Creating a memory of the future

Creating a memory of the future

I’m a fan of the David Ingvar, the former head of the neurobiology department at the University of Lund. The results of his research, published in 1985, show that the human brain is constantly attempting to make sense of the future. Every moment of our lives, we instinctively create action plans for the future. We anticipate the moment at hand, the next minutes, the emerging hours, the following days, the ongoing weeks and the anticipated years to come.  And these ‘time paths’ are created in a specific part of our brain.

You have probably created a dozen or more such time paths since you woke up this morning: if this happens, then I’ll do that.  If something else happens, then I’ll do this.  So each time path combines a future hypothetical condition of the environment ( “If the train arrives late” ) with an option for action (“I’ll take a taxi”).  These time paths are not only created in our brain, they are also stored there.  We have, in other words, a “memory of the future”.  That memory is continually being formed and optimized in our imagination and revisited time and time again.  We perceive something as meaningful if it fits meaningfully with a memory that we have made of an anticipated future.  

Stored time paths that serve as templates
The question is: why do we have this sort of memory of the future?  Well, according to research of David Ingvar, it has a double function: (1) we use it to prepare us for action once one of the visited futures materializes and (2) we use it to help deal with the information overload to which every human being is constantly subjected.  These memories of the future help us determine which incoming information is relevant.  So the stored time paths serve as templates against which the incoming signals are measured.  If the incoming information fits one of the time paths, the input is understood. Information becomes knowledge and the signal acquires meaning. 

The more memories of the future we develop, the more open and receptive we will be to signals from the outside world. That's crucial in a continuously changing business environment.

Visit your future through mental time paths
This has important implications for managers who are trying to guide their company through a turbulent business environment.  Management of a company should deliberately invest time to “visit their future” and develop time paths and options. Otherwise, the observations and data that are collected will have no or less meaning.  Making this effort is easier for an individual human being than for a company, because our brain is hardwired to perform this sort of active engagement.  A company is not hardwired to produce this sort of memory of the future.  

Consequently, managers themselves must take specific action to produce one.  They should ask themselves what they would do if such-and-such happened.  Suppose the oil price fell (or rose), how would we react? Suppose our competitors expanded? Suppose there were a change in government or a shift in our technologies? What would be our response? Answering a broad range of these type of questions would allow managers to work out mental time paths.  It would allow them to build themselves a series of memories of the future: anticipations of events that might (or might not) take place. Thereafter, they would be more prepared to survive in an ever evolving business environment. They would have thought about their course and played it out in their imagination.

The future is plural
Around this time of the year, thousands of managers set out to predict next year’s budgets.  A highly time-consuming task indeed.  Every year again.  And for most of them, the budget forecast is an internal contract: the performance will be checked and the rewards will be calculated on how well they met their own targets.  However, there are alternative tools – or let’s say extra tools – for looking into the future: building memories of the future through scenario planning.  According to most budget plans, the future is singular.  However, that’s not true: the future is plural.  There are many options possible.  Scenario planning requires managers to abandon the one-line approach, the assumption that there is only one predicted future. In scenario planning, there is always more than one scenario.  Each scenario is simply an imaginative (and relevant) story about the future.  Good scenarios change the microcosms of management and allow you to step into many different futures.  

So invite yourself and your colleagues to invest more time into scenario planning: think about the unthinkable.  Creating those future paths will make you and your company more alert to deal with the continuous change that we are all facing on a daily basis.     

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