Building Preferable Future Work Scenarios

#WF16 Using scenario development to make work better

👋 This is the 16th regular update from the Workforce Futurist Newsletter – which is read by those on a journey to make work better.

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Imagining A Preferable Future of Work

What is now proved was once only imagined. William Blake

In the middle of a pandemic, some will find it hard to think about ‘the future’ much beyond the ability to go shopping without wearing a mask.  Others have embraced the change to prosper. 

An unforeseen global virus has cruelly exposed the need to rebuild resilient, fair, and prosperous societies.

Predicting the future is impossible, but thinking about it can be useful.

My passion is about building a better future of work – where individuals can flourish and where great work is produced by diverse teams of people. 

Roy Amara, the futurist, stated that there are three main classes of futures: possible, probable, and preferable.

How can we use the development of scenarios to imagine and build a preferable future for work?

Future of Work Scenarios for 2025 – An Interactive Simulation

I recently participated in an interactive simulation to identify and explore the top macro-economic trends that will impact future of work scenarios in the year 2025.

The simulation was run by Wikistrat and commissioned by Accenture. 

41 participants from 16 countries were invited and included experts from academia, large employers, think-tanks, and the military. It was a multi-disciplinary exercise touching on economics, HR, technology, cybersecurity, future studies, and, organisational strategy. 

The collective analysis helped to develop 52 top-macro economic trends, 35 scenarios, and 38 policy recommendations.  I hope you will be able to read the final report which will be interesting reading for Workforce Futurists. 

I enjoyed the experience, and it prompted me to think about our relationship with ‘the future’. Four years ago, ‘global pandemic risk’ was not high on the agenda of strategic planners in businesses or governments.

For many years I have used scenario development techniques with clients in the context of workforce strategy for employers and product road-maps for tech firms.  The written outputs are used occasionally, but the real value is the process of getting a leadership team to sit down and focus together on todays’ challenges.  These sessions can correct wrong assumptions, shift the team back to a consensus view and help galvanise a future vision.

The Future is Not Predetermined or Predictable

Amara’s three laws of futures:

  1. the future is not predetermined,

  2. the future is not predictable, and

  3. the future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present.

I've seen the future, baby: It is murder – Leonard Cohen

If we are asked to imagine how the future will develop over the next 10 years, most people will look back at the progress of the last 10 years for guidance. 

Humans tend to think linearly, but exploring future trends requires us to think exponentially.

In 2011, who would have predicted where we got to in 2021?

From mRNA vaccines to driverless taxis and TikTok (ahem).

Human progress moves quicker and quicker as time goes on—is what Ray Kurzweil calls human history’s Law of Accelerating Returns. The diagram below illustrates what this can feel like.

We tend to look at the future (and the past) through today’s glasses.

Our linear brains can get us into real trouble when we get blindsided by factors that trend to exponential growth.

The blue line in the graph below is an exponential model over the raw data of Covid cases last year. (from a lesson in the New York Times)

Exponential growth is deceptively slow, then explosive.

Given that the future is not predetermined, predictable or even imaginable, maybe a positive focus is to work out our preferable scenarios are and then build towards them?

A Scenario Development Approach

Developing scenarios in the context of your work, or even your personal situation can be a useful exercise.  We might not be able to predict every eventuality, but it gives us time to process possible and probable events.  And help us to build preferable futures.

Here’s a simplified but effective approach to identify future trends and scenarios for your organisation or even for your career.

Define the focus area, question, decision, and add a relevant timeframe.

  • Identify driving forces - big shifts in society, economics, politics, legal, technology, and environment that can impact your business. PESTLE analysis.

  • Identify critical uncertainties - pick two uncertainties that are the most relevant to your business and industry.

  • Develop plausible scenarios - aim to create two or three contrasting scenarios for future scenario narratives.

  • Discuss implications and paths

If you are interested in developing this for your business, get in touch.

I've seen the future, baby: It is plausible

With scenarios, we can then plot them out in different ways. 

One useful tool for this task is the ‘cone of plausibility’ which gives a frame of reference for considering how different the future might be from the present.  In the diagram below, that notion is illustrated by the narrow end of the cone extending from the present to the future. As we move further into the future, the range of what might be plausible expands. From preposterous to possible to plausible to probable and preferable.

How many preposterous scenarios will have come true if you had done this exercise in 2011?

What are the Driving Forces Changing Work?

What are the driving forces behind the workforce trends we are seeing at the moment?

Many industry commentators look back at the last 20 years, and extrapolate forward, however, future trajectories are not linear. For example,

How should we use blockchain technology at work? Let’s use it to pay workers more efficiently with the monthly payroll.  Making 100 year processes more efficient is one approach, another is how do we select, motivate and reward teams in 2021?

Let’s move to the Four Day Week. Which comes from the same prescriptive and constraining thinking that gave us the…Five Day Week.  We need to think about each particular situation and context and come up with the best solution. Not try and apply the same hard fix to every situation.

Management practices are driven by economics, industry and consumer trends, demographics, technology adoption and social psychology. See my article What will Drive The Future of HR?

Let’s take a few workforce trends that I rotate on this newsletter,

The New Infrastructure of Work – how we are gradually dragging the world of work into the digital age with Web3 technologies, replacing CVs and resumes with verifiable digital career wallets, self-sovereign identity, effective work-matching platforms, predictive tools based on actual behaviour rather than self-reported surveys.

The Decentralised Workforce – how an untapped workforce is utilising digital technology to develop extra income streams, from solopreneurs to playbourers and digital creators.

The Changing Role of the Employer – in an era where the workforce has changed radically from the previous generation, there is a big impact for employers.  From ‘the great flourishing’, to ‘the loneliness epidemic’ and what it means for employer brand and sourcing work more generally.

These types of trends will be weaker or stronger depending on the context, geography, industry and of course unpredictable events.

Preferable Future Workforce Scenarios

What are the preferable future work scenarios we would we like to see in the next few years?

As an example, my research paper with Don Tapscott and the BRI identified some longer-term trends on how we organise our career data, and developed some scenarios.

As we build a new infrastructure of work, we might see:

  • Individuals hold their career credentials, such as skills and educational certificates, employment history using verifiable digital career wallets.

  • Platforms are developed that allow efficient work-matching using the data from the career wallets.

  • Over time, there is more trust in the platforms, workers and employers increasingly use them for better results, seamless transactions, and quicker payments.

  • The platforms are not only more effective but also fairer reducing discrimination and bias that is baked into current manual processes.

  • Workers have much more autonomy and equity in their work and start to develop new forms of teamwork including cooperatives, digital guilds, platforms, and DAOs.

  • Employers will need fewer full-time workers because they will be able to pull from a reliable liquid workforce when they need it.

  • Society will need to adapt to having more people work outside of traditional employment contracts, with implication for education, taxation, and welfare.

In many ways, these scenarios are possible and preferable, but not fully evaluated and other trajectories are possible. The trends and scenarios are for illustration purposes but let me know your thoughts.

As we rebuild our societies in the coming years, a final thought…

The first article image is by artist Beth Hoeckel