Positively Imagining the Future
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We all know that the stories we tell ourselves have a habit of coming true. So what if someone could help you craft stories about possible, practical futures, that were positive? Stories that you could believe in? Wouldn’t that be kind of like having your own magic wand? That’s what Joe Tankersley does. He uses his gift of telling stories and uncanny ability to identify important trends to give us futures we can get excited about.
[00:00:07.740] – Rob Brodnick
Welcome to the Positive Turbulence Podcast, Stories from the Periphery. Here we journey to the edge to talk to turbulators about their experiences creating positive change.
Hi, I’m Rob Brodnick, your co-host.
If I were to ask you right now to write down three wishes for your job or organization, what would they be? Some will have said money. Others might think about better leadership, better engagement or better management. But how many of you instantly thought I’d love to predict the future? You might have said you wanted to future-proof your organization, but I’m betting that few, if any, actually ask to predict the future. Yet, it’s what we crave. If we were more certain about the future, it would be easier to plan for.
[00:00:46.740] – Karyn Zuidinga
Hi, I’m Karyn Zuidinga, your co-host.
Joe Tankersley is the founder of Unique Visions, a consulting company that helps organizations imagine better futures. He’s also the author of Reimagining Our Tomorrows Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t Suck So what’s cool about that? We all know that the stories we tell ourselves have a habit of coming true. So what if someone could help you craft stories about possible practical futures that were positive stories that you could believe in? Wouldn’t that be like having your own magic wand? That’s what Joe does. He uses his gift of telling stories and an uncanny ability to identify important trends to give us futures we can get excited about. And isn’t getting excited about your future pretty damn cool?
Stand by, we’ll get into it with Joe in about 30 seconds. But first, a word from our sponsors.
[00:01:40.080] – Sponsor Message
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[00:02:08.030] – Karyn Zuidinga
I’ve been totally stoked about this conversation because I participated in your workshop back in Orlando. Loved it. Mind blown. Totally excited. I’ve been telling people. Oh, yeah, I’ll be talking to this guy, Joe, who used to be an Imagineer and he’s got this all really cool storytelling method… and I’m getting blanks.
So what are you doing? What is this storytelling thing? And why is it different from any other storytelling thing that’s out there?
[00:02:35.380] – Joe Tankersley
Well, for me, it is using storytelling to help people expand their approach to thinking about the future. Because my primary goal is getting people to engage with foresight, with strategic foresight and thinking about the future. When I first started working at Disney, one of the places I was responsible for were projects in EPCOT because they were thinking about what it would be in its second, third generation. And so I convinced my bosses to send me to the World Future Society conference. And there were all these incredibly smart futurists there and they were the most boring people I’d ever met in my life. I came away going, how could you do this? The future supposed to be exciting. For me, the storytelling was the perfect vehicle to help people understand what they were talking about. So I think that’s what’s unique about the storytelling piece.
The other thing as I get deeper and deeper into it is I’m really passionate about trying to give other people the tools so they can be their own storytellers. As opposed to bringing in some outside consultant like me who can tell the stories for them, which I love to do, but I don’t think it’s I don’t see it as the same lasting impact. So that’s why I think it’s different.
[00:03:39.010] – Karyn Zuidinga
[00:03:40.380] – Rob Brodnick
I think that storytelling component visioning is critical. I do work in the area of organizational change and often work with leaders who need to inspire through storytelling. So if you were to give a couple of tips to someone who has to lead an organization to a future that some people maybe do or don’t understand. What are some of the coaching tips you might give to a leader in that situation?
[00:04:02.830] – Joe Tankersley
There are two that I think are critical. The first one, of course, is that no amount of data ever created a change. You have to combine touching people’s heart and their head at the same time. Story is the way that you create that vision for the future. And the second piece, particularly the world that I work in, which is a lot of stuff around sustainability and some of the big problems we’re trying to solve right now. People seem to think if they say, you know, if we don’t make this change, something very bad is going to happen. We’ll be out of business or we get disrupted. The fear of the unknown is always more powerful than that conversation. So what you really have to do is give them a promise of the future. A promise of the future will be better, not better than some unknown disaster, but better than the world I live in today. And that’s how story I think once again ties in. So if you’re trying to tell those stories, it’s not about just scaring them. It’s about giving them some sense that if I change, things will get better than they are.
[00:04:57.130] – Karyn Zuidinga
Could you frame it in a little bit more concrete example?
[00:05:00.060] – Joe Tankersley
The sort of broad example is the environmental movement, which for 30 years, all of their stories were about the world is going to come to an end. You know, we have to quit polluting. We have to get rid of the carbon. Polar bears are going to die. And that kind of story just overwhelms people. They just can’t do anything about this. Whereas if you turn it around and you talk about what kind of future we can create.
For instance, if you think about what a world that is more climate neutral looks like, you start talking about a world that has more time to enjoy what do you want to enjoy in life. You start talking about, thinking about, different ways of working. And so you begin to spin a story of the future that my life is actually better and the side result of that is, by the way, we also avoided this huge calamity.
