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Think Like a Futurist

By Cecily Sommers

(Jossey-Bass, 254 pages, $33.95)

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By Roy Williams and Michael Drew

(Vanguard, 253 pages, $25.50)

As we head into a new year, it's important to pay attention to four factors that determine the evolution of our society and our businesses, advises trends specialist Cecily Sommers. These structural forces are the elemental components of change, and if you understand them you will be able to prepare for the future because the changes they bring about occur in a fairly predictable manner.

"Just as hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and sulphur are the four building blocks of all life forms, resources, technology, demographics and governance are the four building blocks of all change," Ms. Sommers writes in Think Like a Futurist. So pay attention to:


Throughout the ages resources, have been fundamental to innovation, and she focuses our eyes on energy. "The demand for energy grows as we progress, meaning that we have to continually develop new methods of finding and exploiting rich energy sources," she writes. "On a metaphysical level, energy is life."

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Technology shapes civilizations. "We use it to communicate and express values, to play and innovate, to cook, clean, and care for our loved ones. We use it to manufacture goods, to increase productivity, and to customize environments, and we use it in teaching, in rituals, in science and art," she notes.


French philosopher Auguste Comte declared that "demographics is destiny," and we are all aware how demographics can change the future.


To manage shifts in these three forces and grasp the future, we need governance, not only for society, but also for organizations and teams. The two key elements of governance Ms. Sommers highlights are the rule of law and the rule of markets. The future is shaped by both.

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"Governance provides the architecture of a better life – a better society, a better business, a better family – and gives us the power to create a future that is aligned with a larger purpose. In short, governance is our tool for accepting, integrating, and leading change," she says.

Preparing for the future requires more than understanding these four forces. It requires time. Ms. Sommers argues that too often we subcontract future thinking to others because we're too embroiled in daily operations. In the coming year, she encourages you to devote 5 per cent of your time and resources to thinking about the future you're busy making happen the other 95 per cent of the time.

That approach has been followed, successfully, at General Mills through what became known as the "idea greenhouse," which worked to deliver innovative projects and a culture that readily produces innovation. When the 5-per-cent rule became a little too demanding, GM cut back to a two-hour per month formal time commitment for its innovation agents, and still managed to develop many big ideas and big projects.

"Asking employees to do more on their own or simply urging them to think creatively does nothing but stress the system, because such activity has no place in an environment that is jam-packed with meetings and deadlines," she argues. "If you want to embed futurist thinking in such a setting, you have to build a structure that nurtures and rewards it."

While Ms. Sommers looks to four forces to shape the future, marketing experts Roy H. Williams and Michael Drew urge us to study a pendulum that, with clockwork regularity, shapes humanity into two consecutive 40-year cycles, one a "me" cycle and the other a "we" cycle.

We are now in a "we" era – what pervades is the group, the team, and the collective. Conformity is demanded for the common good, and personal responsibility applauded rather than the personal liberty of the "me" years. Many minds are seen as better than one. We want to create a better world, together.

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In the "me" period, the focus is on the individual as unique, special and possessing unlimited potential. Instead of conformity, there's an urge for personal liberty. One person is considered wiser than many, as we are reminded in the shibboleth: "A camel is a racehorse designed by a committee." It's an era of big dreams.

In Pendulum, the authors' model is a little more complicated than a simple 40-year divide; each cycle is shown to go into an upswing where the prevailing ethos is powerful, and a downswing where it loses energy and society starts to shift into the new era. So there was a 20-year upswing into the zenith of the "we" cycle from 1923 to1943 followed by a downswing until 1963. From 1963 to 1983, there was an upswing to the "me," followed by a 20-year downswing from 1983 to 2003, before the current "we" cycle began. "Think of the pendulum as the 40-year heartbeat of society," they write.

It's a provocative approach, and they look through history, including movies, music and other cultural manifestations, to back their thesis. But I also found it hogwash in places (especially when it came to song lyrics); surprisingly complicated as I got lost in the minutiae of the various upswings and downswings; and the deterministic flavour hard to subscribe to.

Think Like a Futurist, however, has some useful ideas about its four forces and helpful techniques you might apply to your organization's strategic planning and innovation efforts.


Joyce Nilsson Orsini, associate professor of management systems at Fordham University in New York, brings together various writings by legendary quality expert W. Edwards Deming, some previously unpublished, in The Essential Deming (McGraw-Hill, 326 pages, $38.95).

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Carol J. Loomis, senior editor-at-large at Fortune and a close friend of Warren Buffett, updates the best articles about the great investor published by the magazine in Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012 (Portfolio, 345 pages, $29.50).

Karen Wright, a Toronto-based coach of business leaders, offers a 10-step program for great leadership performance in The Complete Executive (Bibliomotion, 174 pages, $22.80).

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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