Reminiscing Forward: Guiding Others Toward a Future They Cannot Quite See Yet

“Daddy, I like thinking about our family at Christmas time. It makes me feel all warm inside.” My son Oliver came to me with this observation when he was about nine years old. A neuroscientist would tell us that what my son was feeling, that warm-inside sensation, was a powerful cocktail made up of some combination of the four chemicals in the brain that make us feel happy: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.

Those same chemicals were at work on him in the moments he was recalling: having the family all together, watching our favorite holiday movies, smelling mom’s cookies baking, tasting those delicious cookies, the warmth of the fire in the fireplace, the twinkle of the lights on the tree. He felt those feelings then, in the moment, and he feels them again, when he lets his mind take himself back there. This happens to all of us. We re-experience moments that made us happy and gave us pleasure, giving us another taste of that happiness.

Just as we can re-experience, we can also pre-experience. We can think about a future event and anticipate the happiness or the pleasure we will experience. Psychologists call this prospection and just like recalling a pleasurable memory gives you a little jolt of those happy chemicals, thinking ahead to future events can as well, re-enforcing our resolve to assure that future event does indeed occur. For instance, you might anticipate sitting in the theatre, letting the sights and sounds of a powerful musical like Hamilton wash over you. You resolve, then and there, to do what it takes to get those tickets!

In our work at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab we help groups, teams, and organizations design a future they can’t quite see yet and an agile, iterative pathway toward that future. We’ve baked prospection into the “secret sauce” of our approach to strategy. It comes into play in several aspects; but one place often takes people by surprise. Prospection is the driving force in the way we help people develop strategic outcomes

Most of us are used to thinking of outcomes as being an instrument for accountability:

Did we do what we said we will do? 

Did Bob hit his mark? 

At our Lab, we are looking for something else from our outcomes. We’re looking for prospection. We think about strategic outcomes as being tied to a future lived experience, one that when we envision, we feel…well…happy!

Imagine getting a diverse group of people to agree on a set of strategic outcomes for their organization or their community in a way that they can all mentally time travel together to a future state where they’ve been fantastically successful, seeing evidence of that success, and that success making them all feel some of those same emotions my son was feeling when he recalled Christmases past.

When this happens, as a group is working together to develop a set of strategies, it is an amazing thing to watch. When you see this sort of collective resolve you know that they are in it to win it and will press on, regardless.

Mastery in the art and science of prospection is a valuable skill to have. One of the focus areas of our lab is in collaborative leadership, knowing how to design and guide complex collaborations. Prospection is part of the collaborative leader’s skillset.

We would love to share with you how we use the power of prospection to help groups and teams lock in on a better future for their organizations and chart a pathway forward. 

Leave a Comment