[00:05:49.070] – Karyn Zuidinga
It’s just it occurs to me, though, isn’t there a risk in promising something you can’t deliver?
[00:05:54.340] – Joe Tankersley
Two answers to that. The first one is that what I talk with people about is how to create their capacity for what what I call critical imagination. It’s not pie in the sky. It has to be aspirational, yet achievable. If you do pie in the sky, then, yes, you have a huge risk and you’re going to fail every time.
The other piece of the future’s mindset is this sort of “Yes… and” kind of attitude. We’re going to come up with this really great idea for a Vision of the Future. We’re going to rush toward it. And we know we’re never going to quite achieve that, but it’s going to send us on the right journey. And that’s better than bolting down the hatches and hoping that we can weather the storm. But it’s a fine line. And it’s really it is difficult for people to negotiate that because it’s a lot easier to say, hey, everything’s going to be great.
[00:06:39.130] – Rob Brodnick
I love that approach to change. All too often we deal with crises in order to get people out of their habits and patterns and things that hold everyone in the present day. The future will be a lot like today if we don’t do something different. That seems like an obvious statement, but it’s a really hard thing to do. Unfortunately, dealing with organizational change, we have a crisis or we have a story of a crisis and it gets people motivated, but they don’t do it as happily as going to an optimistic future.
An optimistic future is a phrase that you use. Can you talk a little bit more about that and why it’s better than a pessimistic future?
[00:07:14.470] – Joe Tankersley
Well, I’ll give you a little of the backstory for me. Where the idea got planted in my head and it was around 2002, I was actually working on a project at Imagineering called One Hundred Years of Magic, which was the story of Walt Disney’s life. And I honestly did not know a lot about Walt Disney at the time. And so it was really fascinating to start to learn about what he had done and what his interests were. And it turns out, of course, he started out as an entertainer, but over time he became very interested in the future — with things like EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow –where he really wanted to create that showcase for people to think about optimistic futures.
Ray Bradbury is the person that used the term the first time I saw it. He called Walt, the Optimistic Futurist. And I saw that I was like, yes, when I grow up, that’s what I want to be, is the optimistic futurist. And it goes back to the work that we did at Disney, where engaging people starts from a point of view of making them feel like they have some agency. I think agency is a big part of optimism. Too many people look at the future and go, well, that’s somebody else’s job or I’m not going to have any impact on it or it’s already determined by forces outside of me.
And so a lot of being an optimistic futurist is just simply saying I’ve got agency to affect my immediate future. Early on, when I was studying foresight and learning about it, I came across a guy who talked about the fact that the problem is, is that it’s easy to create negative visions of the future. We can just, all day long — look at what Hollywood does. And we’re compelled by them. They’re exciting. We love to see that moment that, oh, my goodness, the world’s almost going to end. What’s really hard is can you create that aspirational vision of the future that is still within the bounds of being practical, being possible.
[00:08:55.060] – Rob Brodnick
I was paging through your book, Reimagining Our Tomorrows with the subtitle, Make Sure Your Future Doesn’t Suck. It’s really cool. The way you organize the chapters were around reimagining some of these things that could be very fearful and pessimism rather than optimism. And looking at some of the topics, aging consumerism, automation and the gig economy.
I’m really interested though, particularly in reimagining suburbia. Talk a little bit about rural life, versus suburbia, versus the urban life of the future and perhaps how we have to rebalance some of our resources to pull this all off.
[00:09:31.680] – Joe Tankersley
So the suburbia one’s really interesting for a couple of reasons. It started with looking at the statistics that suggest something like I think it’s 20 to 25 percent of all shopping malls will be closed by 2030. That model that we created go live in the suburbs, drive five miles to go to any shopping, cars. That whole approach to to a suburban lifestyle is really being threatened by all sorts of different things.
The particular story you’re talking about, actually, I started with that idea what what would happen if you had a vacant mall and if the cost of housing continues to go up, what could people do? What kind of thought experiment would that create?
I actually explore the idea of creating a community that’s based in a shopping mall, that uses direct democracy, and data, and engages people in a different way. And of course, builds on all this trend toward local merchants, local food, local everything.
What’s fascinating to me was I thought that that was a future 10, 15 years out there. We have a mall near us that’s one of those sort of B sized malls. It’s never been very successful. It’s been failing for years. Just a month ago, somebody opened a co-working space in it. And this is in the suburbs, which is like, wow, that’s amazing. They’re going to open an even bigger co-working space. Somebody is talking about building apartments because they’ve taken over the big anchor retail store and they’re going to put apartments in it. Somebody else opened a brewery in it. So that’s one example of how we’re starting to rethink how do we rebuild communities. And so that what was really interesting to me to realize that I was behind the times and the future got here sooner than I thought it was going to.
