In his book The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, Thomas Suddendorf studies the six traits that separate us from other species — language, mental time travel, theory of mind, intelligence, culture, and morality. Suddendorf argues that at the rudimentary level, there are many animals that manifest at least some of these traits, such as communication and cooperation. Viewed in isolation, therefore, these domains do not account for human beings’ unique success. Instead, Suddendorf posits that there are two principal features that set us apart: First, our ability to imagine and consider different situations, and second, our desire to bring our imaginations to bear on creating different scenarios together. He explains, “[T]hese attributes carried our ancestors across the gap, turning animal communication into open-ended human language, memory into mental time travel, social cognition into theory of mind, problem solving into abstract reasoning, social traditions into cumulative culture, and empathy into morality.” He refers to the former element as “nested thinking,” that being the ability to mentally create different narratives and consider options. Unlike other species, this enables us to better predict the future we seek and allows us to shape our futures with a degree of relative specificity.
Michael Corballis, in his book A Very Short Tour of the Mind, notes that our memories evolved not so much for the pleasure of recalling past events, but for the more practical purpose of mentally building future scenarios. Corballis calls this the process of developing our “future selves” — a mental picture of who we seek to become following a given event, process, or experience. Indeed, both the individual and aggregate civilization can credit this distinct attribute to whatever success they have had. More importantly, it is principally responsible for the progress that we have had from one generation to the next. As great an advantage as this offers us, it is a dual-edged sword because as individuals with the freedom of that choice, we also bear some (or most) of the responsibility for that future we set in motion. As court-managing professionals responsible for the overarching processes and policies affecting the lives of so many in the public, what is our responsibility in planning for the “future court” so that it meets expectations? On the personal end of things, knowing that we bear at least some of the power and responsibility of shaping our own futures, how much stock should we place into our “future selves” so that we are well prepared for that future when it ultimately arrives?
Toni and I were originally supposed to meet at a sit-down type of restaurant that afternoon, but at the last minute we decided to meet at a hot-dog establishment that was a favorite among local aficionados. The California burgers that they served were also good, but it was the hot dogs and their crisp exterior that made this franchise with six locations in the area a bastion of frankfurter fare. We got there at just about the same time and ordered our usual two dogs with sauerkraut and mustard and unsweetened iced tea. Ordinarily, the evening crowd was denser than at lunchtime, but in either case, the place was very well managed so the wait was never long. Toni picked up the cost, and then we carried our food up the winding staircase to the rooftop where patrons were treated to a nice view of the bay.
“Thanks for coming out for just hot dogs,” I joked.
“It’s no trouble and after you suggested it, I suddenly got in the mood for them,” Toni replied.
“I was hoping to sit and chat for a bit longer today, but I took a half day so that I could run a few personal errands and then I’m scheduled to meet with my accountant friend about this investment material the court gave us a few weeks back. That’s actually why I had to cut our lunch a bit short — after today, he’ll be away on vacation for two weeks.”
“What’s the investment material about?” Toni asked.
“It’s this new compensation plan they’re going to be offering employees. I’m a bit behind, but I just started looking at some of the options.”
“Anything interesting? I imagine there’s some financial incentive to doing it.”
“Not really. The court is just allowing staff to take a portion of their salary pre-tax and apportion it to a group of investment plans that the employee can select from. It’s separate and apart from the pension plan.”
“I see — so it’s not required. You can put whatever the threshold amount is or nothing at all?” Toni inquired.
“Right — you can’t withdraw it though until a certain age or else you’re penalized some ridiculous amount of money.”
“That’s correct — I didn’t withdraw anything from my 401K until my early sixties, but I guess if you need it before then, it’s good to have the option to withdraw it earlier.”
“That’s all fine and good, but I’m not sure how much money if anything I want to contribute into something that’s so far off.”
“Well, the years will pass and the future will present itself whether you prepare for it or not. It’ll be here before you know it — trust me.”
“I know. It’s just difficult to focus and plan for something that’s 20 years from now.”
“Think back to where you were 20 years ago and how quickly that time passed.”
“That’s true,” I agreed.
“It’s not really that different than putting together a strategic plan for the courts, which you’ve done many times over the years. The only difference is the scope — one deals with developing a plan A, B, and C for the organization, the other is about considering a set of plans for the future you.”
Toni grinned and said, “Of course I’m right, but I’m glad you agree. As a good manager you understand that it ordinarily requires several years of planning and considering the impactful issues in order to create the future you seek for the organization. You must invest the time now for then, notwithstanding the lack of urgency you currently feel.”
