The Shapes of the Future

Simple phase spaceToday’s business consultants, strategic planners, trend-spotters, and management experts sell predictions. They are satisfying a market need. But it’s not likely they are enhancing anyone’s strategic thinking.

Instead of point predictions, it’s better to consider the shapes of the future. Here, we can draw some lessons from the so-called new science of complexity. First, we need to see that there are simple systems (which can be predictively modeled) and complex ones (which are not predictable). The nearby graphics illustrate the difference between simple and complex systems.

The notion of shapes-of-the-future gives our strategic thinking some space for considering alternatives and gaining a richer understanding of context. It allows for ambiguity and exploration and opening up for exploration by a sharp-minded person.

The figure at the top of this article depicts the “phase space” for a pendulum swinging back and forth. It traces out a simple and predictable linear pattern of forces (e.g. gravity, momentum, and time). As you can see, the line models the back-and-forth pendulum by cycling up and down as time progresses. It’s not too difficult to predict the shape of this simple, linear system.

Complex phase spaceThe nearby figure illustrates the phase space for a complex system. Notice that there is a circular disc on one plane and it appears that the system is mostly in that region, However, is another disc arcing upward. Is that an emerging new shape? Complexity theorists tell us that system is converge towards a particular area of phase space, called a “strange attractor.”

Further, the initial starting conditions influence the shape. A slight variation in the initial conditions might lead to no change in the final results or could produce wildly different final results.

Compare the two figures and you should see the difference between the notions of point predictions and shapes of the future.

Organizations are complex systems and furthermore, organizations interact with the also-complex external environment. Complexity theory tells us that we can’t predict a point in complex systems but can only roughly estimate it to be in some general region.


The point for strategic thinking is that we don’t waste energy focusing on events and visions, but rather emphasize understanding the context that produces the events.

This example can help you exercise the shapes-of-the-future question: What are the shapes of the future that are influenced by your children’s or grandchildren’s choice of college (or not) and vocation? Each of their choices has the potential to powerfully influence the shape of their future: their income, their status, their family size. As any parent would recognize decisions that are made today have effects that will be felt in the future.

Consider using words like triangulate, encircle, and fractals to help you imagine regions.

When you hear someone making a prediction, listen to them with skepticism if you listen to them at all. Do you agree?


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