[00:11:07.690] – Rob Brodnick
It’s happening rapidly across the country, particularly in middle America, where the move from rural to cities was intercepted by the growth of suburbia.The malls popped up. They’re failing dramatically right now. Thinking about what’s happening a little more locally, for me, I live in California. One of our great cities, San Francisco, is going through a radical transformation right now. People of means that work in tech economy and others have elevated the costs astronomically to the point where some of our creatives can no longer live there.
That is what I signal to be a death of a city. When you’re creatives leave and they’re unable to afford it. I mean, great chefs that maybe don’t make a whole lot of money, they can’t afford to to live in San Francisco and practice their art. It’s really sad. And so we’re seeing this spread now out into the margins. The North Bay, East Bay, towards the Central Valley in Sacramento, it’s a pretty massive change. How does that fit within some of the re-imagining you saw for rural life and urban life?
[00:12:11.840] – Joe Tankersley
This is one of the places where I go against this preponderance of the trend studies that are out there. Everybody keeps talking about by 2050, even more people will live in urban areas. That’s true globally. It’s not true in a country like the United States. I actually have a client in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and they do an annual event there every year. And it’s really interesting because Cheyenne is one of those semi-rural small town areas that’s been largely abandoned. And now, though, all of the people who originally lived in Denver and then moved to Boulder and then moved to Fort Collins because they couldn’t afford to live in Denver, come to this event. And over time, what they’re starting to see is the very beginning of those creative people from Boulder and Fort Collins are going, well, real estate’s really cheap in downtown, Cheyenne. Let’s move there.
So I think what we’re going to see in the next 10 to 20 years is small towns are going to see a huge creative explosion because once again, it’s driven largely by economy, but it’s also driven by quality of life. The cities just get too, too crazy, too big, too crowded. And so you start to see these people moving out into the small cities. And you get a little number of people in there, grows a little bit bigger. And once you get that creative nucleus that you’re talking about, then I think you start to see a shift. That’s an exciting thing, I think, in terms of what may happen for places that have been abandoned and definitely need some infusion of young people and creativity to really think about how they re-imagine what life is like there.
[00:13:36.950] – Karyn Zuidinga
So how do you rebalance all of this? What, from future storytelling practice, can we learn to help us find a path to rebalancing?
[00:13:45.800] – Joe Tankersley
It’s interesting. I think part of that comes with how do we start to create more intergenerational conversations? I was having lunch with a really good friend of mine in Toronto recently when I was up there and we were catching up and talking about his projects and my projects. Then also out of the blue, he just looked at me and goes, and by the way, I want to thank your generation for ruining my future. And I cringed. But we have to figure out how do we get — we’ve got five generations now that are all part of solving this problem. And if we can start more of a conversation between them, then I think we can start to think about how do we rebalance across — because it’s about generations, it’s about rebalancing across levels of wealth and means. But that doesn’t work until communities start talking to each other.
So I know that’s a that’s kind of a cop-out answer because I don’t have the golden bullet. But I do think it comes from some folks really starting to sit down and realizing that the end of the day we really share a whole set of common goals. And we all want to be safe. We all want to have a house. We all want to have food, all of those sort of basic things. And if we can get back to having that conversation, then I think we might be able to create some innovative approaches to doing that.
[00:14:57.830] – Karyn Zuidinga
[00:14:59.770] – Joe Tankersley
Or I could just be incredibly naive.
[00:15:01.430] – Rob Brodnick
That’s that’s optimism plus agency, right?
[00:15:06.310] – Joe Tankersley
Right. And that’s why I acknowledge the fact that I’m naive.
[00:15:13.720] – Karyn Zuidinga
That’s a fair question, though, right? Because I get that all the time. That kind of like kind of crazy Karyn, or you’re a little Pollyanna about this stuff. OK, fair.
How do you talk to the skeptics? I think there’s a lot of fear in giving something up. The people with the nice house, the cars, and they live far away from from where they work or where they do stuff. And they’ve got to drive a long way to get in. They don’t want to change that.
[00:15:38.480] – Joe Tankersley
It would be foolish to think that everybody’s going to buy into these these visions of the future. And in fact, what I believe is that you’re really focusing on trying to identify those people who have the capacity to think differently. You see that we do have some serious issues that we have to solve both at the community and the national level. If we get enough of those people to have the conversation, those of us who want to not change, we’ll be drug along. Some of them will be drug kicking and screaming. That’s always been the case.
What I would hope is, over time, we can at least acknowledge the pain that that goes with it. Because the pain is real. So it’s like the people that you hear in the fossil fuel industry, in the mining industry, and those of us not involved look at that and say well, that’s just stupid. Just go get another job. And here we’ll retrain you. How hard is that? But that’s their reality. That’s who they are. That’s who they’ve been for generation after generation. And so we have to be sensitive to that. But everybody’s not going to suddenly wake up tomorrow and go, yeah, let’s all buy into creating an environmental future. That’s great for everyone and to give up our cars and, you know, quit working.
