Interview with Erica Orange and Jared Weiner of The Future Hunters, a futurist consulting firm in New York City.
Dana: Congratulations on the relaunch of your business. Tell us what inspired it – and how do professional futurists go about envisioning and creating a new future for themselves?
Erica Orange: The company was formed back in 1977 by three founders, Weiner, Erdrich, Brown. And while they were the legacy and the grandparents of this business, we have to look to our own future. People have always talked about our insights and the dynamism of our content and said, “What you do is so cool,” but we thought the brand sounded like a law firm. Myself and my colleague and husband Jared are the next generation of this business, and we wanted something fresher. When we came up The Future Hunters, it was just like a light bulb for us, which led us to this really exciting rebrand. The term “hunters” is an action word and really connoted what we do for our clients – help them hunt out and be smarter about their futures, and capitalize on the things than can make a real difference.
Dana: Can you describe your process for us? How do you tell the future?
Erica: Actually our process has changed very little since the business started forty years ago – because it works. And it’s largely based on a lot of reading. A lot of analysis. A lot of scanning the trends. And a lot of pulling things together to spot patterns. People ask us all the time if we farm out any of what we do algorithmically, if we rely on software or smart technology to do the work for us. And we say that while many trend spotters do use those tools, and while they definitely have some benefits, we don’t use them ourselves because we rely so much on our own human eyes – the most critical tool. You still need a very finely tuned expert, a human being, to see where the patterns lie.
Dana: So what you’re saying is that even though the modes of communication have changed dramatically, and we have so much advanced technology, we’re still human beings, and we still need to do our own thinking in some fundamental ways? Today we have synthetic eyes, manufactured eyes, robotic eyes. We have algorithms, sensors, smartphones. But the human being brings something essential to the equation. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how these cultural and technological changes we’ve experienced will affect those of us who are professional communicators, who put words together for a living?
Jared Weiner: I think the biggest change is that increasingly people are communicating less and less with words, and more and more with pictures. We’re moving into an era of image-based and short video-based communication. The idea that a picture tells a thousand words has many implications for all of consumer society, including for your community of speechwriters and executive communicators. We believe the key value proposition you should be paying attention to is optimizing someone’s time. Time is the number value proposition for the future. You know that someone’s bandwidth at any given moment is theoretically very large because they’re taking in thousands of inputs. But in reality, for you, it’s very narrow because they can’t pay attention to all these messages. So how do you communicate a message much more succinctly and effectively? Through images and short videos. We like to say that thousands of years ago our ancestors communicated to each other about how their day went by drawing pictures on the walls of the cave. And we’re getting back to that now, but we’re doing it with digital technology.
Erica: We’re also thinking about what this is going to do to cross-generational communication, especially within enterprises. It’s going to be really profound. We’ve done a lot of work over the years with semiotics, and the way colors and images resonate inside the brain is often similar across different geographies around the world. With the advent of Snapchat and all the future iterations that it will likely spawn, it has the chance to bridge some of those cultural divides in really interesting ways.
Jared: There’s a legacy idea that informality is not good, particularly in corporate communications. But we’re entering an age when the one language that truly transcends boundaries and language differences are either pictures themselves or things like emojis. We laugh about the fact that five or ten years ago it would have been unthinkable and unconscionable for people in a serious setting to communicate with emojis and it was banned from workplaces. But now in theory people from all over the world can communicate using those kinds of symbols. So it fundamentally makes us a global culture.
Dana: It sounds exciting but also worrisome. I have to ask, as someone who uses the written word as my primary communications tool, how will this play out for our industry? We are, after all, word people. Can we learn the language of images? Will we have to reinvent ourselves?
Erica: Because things are happening so quickly – not at a geometric but at an exponential rate, it seems we’re always about to be left behind, or playing catch up. But there are still going to be jobs that require the human being, just maybe not the same jobs, or not done the same way. Also one of the things we know is that for every trend there is a counter trend. The counter trend happens not in spite of trends but because of them. So as we talk about the evolution of communication and what is happening digitally, it’s equally important to look at the resurgence at the other end of the spectrum, where good writing is more essential than ever. We’re also seeing a lot of the younger generation craving that face-to-face communication.
Jared: And that’s one of the reasons you see the rise of collaborative workspaces and physical meet ups. It’s the idea that in an era when things are more impersonal and digital, face-to-face communication is key.
Dana: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the future of leadership. We all write for leaders and help them share their vision for the future. We need to understand how leadership itself is changing.
Jared: For us, probably one of the most fundamental distinctions leaders need to make today and in the future is between innovation and imagination. Everyone says they innovate. Every leader will challenge their people to innovate. But ultimately the real visionary leaders will talk about imagination. So instead of just talking about the next iteration of something in a straight line, they’ll be reimagining the future. Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Faster horses is straight-line innovation. The automobile was reimagination. That’s the kind of leadership we need more of.
Erica: We did a paper on this recently called “Flip Generation Leadership.” You know, there are hundreds and hundreds of books on leadership – many of which are clichéd – but when we look at a younger generation of leaders that’s rapidly rising into middle and senior management and leadership positions, the whole notion of what makes a leader and what those necessary traits are is going to be is completely different from the past. The way younger leaders communicate is completely different. They need more feedback. They’re used to a flatter management structure. The way they manage both their own generation and older generations that may be in lower ranks from them will also be different. When it comes to workplace design, they want more open offices, also to enhance communication. These are not traditional leadership qualities, but they’re the qualities that are needed for a new economy.
Jared: In their minds leadership is something that, while it has to be visionary, is not as authoritative and hierarchical. So when you have companies that have three or four different generations working together, with very different styles, it can create tension. Good companies are trying to figure out how to manage that.
Dana: That’s a lot to think about. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and help us get a sense of how future trends will affect us as communicators, and how we need to shift our thinking. And good luck with the relaunch.
Erica Orange is Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer, and Jared Weiner is Executive VP and Chief Strategy Officer at Thefuturehunters.com.
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