Future Ready, Not Future Proof: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, FRSA FASAE • January 30, 2019

This is the first in a two-part series I will post this month and next in which I will share foundational principles for building a future-ready association. In Part I, I will explore why the increasingly popular phrase “future proof” is unhelpful, and discuss the first three principles that association boards and chief staff executives can apply to nurture the future readiness of their organizations.

We already know that the next 120 months will be a period of accelerating, deepening and intensifying societal transformation. No person, association or field of human endeavor or experience will escape the effects of disruption’s formidable and growing momentum, which has been building for more than two decades and continues to smash the status quo at every turn. Under these conditions, the question that association decision-makers must answer immediately is how they will give their organizations and stakeholders a chance to thrive in what is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world.

One popular idea circulating widely on social media is the notion of building so-called “future proof” organizations that can resist the impact of societal transformation. While the feeling of greater control implied by this phrase may be intuitively appealing, the view that associations can be somehow “proofed” against disruption is both erroneous and unhelpful. None of us, including association decision-makers, knows what the future will be, or can control how it will unfold. Instead of continuing to resist the future, boards and chief staff executives must strive to learn with the future, anticipate a full range of plausible futures and prepare for them by investing in building the necessary capabilities to thrive. In other words, we need associations that are truly “future ready.”

Three Cognitive Principles

To begin nurturing the future readiness of our associations, I want to share the first three of six foundational principles. These three principles emphasize the cognitive ways of being and acting that associations need to adopt to become future ready.

Generative attention

In a recent essay for Aeon, author Dan Nixon argues that attention is not just a resource but an experience or, as he writes, “a way of being alive to the world.” Embracing this duality is critical to building future-ready associations. Attention is the essential resource we need to focus on the most important issues we face. At the same time, attention is also how we explore and interact with the world around us. Association decision-makers must be able to access both modes of attention to learn with the future. Unfortunately, our attention has been rendered finite, fragmented and fragile by the myriad and increasingly intense demands of societal transformation that continue to disrupt our personal and professional lives. Future-ready associations must push back against these external forces by acting with care and intention to direct both modes of attention toward the most generative and beneficial outcomes possible.

Deep unlearning

Deep learning is a form of AI in which artificial neural networks that mimic the structure of the human brain are layered to handle more complex tasks. For associations to build their future readiness, they must scrutinize many layers of interconnected and often complicated orthodox beliefs, accumulated over decades, which create inertia and undermine the ability to adapt to and learn with the future. This examination of the organization’s deepest beliefs must be conducted in the open, with complete candor and with the full inclusion of all perspectives, especially the unorthodox and unpopular.

Deep unlearning is a crucial practice for association decision-makers to champion as they work to overcome the burden of tradition and build more robust and capable organizations that have a chance to thrive in the context of profound societal transformation.

Integrated intelligences

It is time to acknowledge that we cannot build future-ready associations based on human intelligence alone.

Associations need to innovate with their technology partners to develop more powerful value creation platforms that blend human and machine intelligences to offer radical new value to a broader universe of interested stakeholders, especially those who remain excluded by the orthodox constraints of membership. By capitalizing on integrated intelligences, associations can learn more quickly, understand more deeply and anticipate more consistently the most compelling ways they can support their stakeholders as they address the problems, needs and outcomes that shape their lives. Developing and implementing integrated intelligence platforms around a strong ethical core that is fully cognizant of their limitations and guarantees their responsible use must be a central concern for every future-ready association as well.

Next Month

In Part II of this series, I will discuss three additional principles for building future-ready associations and offer advice to association decision-makers on how to mobilize their organizations to embrace them.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). He is the author of the eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with AssociationAdviser.com, a Naylor publication.

Jeff can be reached at jeff@foresightfirst.io or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.