I think it’s fascinating that the conversations that are happening on the fringe about what if we just said our whole idea of what work and success is is outdated. What could we do? And that to me is it is exciting. But maybe that’s because I’ve always kind of been that guy who didn’t want to go to work. For people whose whose whole definition of who they are is their profession, that’s terrifying. I don’t have a really simple answer for any of this stuff, I think. And it’s not always easy, particularly when you look in the world we live in today. There are days when I get up and go, what do you mean? I got to be optimistic today. It woudl. be so much easier just to be negative.
[00:17:30.620] – Karyn Zuidinga
Optimism is hard work. It’s harder than you think.
[00:17:34.840] – Joe Tankersley
Oh, absolutely. And particularly in the world we live in today, where there’s so much negativity that’s going on out there. Some futurist somewhere, I can’t remember who it was to attribute the quote to, but he made the comment that, you know, we will never reach perfection. We will never have that perfect future. But that doesn’t allow us to not try. And so in some ways, it is a job. The job is to go out there and say, I’m going to find some optimism here. I’m going to find some example that says, oh, look, those people are moving in the right direction. I need to tell other people what they’re doing.
[00:18:09.490] – Rob Brodnick
I want to go back to your comment about that. Some of the stuff that you’re reading on the fringe about redefining success. Can you give us some examples of how that definition is perhaps changing, at least in some places to a certain degree?
[00:18:21.970] – Joe Tankersley
You’re seeing younger folks in their 20s getting out of college and they decide where they want to live, not what job they want. And they actually pick a location because it fits their lifestyle. That’s, sort of, all those millennials and their lifestyle. Right? That, to me, is brilliant. What a much better way to define yourself than through a job. Particularly, and I think part of what they realize is they’ve seen so many of their parents and their parents friends invest 20, 30 years in a job that then went away. So part of it is understanding that that’s not the whole definition of who they are.
The other piece that I think is a really interesting conversation is around questions like automation and what happens if we really do eliminate a huge number of jobs. Do we just have to all go work at really terrible jobs or are there ways we can take those same tools and become what I call digitally empowered individuals so that we have the ability to create a life that maybe isn’t a battle. That’s just centered on work, over and over. Before the industrial age people did not work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week. They worked enough to get by. And I’m fascinated by that idea. In a digital future what would it mean to work enough to get by? Which means to have a reasonable life. Not necessarily a “McMansion”, but a reasonable life. And there are some people who are starting to play with that idea.
[00:19:43.180] – Karyn Zuidinga
I see it more and more, actually. I work with a lot of young designers who are deciding to just take freelance and contract work and not be employed by somebody all the time. Have work come, and when they don’t want to take on more work, they just don’t. And they take a break.
[00:19:58.610] – Joe Tankersley
Everywhere I travel now, of course, I use Uber and Lyft. I do it in part because it’s convenient. But I also do it because it’s a great way to talk to people who are creating the future. And I was in L.A. and I had a great Lyft driver who was a musician. And he said, “This is the this job is perfect for me because I can go out of town, I can practice, I can record, I get to live my dream. And I’ve got work here. I tried all these other things. It was terrible. I was constantly having to fight between my dream and my job.
While there are lots of problems with the current way, the gig economy is set up. What I’m really interested in is inspiring people to understand that all of the tools that we’re using to create that are actually tools that can free you to shape more and more of your life choices so that you can do four or five different things. I mean, that idea of being a musician and having something else. And maybe even having another skill that you really want to pursue, is to me, seems like how we create whole people. As opposed to what we do today, which is, oh you do X and we’re going to let you do X in this cubicle for the next 40 years of your life. That’s kind of tough on people. I honestly think that the community values rather than the economic values driving things is a hopeful future.
[00:21:16.270] – Rob Brodnick
It makes me think positively about it.
[00:21:19.150] – Joe Tankersley
I think so. And and there is no question that there is a huge desire to get back to community. We didn’t intentionally give it up. I think my generation particularly were brought up going be independent, you could do anything. And so we all rushed off. You know, most of us moved away from our hometown as soon as we could. We set out to find the perfect job. And what we didn’t realize was that we had given up community and having that close knitness. I think what you’re seeing is a real need to get back to that.
I’m one of these people who believes that our digital obsession with our cell phones and other technology actually ultimately will help us bring community back, because as we learn how to monitor what we do and we learn how to balance it a little bit better over time. It is a great device to be connected. There are different ways to do that. And so how do we encourage that? The problem, of course, is where analog creatures trying to learn how to be digital creatures.
[00:22:15.830] – Karyn Zuidinga
The question that keeps coming up in my mind is, it sort of goes back to that sense of agency, where do they begin? What’s step one?
[00:22:22.190] – Joe Tankersley
Well, I like to start big and then work back, because one of the things that, from a futurist point of view, it is about taking you out of the moment and trying to get you to look at the world through a different lens. And so part of that is about starting by talking about the future and where do you want to be. And so there’s some dreaming in the beginning once you’ve kind of gotten people to be willing to a dream. Then you start to come back to, OK, let’s be practical. And the first step is to really start to make them aware of what changes are going on around them.
