Thinking from the Future as It Emerges

Setting the Table

I started using this phrase, “thinking from the future as it emerges”, in conversation with colleagues. Recently one of them said that while she had an inkling of what it might mean, she did not really know, describing herself as sitting back, waiting for the meaning to take shape for her. Her comment set me to explore what the phrase really means, why I am using it, and what I mean to communicate.

Otto Scharmer

I lifted the phrase from Otto Scharmer. In his book, “Theory U”, he refers to “leading from the future as it emerges”. I had substituted thinking for leading, and left the rest of the phrase in tact.

Scharmer’s book is about transformational change in leaders (as persons) that will enable and ready them to meet their existing challenges. In order to do that, Scharmer writes, leaders have to learn how to operate from the highest possible future rather than being stuck in the patterns of past experiences.

He describes this as operating from a deeper state, a deeper process, and being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences (which he refers to elsewhere as “downloading”).

The key element in being able to do this (here he uses the word able in its meaning of “ability or capacity to”) is to become aware of a profound blind spot in leadership and in every day lives.

The blind spot for Scharmer is the place within or around us where our attention and intention originates. It is the place from where we operate when we do something, what Bill O’Brien, the former CEO of Hanover Insurance, calls the “interior condition”. The reason it is blind, Scharmer writes, is because it is an invisible dimension of our everyday experience in social interactions. (I might paraphrase this as finding nothing interesting about normal and as a result, spending very little time reflecting on normal.)

He uses the example of an artist, offering three perspectives:

  • We can look at the painting after it has been created (the thing).
  • We can look at the painting during its creation (the process).
  • We can look at the painting before its creation (the blank canvass or source dimension).

The blank canvass or source is the future (i.e., the painting) emerging in the mind’s eye of the artist.

Extrapolating from the example, Scharmer notes that we can look at what leaders do, we can look at how leaders do what they do (processes), or we can look at the leader’s work from the blank canvass point of view.

Shifting From Painting to Thinking

We leave Scharmer here, reluctantly, for having opened his book after some time I am reminded of the mastery and majesty of his work. With the above as a working analogy, what is “thinking from the future as it emerges”?

If we replace painting with thinking, thoughts after they have been created (the thing) reside in our brains as memories and may be communicated to others. Thinking during creation (the process) is a complex neurological process. For now, I’ll describe it in limited fashion as the recombination or reordering of information stored in memory and/or learning (as in something new). These thoughts are written to the brain as memories or rewritten in the case of memories that already exist. That cycle repeats itself hundreds if not thousands of times a day.

I am most interested in the third, the blank canvass. What is thinking before its creation? What is the mind’s eye of the thinker? What is the blank canvass of our brain? What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking” (when the canvass is blank). What gives us access to the blank canvass of thought, and what do we do with it once we get there? Most importantly, how do we identify our blind spot?

In seeking to understand “thinking from future as it emerges”, I am most drawn to the idea of “operating from the highest possible future” in the sense of operating from a deeper state, a deeper process. Being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences resonates with me as a seminal insight, what the Quakers might refer to as “opening way”.

Some Guiding Questions (taken from Scharmer)

1.What is thinking before its creation, the mind’s eye of the thinker, the blank canvass of the brain?

It occurred to me that there is a common term for this – zoning out. What is the neuroscience of zoning out?

A group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the University of California Santa Barbara, led by Jonathan Smallwood and Kevin Brown, describe zoning out as the brain’s “offline mode”. Their “decoupling hypothesis” posits that the brain decides that nothing too interesting or too threatening is happening near by and cuts the connection between our inner and outer worlds[1]. They conclude that the decoupling hypothesis “suggests that the capacity for spontaneous cognitive activity depends upon minimizing disruptions from the external world”.

Could this be the blank canvass? I do not know, and I suspect a lot more research is needed to draw that conclusion. But it does open the door to a feasible way of understanding thinking before its creation and the mind’s eye of the thinker.

2. What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking”?

One read of Smallwood and Brown suggests that creativity and imagination may be enhanced. When external stimuli are shut out, and the brain does not have to concern itself with safety, we are free to follow our thoughts where they go, float along, with no care for point of departure, destination, direction, or speed.

