By force of habit, most executives tune down their imagination when strategizing. This is counterproductive, the authors argue. Instead, they offer an alternative: Design fiction. A design technique that immerses executives and employees deeply in various possible futures, it uses artifacts such as short movies, fictitious newspaper articles and imaginary commercials to generate transformation roadmaps. Rooted in the future but helping to act in the present, design fiction results in concrete actions taken to adjust companies’ visions, strategies, and activities to create a better future.
Trying to predict what the future will look like is doomed to fail. Yet this is what most executives do when they strategize. They — we — do this because we have been trained and educated to use trends and statistics to predict what is likely to happen and prepare accordingly. As a result, companies struggle to react to changes in their environments when they should be shaping them proactively. This is an issue for executives around the globe whose strategizing, anchored in the past, misses out on important opportunities to envision, and design, possible futures.
Over the past seven years in working with about 50 executive teams around the world, we’ve been experimenting with an alternative approach to strategy: design fiction. Design fiction is a technique that immerses executives and employees deeply in various possible futures, and uses artifacts such as short movies, fictitious newspaper articles, and imaginary commercials to generate transformation roadmaps. Rooted in the future but helping to act in the present, design fiction results in concrete actions taken to adjust companies’ visions, strategies, and activities to create a better future.
Unlike many strategic foresight tools, design fiction does not attempt to identify what is more likely to happen. Nor does it limit strategy conversations to the C-suite; in fact a core component is the participation of a wide range of stakeholders. Consequently, the teams that we’ve seen deploy design fiction are able to formulate and shape desirable futures that other tools do not enable people to see.
How We Use It
The first step of putting design fiction into practice involves crafting scenarios of possible futures. For example, in a project with a major car insurance company, we analyzed information from urban mobility trends, autopilot flight modes, Luc Besson’s notorious movie The Fifth Element, and interviews with early electric car adopters to develop scenarios of possible futures. These atypical data sources help spotlight less obvious aspects that would otherwise remain unnoticed in the strategizing process. In this example, from talking to an airline pilot we understood how the risks will be shifting in an autonomous driving ecosystem. Bumper shocks and losing control of the vehicle will not happen anymore, but new risks such as system hacking and break down of vital sensors will arise.
Akin to strategic foresight tools, we do analyze current trends and weak signals, but importantly, we also leverage the best design tools by building on analogous situations, science fiction inspiration, interviews with extreme users and other stakeholders. Typically, we also interview employees to understand which possible developments have (not) been considered by the company. We ask questions such as “What has been the biggest failure you’ve seen in the company?” and “What could kill the company?”
From this data we craft a mix of scenarios which depict different versions of the future. For example, by talking to employees of a major fragrance brand, we identified the limiting belief that the company’s sales would forever be driven by the end of the year season, as it has always been since the creation of the brand more than a century ago. Using this information, we crafted a “Christmas is over” scenario in which sales seasons were spread out over the year.
Next, we run immersive workshops in which we discuss three or four of these scenarios with employees from all areas and levels of the company. The participation of a wide group of individuals helps expand strategizing to certain stakeholders, such as frontline employees, who can contribute different and necessary perspectives as well as identify opportunities to seize. In small groups, we help them reflect on the role that their companies could play in these scenarios of possible futures and how to provoke the conditions for a more desirable future. Design fictions emerge from these discussions. They describe new missions and visions for companies and how to get there. In the project we conducted with the car insurance company, this part of the design fiction process triggered a change in the mission of the company from insuring cars against damages to enabling individual journeys with all mobility means. Workshops with the fragrance brand around the “Christmas is over” scenario generated a new mission that was more inclusive by focusing on events such as Black History Month and Pride Day. While discussing how to get there, the company also realized that its targeting strategy would be much more accurate as a result.
Finally, we use the design fictions to design shareable artifacts (e.g., short movies, fictitious newspaper articles) which can be considered as a prototype of the companies’ future. From these artifacts, a roadmap of strategic transformation is created. For instance, a design fiction project with a large construction company ended up shifting their innovation strategy after they invented a future in which 3D printing made building construction carbon-emission free. The transformation roadmap included areas of 3D printing to focus on and investments needed to shape this desirable future.
Inventing the Future
Design fiction has helped dozens of multinational companies to strategize differently. And while creating fictional futures may sound a little quirky, we know that it works. For example, a recent design-fiction project conducted with a major oil and gas company helped identify how to shape a future in which people living in remote areas were less socially isolated. The company decided to repurpose gas stations into places galvanizing community through services such as car sharing hubs, medical centers, delivery platforms, and ghost kitchens. Although company executives had engaged in various strategizing and foresight exercises in the past, only design fiction enabled them to envision this possible version of the future.
It’s not always easy. Using design fiction successfully requires executives to be creative and open to all possibilities. Yet as much as design fiction helps bring back imagination in the strategizing process, executives can be resistant to it. By force of habit, most executives tune down their imagination when strategizing and it is challenging for them to do otherwise. To work past that, we remind them that they are the ones in charge, that they are the ones with the power to shape a more desirable future, and that they have the responsibility to do so. After all, you can’t predict the future, you can only invent it.