It’s really interesting to me because I’ve done this with a number of groups where you start to teach them how to read differently when they see things about new trends and things that are happening and ask the right questions. So the first step really is OK. Somebody says that automation is going to take away 60 percent of the jobs by 2030. Let’s deconstruct that. Let’s really challenge that and understand it. And then if it’s true, what’s the thing I need to do today? And at the end, it always comes down to very small steps.
I just worked with a group of professional engineers and architects, and we did a whole workshop around what’s the future look like? What do they want to be in the future? And the conversation ultimately got down to, you know, we need to have the millennials and more of these conversations here in the room right now. And the that’s number one first step, right, that intergeneration thing. We need to learn more about X and Y and Z, I think it works. I think if you get them inspired, you can find the simple first step. But sometimes it really is just I’m going to question what I hear. I’m going to challenge that enough that I’m going to ask for a little more information to make me believe that this trend is really something I can’t take control of.
[00:24:02.300] – Sponsor Message
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[00:24:25.670] – Rob Brodnick
You had mentioned something called the Practopia Project as a way, that’s a new, new thing for you, about ways in which you can create a dialogue within communities about the future for positive change. You want to unpack that a little bit for us?
[00:24:42.190] – Joe Tankersley
2020 is the 50th anniversary of Future Shock. The famous book by Alvin Toffler. I, and I think every other futurist the world, was asked to contribute to a book, our thoughts about Future Shock. Which, of course, meant that I had to go find it in my library. Dust it off and read it for the first time in probably 30 years. I started reading that and that led me to Third Wave, which is his next book, and that’s where I discovered his use of the term Practopia. Which I think is the most brilliant term he ever came up with. It’s not utopia. It’s not a dystopia. It’s Practopia. And he defines that as being an aspirational vision that is still possible.
And that, with the community work I’m doing right now is, I’m trying to structure conversations around that idea. So that you don’t have a lot of the problem, Karyn, that I think you’re talking about, if people are just going, well, this is just woo woo, this is way too far out there. We want to talk about how you create a practical vision of the future that’s positive. And I think you can get people more engaged if you make that the end goal that you’re talking about. Because they understand that. That’s what all communities do. They’re, you know, they have to operate. So how do we make it operate? But it’s just a more bit more aspirational. And ultimately, that for me comes back to how do we get them to talk to each other? How do we get diverse voices into the room? And then how do we then facilitate those voices working together to create collaborative stories? That, to me, is the piece where I think we start to unpack. What is it really going to look like for my Practopia versus yours versus any other community’s? And at a local level, I think that works.
[00:26:13.460] – Rob Brodnick
I’m fascinated by Practopia. I want to go back to a point in your career, Joe, when you worked with Disney and for a lot of people, Disney is the creation of fantasy. I think there’s a lot of examples for that. But you worked with the Imagineers and even I think more elite group within that, the Blue Sky Group at a point in time. I’m suspicious that Imagineers just aren’t about creating fantasy, that there’s some some practicality in that.
So how about you go back a little bit and help us and our listeners understand this tension between this fantasy world, where you kind of check out and you’re not paying attention, and I mean, wonderful things are happening. But then the reality of Imagineering and kind of the work that you did when you were with those groups.
[00:26:59.150] – Joe Tankersley
It is a great place to imagine things that don’t exist. And we certainly did that. I think, for Imagineers, one of the things you have to understand is that they really do trace themselves back to Walt Disney. They are a little bit of a cult in the sense that they were started by Walt for a purpose of creating his first theme park. And it was to do something that had never been done before. And so that was always the motto, let’s do something that’s never been done before. And as we would develop that, that meant we were always really interested in what how do you use to new technology and new and different ways to be creative.
As to the creating the fun piece, the interesting thing there that I think gets to to what your question is, one of the biggest challenges is who your audience is. And typically at Disney you’re talking about what we call loosely a family unit. In the old days, it was mom, dad, the kids and maybe a grandparent. Now it can be three to four generations of people who have some relationship, all of the activities and all the experiences at Disney are intended, they don’t always do this, but they’re intended to bring that family unit together so that they can engage in a new and different way with each other. A lot of the work I did was using new technologies, computers, and games, and things like that, and building it into physical environments. We always knew when we did that that we were shifting the focus of control for the experience to the youngest member of the family because they weren’t afraid of the computers, and mom and dad were. So, a lot of what we did, we believed at least, or we strived to, help that family feel better about themselves. Help that family become the hero in whatever the experience was and create that memory that we thought was valuable. So in that sense, I think it was interesting.
