FSG Blog
January 23, 2024

Planning for the future is hard, and whose problem is it anyway?

Joe DuFresne
FSG Principal

 A psychologist sees a disconnect between how people view their future selves and who they really are. The same may hold true for organizations, making planning for the future especially challenging. 

The decisions and choices we make today impact our future selves, for better or worse.  We can choose to eat healthy, exercise, brush our teeth, or save for a rainy day – or not.  These choices require making a tradeoff between what is good for us now (e.g., tasty junk food, relaxing, cash in our pocket) and what will be good for some future self whom we will never meet.

In his book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, UCLA professor Hal Hershfield discusses why making those choices for the benefit of our future selves is so difficult.  Hershfield references studies that show we actually don’t view our future selves as ourselves at all, but instead as strangers.  In fact, the studies show we tend to refer to our future selves as “them, him, or her” instead of “me.”

Hershfield also points out that we often treat strangers differently than we treat family, friends, or acquaintances.  We are much more likely to bring a pot of chili to a neighbor in need than to someone we don’t know.  Even giving food to a stranger on the street is easier than sending food to somebody across the world because we have a face-to-face connection with that person on the street.

The difficulty is not surprising, then, when we are faced with having to make sacrifices for the benefit of our future selves, a person we view as a stranger whom we will never meet and who will never return the favor.  But Hershfield discusses how one study found a way to counter that phenomenon.  When study participants were shown a computer-generated picture of an aged version of themselves they were more likely to make choices that benefited those future selves.  Simply being able to visualize and identify with that “other person” makes us more inclined to make tradeoffs and sacrifices for them.

The choices that we make today for our organizations similarly impact the future of those organizations.  As in our personal lives we tend to prioritize short-term over long-term benefits because can see and feel those short-term benefits.  The long-term implications of those decisions are something that we or somebody else (is there a difference?) will have to deal with later.  Even when intentionally conducting long-term planning for the future, presumably in the interest of that future organization, we will still often be driven by present needs and circumstances.  The future organization is a stranger to us and is treated like one.

Scenario hack for planning for the future

Alternative futures scenario planning offers a way to “hack” that tendency to devalue our future organization over the present.  When using future scenarios we become well-acquainted with that future organization because during the process we have worked to shape it to succeed across a range of plausible future operating environment.  It is no longer a stranger to us, we have walked in its shoes, and we are prepared to advocate for it when making tradeoffs between short-term and long-term priorities.

Of course, long-term strategies always need to consider practical implementation using the boundary conditions of today, or at least the near future.  However, going through the alternative futures process at least allows us to consider those future needs on equal footing with the needs of today rather than disregard them as tomorrow problems for somebody else.

Our future selves and our future organizations are counting on us.  They can’t communicate what they need us to do and how our decisions will impact them.  Through the alternative futures process we can rigorously explore what they may be dealing with so that we can do our best to not leave them out wandering alone into an uncertain future.

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5 thoughts on “Planning for the future is hard, and whose problem is it anyway?”

  1. I like this, Joe. Every bit of it rings true. Your elaboration of the idea of “our future selves” as strangers to include visions of our organizations makes perfect sense.

    With that last point, I have a question that a lot of companies struggle to answer: In the present, how do we persuade shareholders to trade present returns for a promise of future growth? How do we keep them from saying, “Call me when the growth starts. In the meantime I’m going elsewhere to look for returns.”

    Auto companies spending billions on developing EVs for a market that is years from being mainstream would be one good example.

    My own response to that question is to communicate a persuasive case for a strategic turn toward the future, and to keep communicating it. Simultaneously the appeal of the deal needs to be sweetened with short-term rewards.

    What’s your point of view?

    • The million dollar question, right, Kevin? (no pun intended) Your EV example is a good one, convincing shareholders to invest in a product line that doesn’t have a strong market base, yet. Prof Hershfield mentions that another way to connect with future self-interests is to start with a future state and then work back to today, rather than starting from today and looking forward. This is, of course, EXACTLY what alternative futures scenario planning does, which makes it so effective at “hacking” that gap. So to get back to your question, maybe it’s helpful to articulate a future state, or future return, and then showing what has to happen if we’re going to realize that future return. Or to put it another way, starting at a future state and looking back, it may be easier to see when investments have to be made and where opportunity is lost if we don’t.
      To use your EV example, one could show a future transportation system that is fully, or almost fully electric, with all the associated infrastructure to support it in place. That would not be the time to enter the EV market. Seeing it from that perspective one can see that being a first-mover allows you to not only adapt to the emerging market, but actually influence it. I think it’s too difficult to visualize that benefit looking out to a shapeless future, you need to start at the future and look back.

  2. Great piece. It sparked several thoughts right away:

    1. In planning for the future of organizations, we really ARE planning for people other than us. One of the biggest problems of our time is that executives who will probably not be here in five or ten years are not incentivized to sacrifice present good even for future organizational survival. In fact, there is a hard-line capitalist/libertarian argument often made that ONLY present stock price need be considered in decision-making. The problem is that the calculations needed to compute Net Present Value (equivalent to stock price) conceal a great deal of uncertainty. The only way to be conscientious about that uncertainty is to try to identify the full range of plausible futures, and prepare for each.

    2. Interestingly, the Effective Altruism movement is based on valuing future human lives as equal, morally, to our own present lives. Where they seem to go haywire is when they calculate that there could be 10 to the 58th human beings throughout our galaxy in a million or 100 million years, and so the interests of those future people swamp our own. Self-serving billionaires have been shown to use this theory to maximize their current money-making and minimize their current charitable efforts in order to save the cash for future generations. Sam Bankman-Fried was one of the billionaire adherents of this philosophy. This is not an argument against planning for the future! Just a data point that shows that some people can use concern for the future to make very self-serving short-term decisions.

    3. An Irish member of Parliament named Sir Boyle Roche, circa 1800, was famous for his Yogi Berra-like statements. One of his most famous was, “Why should we put ourselves out of our way for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”

    Again, great piece.

  3. This discusion aligns nicely with research I was dong wth the CGG n the 80s on retention bonuses and the “draw” (effectiveness) of retirement using personal discount rates. How much wiill an indvidual discount the future. A lot it turns out.

    • For sure, Steve. It seemed to me that if we discount it so heavily as individuals, and since organizations are made up of individuals, that organizations are susceptible to the same tendency. As Pat points out, in most cases the future organization is absolutely made up of strangers, or at least not us. So that just compounds the problem.


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