We live in a world of accelerating change. There’s so much going on around us that we are understandably becoming overwhelmed.
And the advice we get can be very confusing. Many are saying to stay focused on the present. Others tell us to look ahead and focus on the future. And then there are those who insist we should stay focused on the past because we can learn from the past.
So, what is it? My advice is that we need to do all three, but in a very specific sequence, otherwise it will certainly be overwhelming.
Start with the future
We need to start by looking ahead. We need to search for really big opportunities that can inspire us to come together and act with others. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Big Shift that we are experiencing on a global scale is creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value, far more quickly and with far less resources than would have ever been required in the past.
But those opportunities will not emerge on their own. We need to look for them and actively pursue them. And we need to keep searching until we find a really big opportunity that excites us – let’s not be distracted by an overwhelming range of possibilities in the future.
And, yes, the future is uncertain – to some degree. We need to focus on the long-term trends that are already playing out and that are reasonably predictable.
Starting with the search for big, future opportunities is also important because many of us have adopted a view of the future that focuses on imminent threats. As I’ve discussed in my book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that view of the future is feeding the emotion of fear that more and more of us are experiencing, and that is holding us back from even seeing, much less pursuing, the opportunities ahead.
Focusing on a really exciting opportunity in the future can help us to overcome the fear that we are experiencing today. It can become a catalyst for drawing out the passion of the explorer that will motivate us to act now and pursue the opportunity.
Equally importantly, finding a really exciting opportunity in the future will help us to maintain focus as we deal with the infinite demands on our attention in the present.
Then shift to the present
Once we have a really exciting opportunity in the future that can maintain our focus, we can then shift to exploring the present. That exploration will be driven by three questions:
- What are resources and capabilities that can help me to address opportunity
- Who else can I collaborate with to amplify these resources and capabilities?
- What are major barriers that need to be overcome to achieve opportunity?
There’s a lot to be learned from the present, and that will put us in a better position to learn from the past.
Learn from the past
Once we have a clear focus on the exciting opportunity ahead and the resources and barriers of the present, we’re in a much better position to look into the past and learn from the past.
We’ll now be much more focused on what can be learned from previous initiatives that will help us to achieve even more impact today. Again, the need is to stay focused on what can be learned to achieve greater impact in pursuing the opportunity that excites us the most. There’s so much in the past that can distract us unless we have a clear view of what we are trying to learn.
These lessons from the past can then help us to evolve our initiatives in the present so that we can have even greater impact and accelerate our progress towards the exciting opportunity in the future.
Return to the present and the future
We’re now in a much better position to pursue high impact initiatives in the present. We’ll need to stay focused on the present and continually reflect on the impact that we’re achieving as we pursue our initiatives. What is achieving greater impact than we expected? What is falling short in terms of impact? How can we evolve our initiatives so that we can achieve even greater impact?
As we pursue these initiatives in the present, we will also achieve much greater insight into the opportunity that we are pursuing in the future. It will become much clearer and even more compelling as we learn more about the details of the opportunity and the value that it can create.
Sequence matters. The key is to focus and cultivate the motivation to act and learn.
In the past, the emphasis was focusing on the past because we lived in a more stable world where the past could provide us with valuable lessons about the opportunities in the future. Today, we need to emphasize looking ahead into the future as a launchpad for impact that matters because the world is changing at a rapid rate, and new opportunities are emerging that could never have been addressed in the past.
In the end, we need to focus on action and learning from that action so that we can truly address exponentially expanding opportunities.