To go a little bit deeper in terms of what Walt originally said was, you know, Walt believed that you couldn’t educate people without entertaining. And in fact, a lot of the work I did for a number of years at EPCOT, was at an attraction called Innoventions, which is where we actually were telling stories that had a real purpose to them. I mean, we did all sorts of things that you would not imagine a theme park. We had an exhibit that was on financial literacy, of all things. We did stuff on how to build houses that would withstand hurricanes, how to eat healthy, how to learn more about mathematics. And in all of those instances, I guess you could dub those entertainment, they use the same idea, create an imaginative world, put people in it, give them the skills they need to navigate it, and then let them learn something. As a result of having fun.
[00:29:20.960] – Karyn Zuidinga
Boy, that’s interesting, too. The idea that people learn better when they’re entertained.
[00:29:26.030] – Joe Tankersley
Oh, I don’t think it’s a question of better, I don’t think they learn unless they’re entertained. I’m sure I’m biased about that. But but if you think about even a great teacher in a classroom. The best teachers are incredible entertainers in the sense that they know how to engage people. They know how to challenge people.
And the third piece of that is they know how to give people the right resources so that they can be successful. I had a great boss at Disney when we were doing a lot of the interactive stuff. And his comment was the average person who walks through the gates of the park wants to be creative, but in a million years doesn’t believe they can. So our job is to give them the tools so that they don’t fail. And I think that’s true. Wherever you are, if you want to teach people something new, want them to take a risk. It’s about giving them the tools so that they can express whatever that that inner creativity, and inner imagination is, and actually build something that they never thought they could build.
[00:30:23.270] – Rob Brodnick
So how do you keep this optimism alive, or how did you, within a group of Imagineers? I mean, if your job is to constantly create and bring those ideas into play within the parks and the other expressions at Disney, how do you keep a troupe of people working at an optimal level and always happy. I just get the sense that this group of just amazing people could do anything. But it’s work still. I mean, you go to a job. So how do you how do you manage that?
[00:30:53.670] – Joe Tankersley
Yeah, not not always happy. Certainly there were days. One of the things, and I was, in many ways, an outsider to the extent that I had never thought I was going to have a career as an Imagineer. It never dawned on me that I would do that. Seventy five percent of people I worked with had decided when they were eight they were going to be an Imagineer. So they were a really interesting group that had that moment, that experience, and saw their life, and so this was the pinnacle for them. They couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
The fascinating thing at Disney is if you talk to the person who’s the custodian, or the person who’s putting people on that ride vehicle, there’s a good chance they feel the same way. There is something about the story that’s created there and the feeling of being part of that that really creates an enthusiasm that is different than it is anywhere else I’ve ever been. I don’t think there’s any question of that. I think part of it is people gravitate there who truly enjoy that experience. But it’s also one of the great things. I mean, when you get down at work. My office was literally at a theme park. And if I was having a bad day all I had to do was walk outside and you see these people who were happy because of something you’ve done. And you can’t not be infected by that Joy. I think that’s an important lesson for every business. We’re so far removed from what we do most of the time. And I think that that was a big part of it.
The final answer to the question is we were just all crazy as all get out. I remember when I first started working there and I’d been there maybe a week or something and I was assigned to be part of a brainstorming group. And I walked into this room and there are probably fifteen or twenty people in it. I’ve no idea what the project was, but somebody started the session. So this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to build this roller coaster. It’s going to be this story. And the ideas were happening so fast. Most of the people were great artists as well. So they were drawing stuff and throwing things… I was overwhelmed. I was just completely… I’d kind of like I’d sit in the corner going, oh, I don’t know if I can keep up with this or not. But that enthusiasm for creating an idea is what kept you going, I think. And it was just fun!
[00:33:05.840] – Rob Brodnick
Without a doubt. Now, I’d like to ask a little bit about some of the your future work and things that are coming down the road. The Imagineers, in terms of the work you did there, imagination and foresight, some terms that you and I have talked about. You mentioned that you’re engaging in a foresight leadership program and putting that together. Talk a little bit about foresight and how you can coach, train, teach and how that mixes together with creating these optimal futures.
[00:33:33.020] – Joe Tankersley
Well, the business side of what I do and you know, I work with a fair number of corporate clients. From the very beginning has been kind of interesting because at some level, a lot of times a company will come to you and go, oh, we need a futurist to come in and tell us what’s going to happen. And you go and you do that. And sometimes you might work on a bigger project that you actually help them do a deep dive into some particular subject. But I always felt like, my gut was telling me ,that when I left those projects were going on somebody’s shelf.
The foresight leadership approach is how do you give them the capacity to do this work so that they don’t need to call me back? They learn how to do it on their own and they begin to create some kind of enthusiasm internally. So that’s one of the things I’ve been working on lately to really codify that into something, almost a package. You come in and do some of the, okay, here’s the future. I’m going to give you one on one. But I’m also going to give you some of the skills that you need so that you can do this and then leave with a structure behind so that you can continue to do this work on your own. And that to me is, I’m hoping, way more fulfilling.
