for both jobs and management, creating opportunities for people such as Boake, who was in a good position to assume leadership roles. This is not to say that our birth date or other factors are our destiny—our intelligence and attitude certainly play a role in our success. But we need to recognize what is happening at a macro level to understand our potential as individuals and organizations.

While Cecily Sommers’s book Think Like a Futurist is not a typical UX book, a speaker at MidwestUX introduced it to me a couple of years ago. Given our insights into human behavior, wants, and needs; our comfort with left-brain and right-brain interplay, and our general affinity for new technologies, UX professionals can play a key role in recognizing and shaping the future for organizations. Our ability to do research and convert our findings into solutions is a core capability for UX professionals, and forecasting the future is one area of research.

What is a business? Certainly, it’s a collection of people working together to deliver a product or service. It engages in commerce, provides employment, and generates value. Fundamentally, a business, or a business model, is a theory on how to generate future value—whether that value is cash for the business’s owners, the fulfillment of a customer’s needs, a healthier environment, or some other human purpose. Developing a business and a strategy for that business is, in fact, an attempt to forecast what the future could be, how to achieve it, and how to predict business gain from it.

The ability to recognize future trends—preferably before competitors do—is an invaluable capability for any organization. This realization is what brought me to read this book, whose key idea is that all business models are essentially calculated bets on how the future could turn out. Defining business strategy—how an organization should behave in the future—is a fundamental exercise. One that is especially appropriate for UX professionals.

Book Specifications

Title: Think Like a Futurist

Author: Cecily Sommers

Formats: Hardback, Audiobook, Kindle

Publisher: Jossey-Bass

Published: 2012, 1st edition

Pages: 273

ISBN-13: 978-1118147825

A Model for Understanding

In the first part of Sommers’s book, she presents a model for understanding exogenous factors that influence our potential for success. These comprise four forces—in order from the hardest to change to the most reactionary, or from the longest term to the shortest term—as follows:

  1. Resources—These comprehend what is available to us—such as materials, space, and people.
  2. Technology—Our technology advances first with breakthroughs, then incremental improvements, followed by additional bursts of innovation. For example, consider the evolution of the automobile or telephony.
  3. Demographics—We measure demographics in terms of generations, birth rates, and the ethnic or sectarian makeup of a society.
  4. Government—This is the most reactionary of these factors. While it might take hundreds of years for us to find new sources of energy, governments can act swiftly to respond to societal needs through incentives and taxation.

I find this model especially helpful in understanding particular industries and their potential for disruption, as well as in evaluating their long-term prospects for growth or contraction.

As an example, let’s apply this model to higher education:

  1. Resources—The resources available to higher education might be faculty, an expanding base of knowledge to share with a population, and certainly, financial capital. These resources are fairly fixed. If we lived in a steady state in which no new knowledge were generated, there would be little need for higher education to provide access to knowledge. Knowledge could easily become commoditized and be distributed in other forms.
  2. Technology—For some time, technology has affected higher education and will continue to do so. Most recently, we have seen the expansion of online educational programs that deliver education to students remotely, obviating the need for physical campuses. Approximately 20% of higher-education students are now enrolled in online programs. The prevalence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and low-cost or free training from sources such as Kahn Academy have put downward pressure on college enrollments.
  3. Demographics—Just as for Boake Sells in 1937, there was a decline in birth rates in 2008 and 2009 when the Great Recession was in full force. Beginning in 2025 and onward, this will profoundly impact the number of potential college students. This is likely be a permanent change because developed economies tend to have stable or declining birthrates. In fact, the birth rate in the United States has been below replacement levels since 2011. We are also seeing retirements of baby-boomers affecting industries that do not require college degrees—for example, the building trades. As of this writing, there are approximately 500,000 unfilled jobs in the construction industry alone. Such opportunities could draw potential college students away from higher education.
  4. Government—Because governments are highly reactionary—perhaps even fickle—the politicization of higher education could make its public support less palatable to citizens of a variety of persuasions. Taxpayer support has already been in decline. Because of the need for skilled labor, the need to maintain high employment, and limited funding, it is easy to imagine that states might direct education funding to trade schools and apprenticeship programs rather than colleges and universities.

Instead of worrying about what we see, denying observable facts, or wringing our hands and wishing things were different, it’s important that we recognize these forces and their impacts on us. We can use Sommers’s approach to frame our questions about future activities. Sommers calls these the Best Questions. For example, knowing what we see in our four-forces scan, should a public university invest one billion dollars building new classroom facilities?

Examples and Practices

After exploring the Four Forces that describe the factors that influence the future, Sommers describes a variety of tools for further developing future activities. She encapsulates these in a collection of activities she calls the Zone of Discovery. In general, these include tools that might seem familiar to readers who have experience in project management or change management. Concepts include creating a shared vision for aligning teams, working backward to plan activities, and chunking initiatives according to what you can easily achieve quickly versus difficult, long-term projects. The author introduces several techniques for encouraging creativity and problem solving.

Sommers provides helpful examples from her consulting practice. Most of these examples consider the future in terms of establishing a desired future state for an organization. To a large extent, these are reminiscent of activities in setting brand strategy.

Why This Book Matters

Throughout my career, I have been interested in the overlap between business and design. In the courses I teach at Kent State University, I frequently suggest to students that it is vital for them to understand how organizations generate value, the forces that affect their performance, and where they can contribute most.

Cultivating the ability to forecast and make informed assumptions about future developments can pay great dividends—particularly as we consider employment opportunities, product development, and public policy.

The first quarter of the book is by far the strongest part of the book. While the second quarter demonstrates Sommers’s concepts in practice, it feels much like other writings about best practices for project management and change management. The last two sections are better because they provide actionable advice on how to integrate future thinking into your daily work. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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