Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full

Oh! The famous marketing plan. That moment where you sit down with the whole team to talk about what’s going happen over the next 12 months and where expectations are everything. But, how can you manage those expectations in such a volatile market spurred on by our ever-changing world?

One thing companies are doing more and more, is migrating from a traditional business model based around rigid strategic planning, towards a more modern and forward thinking model of future scenarios forecasting. This is basically an anticipation technique where we imagine how the future could be and how we would act according to this projection. [1,2].

It can be a really inspiring and genuinely useful exercise, but the task can seem quite daunting when you have a blank piece of paper in front of you and you can’t help asking yourself: “How optimistic or pessimistic should the scenarios be? What is more useful? To think positively and attract good things or to think that things will only get worse in order to make sure your well equipped to deal with future catastrophe.

It’s important to note that the world of optimism vs. pessimism is littered with contradictions. Humans tend to be optimistic about their own personal futures, yet pessimistic when they consider the future of the collective [3], for example, we believe that unemployment will rise, but that we will keep our jobs. Or that, even though there may be numerous indicators pointing to reductions in crime rates and fatal diseases, higher rates of participation in education; we still believe that the world is becoming worse and worse off by the day. Yet at the same time, we believe our marriages will last even when the statistics suggest otherwise, or that giving up smoking will be easier for us than it is for everyone else.

This is down to two main factors: firstly, we have more control over our own individual circumstances than we do over the collectives’, and secondly, the nature of what is considered newsworthy naturally puts a sensationalist and negative spin on what actually happens in the world, which can leave us with a distorted and pessimistic outlook.

Whilst optimistic thought is centered on the belief that we can positively affect the future through the power of thought, pessimism assumes that we cannot and that everything that is on the horizon will only serve to make things worse.
The criticism often leveled against the eternal optimist is that, since their ideas are not grounded in reality, their plans tend to go to waste; with their intentions left to float around aimlessly in a mystical ether named “It’s never gona happen”. The real problem is not the optimist though, rather the uninformed or unrealistic optimist. The fact remains, if you paint a positive picture in your head about a future task, you stand a better chance to succeed.
For example, if you want to lose weight and commit to diet with the feeling that it will yield results, you have a far greater chance of succeeding than if you over-think the issue, scrutinizing over every little complication that may present itself along the way [4].

There is also a school of thought, which states that an optimist outlook on life can actually be more realistic than a pessimistic one. Research carried out on entrepreneur’s reveals that, whilst they tend to overestimate their own success, they are also typically more clued into economic indicators. This means that their predictions tend to be more realistic than those made by their more pessimistic, non-entrepreneurial counterparts [5]. This serves as a gentle reminder that being optimistic doesn’t necessarily mean that you a wrong or not realistic.

There are instances however, where being pessimistic can turn out to be a more considered and appropriate approach. If we consider moments of tension through-out politics and history, or in sequences of events that have led to wars; these are instances where there can be no benefit from viewing the world through rose tinted spectacles – if the reality of a situation is a grim one, then it’s better to see it for what it is and accept it [6]. Or, have you noticed how many dystopian and post-apocalyptic titles dominate the best selling bookstore and box-office charts? According to the book “Read the Mind” the purpose of titles like the Hunger Games or Interstellar, isn’t just to entertain, but also to make audiences aware of potential situations that could become relevant to them in the future [7]. The book, which is based on a diverse range of studies [8], claims that fiction acts as a kind of evolutionary mechanism of the subconscious, one that helps us to imagine ourselves in possible future scenarios so that we may be better prepared for the future. If we read a shipwreck story, then it prepares us for the improbable scenario where we have to learn how to fish, make a fire or erect a makeshift shelter. In uncertain times, reading a dystopian novel is arguably more useful than reading a Utopian one.

So, going back to our original question as to which approach is best for designing useful scenarios for our business? The simple answer is, an optimistic one. Despite how useful imagining ourselves in a dystopian scenario may be in case of future disaster, an optimistic outlook has the power to drive you towards a desirable outcome. Mapping out a positive tomorrow has the power to energize your team, whilst a negative one can have the opposite effect, serving only to paralyze them.

Effective optimism isn’t simply filling out your marketing plan with over-estimations, happy faces and painting the picture of tomorrow as overly rosy. It’s about preparing ourselves to take decisions based upon our own beliefs and feelings. It’s about being well-equipped enough to have the resources to tackle a problem when it arises, as opposed to resigning to defeat and allowing it to defeat us. Our suggestion? Fill the room with as many realistic optimists as critics who will question your plan, and the strategic scenario you build together will turn out to be the best it can be for your business.

References:

1. Cascio, Jamais (2009) Futures Thinking: The Basics. Fast Company. Disponible en: https://www.fastcompany.com/1362037/futures-thinking-basics
2. Zindato, Danila (2015) Designing Future Scenarios. Approaches and Positioning of Scenario Building into the Design Process. Futures Conference Finland 2015 Disponible en: https://futuresconference2015.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/danila-zindato.pdf
3. Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2016) ‘Optimism & Pessimism’. OurWorldInData.org. Disponible en: https://ourworldindata.org/optimism-pessimism/
4. Grant, Heidi (2011) Be an Optimist without being a Fool. Harvard Business Review. Disponible en: https://hbr.org/2011/05/be-an-optimist-without-being-a
5. Bengtsson, Ola & Ekeblom, Daniel (2014) The Bright but Right View? New Evidence on Entrepreneurial Optimism. Lund University. Disponible en: http://project.nek.lu.se/publications/workpap/papers/WP14_1.pdf
6. Cohen, Roger (2017) Yes, it could happen again. The Atlantic. Disponible en: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/08/yes-it-could-happen-again/373465/?utm_source=atlfb
7. The Artifice (2015) The Rising Popularity of Dystopian Literature. Disponible en: https://the-artifice.com/popularity-of-dystopian-literature/
8. Volpi, Jorge (2011) Leer la mente: el cerebro y el arte de la ficción. Alfaguara.