And it’s interesting that came out of that client I have in Cheyenne, which happens to be a rodeo of all things came to me three years ago. And after we got over the why do you need a futurist thing, I worked with them for about six months to help them build a system of a vision. And also what they called their Trail Guide. And out of the blue, they called me up about three weeks ago. And they’re like, it’s been three years and we’ve done this, this and this. And it’s time for us to think about what we’re going to do next. And when I saw that I thought, yeah, this works. This is how you get people engaged and keeping them engaged. So I think that’s the important piece. I think it’s critical to create that capacity within a business.
[00:35:15.980] – Karyn Zuidinga
I can think of a lot of businesses facing big change and a lot of uncertainty. And there’s there’s increasing talk about recession out there. And a lot of people are going, oh shoot what do we do now? I can imagine a listener listening to this and going, okay, great, Joe. What do I do next?
[00:35:32.640] – Joe Tankersley
Part of it is, is recognizing the pain. That is for a lot of people, the first step. And in so many business, and you guys know this, right, so many of our clients are people whose nose is to the grindstone. And you’ve got to get through the next day, or the next week, or the next quarter. And you just don’t feel like you have a chance to just take a deep breath and look over the horizon. I had interesting experiences where clients have come to me because somebody has come in and gone, told them about the fourth industrial revolution and they’re like, oh, my goodness, we never heard of that before. We’re terrified. What do we do? And so it’s talking them off the ledge, saying we’re going to think about this differently. We’re going to put the structure so you can do this.
For a lot of people in any group, I will say this, and there is no scientific basis for this, but it’s just sort of my my instinct. You take a group of 20 people, you’re going to find four or five in that group who are going to see this work and are just immediately going to go, I want to do that. I love this. I really want to do that. And they’ll drive it for everybody else. Most of people in the group go, okay, this is kind of interesting. Once they start to see practical benefits, they’ll follow along. And then there’s a two guys in the room. And it’s always guys. It’s always older guys who are just like, no, I don’t want to talk about it.
But I don’t know if that that answers your question, Karyn. But that’s kind of a process I go through with people. And once again, it is really beating on this idea that the future does not exist. It just doesn’t. And if it doesn’t exist, why wouldn’t you want to know more about it and what’s possible and how you might be better positioned to, at the very least, be the first person to see that somebody came up with an idea to put all the taxicabs out of business as opposed to being the taxi cab drivers.
[00:37:18.840] – Rob Brodnick
It’s wonderful when someone comes back that you’ve worked with and said, wow, this is what we did, this is what happened. It’s incredible. My experience is often someone comes back and says, we’ve had these crises, we’ve been putting out fires. We just haven’t had time to attend to the future. We’ve been dealing so much with the present. How do you coach them through that? Because you realize if you’re not investing a certain percent of your effort in what’s coming things are going to slowly grind to a halt. And some other future will take take you over that you didn’t expect. So how do you get people back to thinking about it when they’ve kind of gone back to the daily fire drill?
[00:37:54.060] – Joe Tankersley
It’s cyclical to a certain degree, without a doubt. It’s unfortunate that people wait until everything’s going great to go oh, now we can think about the future. Which is probably the wrong time to be thinking about the future. My experience has been that the best leaders never forget about it. The people who really are doing a good job of leading their company or their group always know that in the back of their head, they need to be thinking about this. I think for many of them, it’s how do you answer the question of, well, how do I find the time? Make it easy for me. Give me the capacity so that I can get this information. I can make sense of this information and I can digest it because otherwise, if I go out on my own and just, you know, there are billions of futures out there, and there are tons of books that are written every day, and course, they all contradict each other.
I think part of it is about packaging. It has to be easy to digest. It has to be something that they can really sink their teeth into. And it’s about picking what’s the most important focus issue for them today? A lot of times we get brought into to work with people on what they think is the most important issue. And that always to me is an opportunity to go. Have you thought about this? And you begin to bring those other sort of issues in and they become aware of them. And then they were more willing to try to address different possible futures.
[00:39:11.910] – Rob Brodnick
You brought up the word opportunity, and I was actually kind of thinking of a question related to that. How do you mix in opportunity to futuring work that you do. Things happen unexpectedly. And, you know, if you’re tuned to it at the near horizon, these opportunities present themselves. And if you can act quickly enough upon it, something amazing might happen. There’s a little bit of turbulence in that. So how do you mix those things together?
[00:39:36.430] – Joe Tankersley
Well, one of the things that is part and parcel of the work is once you’ve sort of thought about potentially what the futures are, and it’s always good to think about more than one, you know, the different alternative possible directions thing will happen, you can create a roadmap that says, you know, here’s the flag post I’m looking for. You know, this says there’s an opportunity out there.
For instance, if you use the Uber example. If I had been around back then and I’d been in the transportation business and thought about it, I might have said, wow, you know, if somebody could figure out how to take this cell phone that everybody’s got, it’s got a G.P.S. in it, that might be an interesting disruption. And then I’d start listening for that. Right. Start looking for somebody who’s doing that software. And so you start to look for the things that make opportunities happen. If that makes sense. Right. And once you’re attuned to looking for those things, then there’s a good chance that you may not be the person who creates the opportunity. But there’s a really good chance that you’re the person who gets there before everybody else does.
