Archive for April, 2009

Futuring by Using Thinking Skills

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

In the futuring process, there are five thinking skills that can be helpful. They are consequential, contrarian, critical, creative, and connectional.

Consequential thinking skills are often used when studying cause and effect. In the computer programming world, consequential thinking involves “if…then” statements. For example, I may reason the following: “If I purchase a specific company’s stock, then my portfolio value will increase.” When dealing with simple situations, consequential thinking is fairly easy. However, in dealing with complex systems, a specific action might trigger unexpected results in some of the subsystems. Thus it is important to analyze the potential results of an action before taking that action.

In studying complex systems, we recognize that a city is a complex system with many such subsystems as the local government, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and civic groups—to name a few subsystems—that make up the whole. If the city council passes an ordinance to help one of the subsystems, it may harm another subsystem if the ordinance is not consequentially, thoroughly, thought through.

Contrarian skills are a second category of thinking. They go against the normal flow of ideas. Often the contrarian thinker reduces groupthink. By definition, “groupthink” is a situation wherein people on a committee or in a group of some sort all think alike. When this happens, often the people belonging to the group may miss some important points in considering actions on various issues. With contrarian thinking promoted, group members are encouraged to question groupthink and think counter to the idea flow. Often comments from contrarian thinkers can be shocking. For example, a group might be meeting to discuss implementing a retirement plan in the company. A contrarian thinker in the group might impart the idea of eliminating the idea of a retirement plan altogether. In fact, the contrarian thinker might declare that there is no need for anyone to ever retire on a company plan—that people should independently plan and save for their own retirements external to the company. He might proclaim that people should plan to work until they cannot work any longer due to their health, then there would be a special disability program for them until government benefits could provide for the person. Only people who have saved and invested independently in order to create wealth external to the organization should be able to live without working; i.e, retire, the contrarian thinker espouses. That contrarian idea might generate all sorts of comments and deliberations. The group may continue with its planning, but because of the contrarian thinking of one person, the group might alter its decisions to some degree.

Another type of thinking is critical thinking. By using the critical thinking process, we look at an idea or situation and analyze it without prejudice. For example, all cars were once painted black. What if, in the United States, we reverted to painting all cars black and no cars of any color were available for purchase? In using critical thinking, we would eliminate our personal feelings about our favorite color and evaluate the positives and negatives of having all cars painted black. I’m certain that we could come up with a list of positives and negatives that would help make the decision of whether to eliminate colors in auto choices.

One of the many hot issues today and one that is impacting on the North American region’s future is immigration reform. Critical thinking is required in this area. As ideas are put forth, it is important to look at each idea without prejudice and to list the positives and negatives of implementing that idea. Again, the effects of that idea on all subsystems in our complex North American system must be considered. Obviously, implementation of new laws and regulations, however they change the system, will have a distinct impact on the future of life in North America.

A fourth type of thinking is creative thinking. “Creativity” is a process that produces an innovation. In order to compete in the global marketplace, companies and countries must continue to produce innovations. By creating something entirely new, finding a new use for a current product, or combining two or more products to produce a new use, an organization can launch an innovation in its marketplace. For creativity to be effective, the organization must have an atmosphere conducive to the process and a budget that allows for trial and error while in a stage of experimentation. To be conducive to the process, the organizational atmosphere should promote good lighting, a natural environment (green plants, sunlight, fresh air, etc.), flexible work hours so that people can work according to their circadian rhythm, and good team support for exchange of ideas. Additionally, knowledge management systems must be in place.

The fifth type of thinking, connectional thinking, incorporates the other four thinking types mentioned above. Connectional thinking creates patterns from seemingly unconnected events. It is similar to a connect-the-dots exercise that produces a meaningful picture by connecting seemingly random dots. Only when all the dots are connected does the picture have meaning.

An example of connectional thinking might be a pattern analysis of three trends: (1) Social Security and Medicare are rapidly depleting their funds; (2) Baby Boomers are aging; (3) the national debt is growing at a phenomenal rate. By connecting these three trends, it seems likely that there will be great pressure on the U.S. economy for the next thirty years, at least. Aging Baby Boomers will pull heavily on the Social Security and Medicare systems as they now exist; and the U.S. economy will continue to feel hefty challenges. It stands to reason that, in the future, Social Security and Medicare must be adjusted and/or taxes must be increased to accommodate the fulfillment of promises to older generations. With the national debt escalating and Social Security and Medicare becoming insolvent, the likely scenario will be an increase in taxes on the younger generations, and perhaps a cut in younger people’s promised benefits. Now, using consequential thinking (if…then): If younger people’s benefits don’t measure up to older people’s benefits, yet younger people are paying massively into the Social Security system, then there might either be a tax rebellion or intergenerational conflict arising. These scenarios must be considered in planning the future.

By applying the five types of thinking skills in an integrated manner, it becomes easier to see the future with both its problems and promises.

©2009, Carolyn Corbin. All rights reserved.