People develop conscious and unconscious images of the future as a matter of course. They do so for themselves, their families, their country and globally. These futures can be probable, preferred and or simply possible. The images of the future held by individuals are interacting with the present, setting the tone for decision-making with the imagined future influencing what directions are currently taken. In this sense, images of the future are essentially the manifestation of our expectation that transformation is possible. Creating a vision, be it as an individual or organisation, taps into the deepest desires of the people involved and allows them to express how they wish the world to be.

Holding clear images of the future is one way fear and trepidation about complexity can be minimised. Individuals can engage with the complexity through development of futures images, trying out different options for operating, which then allows clear decisions to be taken in the present which otherwise may seem fraught with difficulties. The future becomes a playground in which the boundaries of the present loosen and creativity abounds.

This ‘planning’ through imagination appears to be an innate human trait. Ingavr (in McKiernan and McKay, 2002) argues “that people instinctively and constantly develop alternative plans for the future…It is only by access to serial plans for future behaviour and cognition, i.e. access to ‘our memory of the future”, that we can select and perceive meaningful messages”. (p5) It may be for this reason that most people find the process of imagining the future to be pleasurable and energising. Patalono (2003), using Kenneth Boulding’s work on image as a base, suggests that imagery is important because “it enables collective sharing of values and meanings…it has cohesive power, which may acquire a strategic value tin organisations and in cooperative interactions”. (p8) Thus it is not the ‘image’ per se which is of value, rather the expressed values and meaning contained within it.

Polak (link opens PDF) argues that using images of the future as guides for present behaviour is a very old human practice. “Once he (man) became conscious of creating images of the future, he became a participant in the process of creating this future”. (p6) Polak studied how positive images of the future led to a flowering of culture, whereas negative images brought about the decline of culture, he found there was a significant correlation between the image of the future held by a culture and the probable future of that culture.

The creation of shared images of the future engages groups in dialogue about profound issues of organisational/community direction and values. Groups will develop images that are particular to a time and place. It is not often that themes or artefacts are repeated across groups. Particular images will have resonance for some people and not for others, so negotiation will have to take place while the group decides what to let in and what to reject. We find that this process is usually good natured and involves much laughter as people try to get their particular part of an image or idea included in the group’s view. Once an image or images are settled upon, there is work to be done to develop a plan to bring it about. This planning will usually involve asking what will be left behind, it is often at this point a serious note enters the conversations, as realisation of the gap between the future state aspired to and the present situation of the group sinks in. Sometimes groups will generate images that owe more to fairytales than expressions of preferred future states. This can happen for a variety of reasons, the group may not have high trust levels, so are unable to discuss deeply held beliefs; or it may be that they are not engaged in the organisation and so are unable to commit themselves to a future state. Often groups will need a variety of people from across the organisation, including those with long histories and who have recently joined, to engage with the values and beliefs held for the future by individuals.

A shared image is not set in stone, it will change over time, and it is not a substitute for robust planning. What the creation of an image can do is to surface assumptions, test value alignment and assist direction setting for a group involved in the process. Having negotiation at the centre of the creation of shared images means that for a new culture to be developed, new entrants have to negotiate their way into the image. All organisational cultures hold shared images of the future to some degree, the level of alignment is reflected in the ease of direction setting during planning activities. High levels of alignment mean that directions can be chosen after robust discussions take place, plans are bedded down and the organisation starts to move in the new direction. Low levels of alignment might assist the direction setting process as everyone cedes their image to that of the leader, and plans can be bedded down using top down planning processes, but inevitably organisational direction change is thwarted by departmental rivalries or inertia. People in this situation are aligning their decision-making to their individual images of the group’s future rather than the shared image.

Shared images are powerful, and have been linked to the flowering and decay of cultures over time. It is an intense process to develop a viable shared image, once done, it can assist an organisation to align values, culture and direction for the future.