And that’s that’s how you build the opportunity thing. Because a lot of creating your future is being opportunist. It’s saying, you know, X, Y or Z could happen. I need to sort of have my tentacles out there to see which one’s happening first. And once X seems to be the thing that’s going to happen, then I know I need to shift my emphasis to go that direction, and create that opportunity. Whereas if you haven’t thought about it, it just gets created and you go, oh, look, there wentt the opportunity and I missed it.
[00:41:01.770] – Rob Brodnick
There went the opportunity. Yeah. A quote, it’s probably not a quote, but it’s something like chance favors the prepared mind. And I use that often or a variance of that. And it’s something about remaining in a quasi state where you’re always scanning. As you’re thinking about change and leading, you’re always scanning because you’re not exactly sure where that next hook is going to be. Sometimes when you have an idea, you know, it’s a great idea, but all of a sudden it lands. And so kind of keeping your mind open. I imagine as you coach and lead teams that are trying to do that, that you’re always encouraging them, not just be dogmatic to the vision, but also remain open to things that might be surprises.
[00:41:46.600] – Joe Tankersley
And that is so very hard. It’s it’s hard for all of us. But once again, that came out my Imagineering training. So we, you know, we would come together, we would work on a project. We’d come up with a concept. And at the end of the day, we’d say we got this! We’s come back the next day, and say, you know… yes, this is it, but. Living in that, this is it…but is really, really tough for people. I have a lot of sympathy for them. I try to make that as comfortable as possible, but I never say to them pick one vision, stick with it and nothing changes. The vision is just the thing to get you going.
[00:42:24.160] – Karyn Zuidinga
It occurs to me that you can have a vision, start to execute against it, get really enthusiastic about it, and as you dive into it, you start losing your sense of perspective and horizon. That challenge of staying, of keeping one eye on the horizon, and the other on what you’re doing, is..well…it must feel a little like going cross-eyed. Sometimes.
[00:42:43.840] – Joe Tankersley
It is. And we all fail at it from time to time. For me, the real power of the vision is not that being a destination, but really the real power of the vision is as it uncovers what your values are, and what’s really important to you. And when I was doing work with the various Disney organizations, doing foresight work with them, we did a project one time on the future of work. A big project. We spent a ton of time on it, work with all these H.R. executives, and I remember the final workshop we did. They got all excited about all this new technology and they had this vision of the future for what it was going to look like in twenty, twenty five. And then all of a sudden somebody the room went, oh, wait a minute, that’s not who we are. And everybody else in the room went, oh, you’re right.
And that, to me is the value of the vision. It’s not that I’m going to go build a yellow car. It’s going to be, yellow, matters. If you can do that, then you can not get so tied up into I’ve got to do this particular version of the future, but I’ve got to do a version in the future that respects what I really think is important.
[00:43:44.980] – Karyn Zuidinga
All right, Joe, thank you so much for your time today.
[00:43:47.440] – Rob Brodnick
All right. Thanks, Joe. Really appreciate it.
[00:43:49.520] – Joe Tankersley
Well, thank you guys again. This has been great fun, too. I’ve enjoyed it.
[00:43:54.630] – Karyn Zuidinga
Thank you to AMI who have nurtured us in developing this podcast, is the source of so many of our guests. And of course, the founder, Stan Gryskiewicz, is also the author of the original book and dare I say, the Walt Disney of Positive Turbulence. Stay tuned for our Positive Turbulence Moment where Joe invites us to have a little fun.
[00:44:14.760] – Sponsor Message
If you are looking for strategic support for your organization, check out SierraLearningSolutions.com. We combine innovation, expert facilitation, and strategic planning services to bring your vision to life. Visit SierraLearningSolutions.com. Thank you to Mack Avenue Music Group our contributing sponsor for providing our podcast soundtrack, Late Night Sunrise.
[00:44:39.610] – Karyn Zuidinga
Hey, Joe. What makes stories such a powerful generator of Positive Turbulence?
[00:44:45.110] – Joe Tankersley
One of the brilliant things about story is they don’t look dangerous when you first meet them. It’s just a story. That’s what you start with, people. So it’s OK. We’re going to play a little bit. We’re going to have fun here. We’re going to imagine some things.
[00:45:00.340] – Karyn Zuidinga
If you want to share a Positive Turbulence Moment or otherwise, comment on what you’re hearing. Please drop us a line at Podcast@PositiveTurbulence.com Be sure to tune in next time when we’ll be talking to Natalie Shmulik, CEO of The Hatchery in Chicago, a food business incubator. Be sure to wear your stretchy pants!
Head over to PositiveTurbulence.com to find out more about us, our wonderful sponsors, Positive Turbulence our guests, or check out our very cool and very diverse reading, watching and listening to list. Until next time, keep the turbulence positive!