As I finished off my second frankfurter, I stated, “I think I see where you’re going.”
“The trick really is to compel yourself to care for that future despite not having the urge to. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the immediacy of the present and put the future off because it’s out there in the distance,” she explained waving her hand to demonstrate the point.
As I got up to bring my tray of garbage to the trash receptacle, I said, “Easier said than done, Toni. Especially today when we live in such an age of instant gratification.”
Toni waited until I returned to sit down and gather my belongings to make her final point. “It’s true that it’s easier said than done, but bear in mind that just like any well-managed organization knows, you cannot plan for the future when it arrives — at that point, it’ll be too late — and the court will no longer be serving the community in accord with its purposes and responsibilities.”
As I sat there contemplating her statement, she took another sip of her tea and said, “What all of this boils down to is to plan for your future just as a management team would plan for the future of the organization. For this particular thing, you should ensure that you have a good plan A, B, and C for yourself, which means having the discipline to save your money while you’re earning it. I always found during the course of my own career that it wasn’t how much money I made, but rather how much of it I could reasonably save that really made the difference for me financially.”
“So plan accordingly,” I said as I put my coat on.
“That’s right and don’t have your accountant friend tell you any differently,” Toni joked. “And if he does, tell him that I told you a plan for tomorrow means that you’re better prepared for today.”
“Wait. How’s tomorrow today?” I asked.
“It’s simple—every tomorrow eventually becomes a today. So, if you plan for tomorrow, you’ll be better prepared for what will be today.”
The longest-serving First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” Toni explained that we can certainly wish ourselves a good future, but it is more important (and practical) to plan for what we wish that future to be so that it is more likely to come to pass. The planning part, whether it be for the court or for our personal well-being, however, can be a delicate matter because of the purposeful care and attention it requires in the face of what is drawing our present attention and resources. Moreover, the complexity by which the current state of affairs hampers our greatest intentions occurs at the molecular level. Consider the recent research by neuroscientists, which showed that the region of the brain that is most actively engaged when individuals think of themselves is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC). The research also demonstrated that when we think of others, this region of the brain is not as active. Interestingly, when some of the subjects were placed in scenarios that required them to think of themselves in the future, the VPC region showed lower-than-expected activity, as though the subjects were thinking about someone else other than themselves. In short, when some of the subjects thought of their future self, it was as though they were thinking of themselves as strangers.
In The Scenario Planning Handbook: Developing Strategies in Uncertain Times, Ian Wilson and William K. Ralston, Jr., discussed the concept of scenario planning, how organizations can use it to strategize “alternative futures,” and enumerated 18 steps that should be followed in managing scenario-planning exercises. The idea is made applicable to organizations, but it can also be made easily relevant to the individual as well. For instance, one of the key steps highlighted by the authors was to “define the decision focus.” This requires the manager to concentrate on those forces and trends that could most affect the organization (or you) within the next five to ten years, including where to place your investments. From an administrative perspective, it is helpful because it helps the manager plan for the “future court” by considering capital-intensive projects, infrastructure changes, and shifts in government policy.
Peter Schwartz discusses the concept of planning for the future through the use of scenarios in a similar way in his book The Art of the Long View. Schwartz argued that such planning is not a prediction but, rather, an important exercise that can help expand one’s thinking about being prepared for different possibilities. He noted three essential interacting components to scenario planning:
- Driving Forces — this involves identifying the core question you want to answer and then reviewing the major influences that will shape your actions.
- Predetermined Elements — this considers those scenario factors that will remain the same irrespective of how the future unfolds.
- Critical Uncertainties — this comprises those factors which are unpredictable, but will likely affect the outcome of your scenarios. For instance, a predetermined element about the number of young people entering the workforce over the next five or ten years is a relatively known factor, but how the emerging attitudes toward the courts and government in general among this constituent group will impact and intersect with the courts’ practices and policies is uncertain.
The critical question in planning for future scenarios is identifying the issue that one wants to address across a given time frame. For many of us, imagining these scenarios is burdensome and time-consuming. When given the option, we would rather take a benefit today over a greater benefit that we might enjoy some time later in the distant future. The key, however, is to train ourselves to better identify with our future selves. As Toni explained, this does not mean sacrificing everything in the present for an uncertain future, but it does mean allocating the appropriate time, effort, and resources that it requires if we are to be better prepared for it. Her sage advice about planning when you can and mentally constructing scenarios will put you in the best possible position for today that was at one time a distant tomorrow. Your future self — and the future court — will thank you for it.
And those are just some of musings on management.
About the Author
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.