Does this lead to what we know as the “eureka moment”, the insight or creation or innovation that seemingly appears from nowhere? As above, I do not know, but it seems to be at least a plausible, working conjecture.

3. What gives us access to that source?

Smallwood and Brown (above) described the brain going into “offline mode” spontaneously. Can it planned? Can we schedule a time to go offline? Can we create the conditions in which the brain concludes it need not be present to the external world?

Well, we know zoning out happens, we know the circumstances, and we know the neurological mechanism.

In my own personal experience (n=1 for all you statisticians and scientists) powerful questions give me access to my source. Powerful questions can open way into parts of my source I had not yet unpacked. As I have written before, powerful questions are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (Read Article on Powerful Questions) I have experienced very brief moments of zoning out in the immediate response to a powerful question.

Can those moments be extended? Can zoning out and being present to a group of colleagues thinking together be combined? It appears on the surface to be self-contradictory. I do not know, but I am struck by the possibility.

4. What is thinking from the highest possible future?

I often complain that bench marking is the guarantee of mediocrity. It dulls the mind and consigns the questions “why?” and “what if?” to the compost pile. Once a benchmark is declared, everyone in the industry aims to operate at the benchmark. Assuming they are all successful, when every company arrives to the benchmark, they are all operating at the same level, which by definition is the mean, which by definition is average.

And what of the company that was marked as the holder of the benchmark in the first place? Do you think they are still operating at that level?

I have always been far more interested in the thinking that created the breakthrough for the company that became the benchmark than in the benchmark itself. I have always wanted to know, how did they approach thinking in such manner that they were able to breakthrough established ways of doing things, and leapfrog into very different futures?

In the realm of thinking, proceeding forward from what is known strikes me a form of bench marking. When viewed from the vantage point of time, the results are actually a regression to a past point that once was a good idea. By the time the inquiry is done, the idea that was good is older yet, and its relevancy is at risk. It completely fails to point into a desired or possible future. It serves to anchor us in the past.

What is the highest possible future? That is a very personal question. The answer for one may be the “unanswer” for another. It does suggest that risk is involved. There is nothing safe about aiming for the highest point imaginable. Such effort, if successful, invites scrutiny, and possibly lots of it. It risks upsetting the status quo. The messenger might be confused with the message and find her or himself shipped off to Coventry.

One’s highest possible future requires a declaration of possibility. It requires putting a stake in the ground, aiming high, and pressing hard. If such action earns one the enmity of others, hurdles have to be overcome and prices paid to stay the course. It is a matter of settling for nothing less that one’s personal best. Every time. There is no rest.

5. What is the deeper state of emerging thought?

Daryl Conner speaks about what really matters. That is also a very personal place to go. To do so we have to take inventory. Who am I? What is my purpose? With what resolution will I make my mark upon the planet? We have to face the question, “Why bother in the first place?” as a matter of assessing its deep meaning to us. Are we marking time and following, or cutting trails into future possibilities?

This is heavy lifting. We have to do what we have to do to get there, continuously find ways to improve our tools for breaking through, and we have to help each other.

That, for me, is the deeper state.

6. What does it mean to operate from that altered state?

Jeffery Shwartz and Henry Stapp describe “attention density”, where intention and attention are so intensely applied that we hold onto questions and explore their meaning for long periods of time. It includes exercises such as asking a question, answering it, then asking it again, and repeating that cycle many times. Each cycle takes us deeper into our source and creates an altered state, where we are willing to stick with “why?” and “what if?” for extended periods of time, deferring “how?” for another day.

Future Possibilities

A number of the above questions ended with other questions. So a lot more thinking and inquiry around “thinking from the future as it emerges” is needed. I welcome other people’s thinking on this, whether their knowledge supports or refutes the thinking I have done thus far.

[1] Described in detail in Pupillometric Evidence for the Decoupling of Attention from Perceptual Input during Offline Thought by Smallwood, Brown, et al., retrieved 2011.10.09 at URL:


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