You cannot ‘future proof’ your business

Its a popular term and an optimistic promise, but you cannot ‘future proof’ your business or your people. And you shouldn’t want to. Think what ‘something-proof’ means. Along with other uses of the word, proof means to be ‘able to withstand something damaging; resistant.

What is the ‘proof’ in future-proofing?

Let us start with the first part of that definition: ‘able to withstand something damaging’. Our minds might go to coats that have been water-proofed, military vests that are bullet-proof, expensive paint that is weather-proof. New parents might baby-proof a home. In all of these cases we are trying to withstand something damaging. And that is an awful way to look at the future. 

If we start with an unexamined assumption that the future is damaging then we are moving, every day, into a world that we believe is bad for us. It is bad, wrong, damaging. This is an awful way to anticipate the future as it guarantees anxiety and fear and leaves no room to discover and revel in futures that may be good for us. It implies a longing for the past, a fictitious, fantasy past when everything was, somehow, better. That nostalgia narrative can trap us in the fantasy that the best days are past and that every day from now on must be endured and change must be resisted.

We can be swayed by our nostalgia narrative

Our nostalgia narratives reveal a great deal about us. Firstly they may reveal that the changes that we are experiencing are ones where our former privilege is being undermined. The people who long for the ‘good old days’ are not the same people who suffered in the past, were discriminated against, were unable to express themselves and their values or beliefs. Secondly our nostalgia narratives reveal that we are afraid of the future, and that fear often comes from us being unprepared. We are unprepared, not only for the future but honestly, many people are unprepared for today, for the events, trends, pressures of today’s world.

Bullet proof not future proof

The second part of that definition of  ‘something-proof’ is that it is resistant. A bulletproof vest resists bullets, it doesn’t embrace them. A waterproof coat resists the rain, it doesn’t absorb it. And a mindset that starts with future-proofing itself may set us up to look for ways to resist change, to judge changing values as bad and to find ways to resist the impact of new technologies, new laws, new rules. Resistance is exhausting, it robs us of joy and surprise, it drains our energy and creativity. And ultimately, resistance is futile. 

Why do we use this phrase of ‘future-proof’ when it can be so problematic? Well partially it’s because when a phrase becomes popular people often use it without examining what it means or implies. And we also often use the wrong words when we don’t have enough language to discuss the topic. Imagine having a conversation with an expert microbiologist who wants to explain the minutiae of her research with you. After just a few moments of conversation you realise that you do not have enough of an understanding or enough words to comprehend what she is talking about. You might think you can talk about very tiny things but she is trying to have a deep conversation in which you cannot participate because you do not have the framework or the language to make sense of it. Futures Literacy is the place we normally start to build up that language so that we can have sensible conversations on the topic.

What are our options?

So what do we do then, if we want to avoid using a problematic phrase? Let’s try some others. We can be:

  • Future fit. We go to gym to work out and get fit so that when we need to run or have endurance or strength, we have already prepared our bodies for the task. Being future fit means that prepare ourselves for potential situations in the future where we will need the mindset, toolset and skillset for the future.
  • Future focused. We can pay attention to the future by training ourselves to scan, anticipate, imagine. All three of those are futures skills that help us to prepare, even for what is unknown.
  • Futures literate. We can learn the language and models for futures thinking so that we have a medium of communication.
Future Fit not Future Proof

Another reason we make like the idea of proofing ourselves against something, is that it is a single activity rather than an ongoing evolution. We can slap on a coat of weather proof paint, or spend one weekend baby proofing a home. But to be futures fit, futures focussed or futures literate means that we need to pay more attention over a longer period of time. We will become incrementally better at this. Its hard work, but so much more valuable than simply, and ineffectively, trying to proof against the future.

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