Thinking about the future is a daily necessity

Dealing with tomorrow and the day after tomorrow is more important than ever before, believes the Swedish future researcher Magnus Lindkvist. A talk with the globally in-demand trend expert about creativity in business, outdated modes of thought in large companies and the healthy way to utilise modern communication tools. Interview by Ronald Focken, Managing Director of the Serviceplan Group.

Why should a marketer read your book or why should marketers think about the future at all in your opinion?

Magnus Lindkvist: Marketing is the most future-oriented function a company has. Finance gathers past or present results. Sales sell now. Top management try to seem like they’re in control. HR should think about what kind of skills we’ll need tomorrow but are often only reactive. It is left to marketing departments to think about the fluidity of markets, anticipate future needs and reframe products and services to make them appealing in the long run. This why so few management boards listen to marketers – they are too busy solving current problems.

Do you believe that developments such as the World Wide Web, the smartphone and basic digitisation are a disadvantage for society? Think about the changes in our behaviour, such as checking our e-mails first thing in the morning (fear of missing out) – wherever we are, we are consuming information. With these technical distractions, are we taking away our own ability to open up our minds?

ML: I believe we worship the wrong dimensions of communication tools (such as always being online, a click away, able to reach anyone anywhere). In the short run, every new technology leads to overuse. When the automobile was new, people drove and parked everywhere and as anyone stuck in morning rush hour traffic can attest, too many people bought cars. Today, we are seeing an overreliance on smartphones, the internet, tablets etc. to the detriment of a) individual critical thinking, b) the values embedded in the analogue and c) the ability to focus and concentrate on single tasks and/or long texts. This will change as the technologies mature and our usage becomes more nuanced.

The aspiration of advertising is to be creative and innovative. In your book you say that our society is more at ease with imitation and adaptation than with originality. Is advertising a creative act in your opinion?

ML: I would challenge the premise here and rephrase it as follows: there is a mysterious force called creativity and for a long time, the most common creative outlet in business was advertising; but in the coming few years it may well fall to grassroots manufacturing (3D printers), start-ups, bio-hacking (manipulating DNA) or some other industry to be creative. Instead of asking “Is advertising creative?” I would ask “Is creativity advertising?” The answer used to be yes but is meanwhile increasingly becoming no.

You say that the world is changing more and more rapidly and therefore thinking about the future has evolved “from a rare luxury into an everyday necessity”. How must companies and their agencies react to this structurally?

ML: If I could indulge in wishful thinking, they would make future thought a daily routine instead of a McKinsey strategy once every four years. When I say “future thought”, I think about it as a kind of “intellectual acupuncture” where each question and insight becomes a needle that can change thoughts. A simple rule of thumb to use here is the “one assumption per decade” rule wherein for every decade that will pass, one assumption regarding a product, phenomenon or industry will change or even disappear. For example, we assume buildings to be immobile, robust, built to house something/someone and quite expensive. If we move to 2024, one of these assumptions will have changed. If we move to the 2060s, all of them will have changed.

The world is also becoming more complex every day; there have to be specialists for every machine and every product. In your opinion, does that apply to communications as well?

ML: Yes. The rule here is that every job title tends to break into five or more new job titles in the course of every decade. What was once a mere “computer programmer” is today a Java programmer, a systems architect, a scrum lead, and so on.

You even offer advice to people who want to be innovative: “You have to know when to let go”. Do you feel that many top decision-makers think too much in rigid, outdated structures instead of building up something new?

ML: Nietzsche famously said that madness is rare in individuals but common in groups. A company that reaches a certain size will undoubtedly be ruled by nostalgia to a certain extent. We will see things like “core values” or talk about the founder’s visions. We seek out outdated structures of thinking instead of relentlessly exploring the new. Knowing when to let go was a piece of advice given to me by IBM’s VP of Innovation Bernie Myerson who argued that too many companies spend too much time backing old ideas instead of letting go to pursue the next curve.

How should managers, top decision-makers etc. act in the future instead?

ML: The idea of a top decision-maker is itself an anachronism (and, unfortunately, a legal requirement). The all-knowing, fully informed “eye in the sky” was well suited to a hierarchical structure operating in a well-defined environment (think Napoleonic armies). All these assumptions are redundant. The environment is unstructured and chaotic today. Anyone can be fully informed, and conviction (as in “I am certain that …”) is a sure way of being hit by surprises. The legally required top decision-maker serves mainly as a kind of mascot for the company whereas the important information flows and the crucial decisions are made elsewhere (please note that by “crucial”, I don’t mean “big” or “expensive” – companies that are out of ideas tend to make big decisions too, like buying company X for a ridiculous amount of money, and for that decision you need the board of directors. But the crucial decisions tend to be about what customers to serve, what ideas to pursue and what experiments to conduct.

In your book, you explain that creativity cannot be scheduled. “…that ideas come to us – or at least to certain people”. Some are even able to improve our lives. Which ideas that have emerged in the last ten years do you consider to be the most valuable?

ML: It is, to paraphrase Zhou En Lai, probably too early to tell, but right off the bat I would say that our ability to manipulate DNA will shape our world significantly in the coming century.

People need time to be able to take on board changes and future-oriented thinking. You say, “Time pressure closes the mind,” and “When we are stressed, we resort to clichés, prejudices and other cognitive shortcuts.” What can and must companies and agencies do to enable employees to think freely? Do you have any examples of where this has been successful?

ML: Many companies have turned Japanese. They expect people to sit around for long hours and look like they are working. Real work might rely on taking it easy for two weeks and then writing an article that changes the minds of thousands of people. Modern working life clings on to process thinking (repetitive routines) when it should embrace biological thinking (ensuring certain conditions are met and watching life grow). We will think freely when we can, so it’s not something we should promote, it is something we should stop inhibiting.

You write that change feels odd. “It is safer to imitate than to strive for originality.” In the communications industry, we are often faced with the challenge of convincing customers of our sometimes unconventional ideas. Do you have any tips on how to do this successfully?

ML: Do it yourself instead. If client X doesn’t buy your idea, do it yourself. It is easier and cheaper than it has ever been to produce and transmit ideas. If you believe your idea is revolutionary and that the client is a douchebag for not realising that, then put your pennies where your passion is and prove it. Experiment, play around and accept that ideas tend to flow from a faucet. Anyone can come up with one and most will be bad. The time of backing a single expensive idea is long gone.

TV, smartphones, PCs, tablets, newspapers, magazines, radio – the list of information carriers and the associated information overload is almost endless. In advertising we are also required more than ever to adapt to and use new media usage habits. In your view, are we therefore also contributing to the distortion of reality, as described in your book?

ML: The most common disease today is infobesity – most people are well informed but our brains are full of junk. Just like fast food companies have been (perhaps wrongfully) blamed for rising obesity, anyone in the information sphere will have to take responsibility for infobesity in the coming decades.

And last but not least, a personal question: how do you interact with mobile devices and social media? And when do you take time out amidst all the daily distractions to think about the future?

ML: I have left all social media except Linkedin (which I find to be quite trivial and meaningless), but this is not because I am a technophobe. I believe that like one’s diet, information habits should be varied and renewed at certain intervals. I spent most of 2014 reading thick paper novels and gave my Kindle away to a friend. Yet next year I just might be a social media omnivore and dabble in wearable devices just to see what happens to the quality of my thoughts. Habit is the enemy of progress.

 

Zur weiterführenden Lektüre empfehlen wir MAGNUS LINDKVIST // WENN DIE ZUKUNFT KOMMT: EINE ANLEITUNG ZUM LANGFRISTIGEN DENKEN (Midas Management Verlag).