An interview with Maree Conway who runs Thinking Futures, a strategic foresight practice in Australia
Maree Conway is one of the most thoughtful foresight practitioners around, little wonder she calls her consultancy ‘Thinking Futures'. She describes her work as helping people in organisations re-frame strategic conversations about the future. And I am reminded of that great quote from Pierre Wack: “To operate in an uncertain world people need to be able to re-perceive: to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so that they can see the world more clearly”. And when I read or hear from Maree I always think that she’s encouraging me to change my view of reality.
She says as much on her website: “I help people change their mindsets to face the future, ready to adapt their thinking to take proactive responses to change today”. This idea that her role is to help people unlock their assumptions and adapt to changes today, rather than envision a far-off future, is clear in her statement that she is not a futurist.
Speaking to me, she explains: “I don't call what I do futuring. It sounds strange to my ear, and the meaning of the term isn't immediately obvious. And it's related to futurism, which is an art movement, not something related to the future. I call myself a foresight practitioner and researcher because for me, thinking about the future and moving beyond unquestioned assumptions and biases starts with each of us recognising our capacity to shape the future. Some people are more or less open to this idea, so I try and work with people who are already interested and want to find out more. They realise they have to change how they do what they do. They get the complexity of the external world and the need to spend time understanding and exploring implications. I am seeing more and more people talking about the need to prepare for the future - they don't call it any particular name but people increasingly recognise the need to 'do' it (using foresight). It's becoming more important”.
She’s absolutely right of course, we’re in the business of ‘preparedness’, though of course that’s a complex one to explain should you pop it on your business card. However, what she’s hinting at here is that she works with enlightened clients, people who know it’s a collaborative, co-creation exercise and that it's really only they themselves who can shape their own future, no one else.
She says: “My visions of the future are irrelevant in many regards. I don't create visions of the future as part of my practice that I ‘put out there’. I work with people to help them create visions of their futures, ones they want to be in. It's not my job to put forward my vision (even though that view may be well informed). My job is to help people prepare for their future, not mine”.
I would suggest that that is a very feminine quality, an emotionally intelligent approach to strategic foresight, one that is not always found in male practitioners. That’s not to say that its necessarily a gender issue, but that the futurists who tend to take this cooperative, collegiate, collaborative approach tend to exhibit more feminine values and qualities than not.
Maree hasn’t found gender a determining factor in the profession, and as ever she steers clear of ill-considered generalisations and is more forensic and empirical in her answer to my question about whether there is an imbalance between male and female futurists:
“I don't know the numbers but I suspect there are more men than women. Like all fields, men - and some women - can be louder and more certain in their views but that can tend to make conversations quite superficial in my view. But people who are short on time and want 'the right answer' do like futurists who peddle certainty. I tend to just sigh quietly when I'm in the presence of futurists like this and just walk away when I can. I'm not interested in the ego game - in any field. It's not worth my energy or time engaging in conversations where someone is opinionated and won't listen - and that applies to both male and female futurists. I have a network of strong female futurists and some of them are very visible, but we all do different things in different ways - there's no one size fits all. I am now at the stage where I want to work with particular sorts of people and they find me through my website or word of mouth. I'm not interested in the high-profile futurist speaker circuit or anything like that - and that's where there are more men than women at the moment I think”.
Perhaps it is because she was slightly older when she came to the field but Maree strikes me as someone who has a very clear idea of who she is, and what she will deliver. She is utterly authentic and I imagine that that is what many of her clients and colleagues find so appealing about working with her, she’s got integrity and will always tell you the truth. Part of that truth is that futurists (or foresight strategists and researchers) can’t do it all. They need to find a part of the field that is worth focusing on: “I don't see my path into the field as being hard because I have shaped my space in the field to my liking. Richard Slaughter once said to a class of students I was in that we have to work out what part of the futurist conversation we are going to join, that we can contribute to, and that's what I have done. It took a while to finesse this, but I always had the aim of finding a space where I could make the most impact. That said, I was older when I moved into the field (in my 50s) and already had a good idea of who I was, and what I wanted to do. If I was younger, in my 20s or 30s, it may be harder for a woman. The most important lesson I learned though is the importance of saying 'no', because you can't be all things to all people. I don't know if my path has been easier or harder than a man but I've never felt like I'm competing against men”.
Maree is practical rather than ideological. Even when asked about Integral Futures, one of the areas I thought she was most renowned for, she once again reminds me of the subtleties of adopting methodologies wholesale or becoming a slave to them for the sake of it: “I use integral to frame my work - to help me map organisations and their culture so I understand the context I'm going to be working in, their existing views about the futures to identify where I can add most value, and to help me design processes that are people focused. I don't use Wilber's 'full' integral model because it's too complex for most people - the four quadrants are enough for people to get interested and see the value of expanding their thinking”.
It makes sense then that she would call her book: ‘Foresight-Infused Strategy: A How-To Guide to Using Foresight in Practice”. It doesn’t get more practical-sounding than that! And I have used it a lot, in fact all the time. It’s a great primer and as the title suggests a great playbook, one that is never on my shelf because it’ll always find its way back onto my desk. If you are starting out it is one of about three books you absolutely need.
Everything she does she does quietly - conscientious and thoughtfully - and even when she mentions those who are just getting into the field she does it with characteristic understatement: “When I meet younger female futurists, I always tell them to get in touch at any time if they need anything or have any questions - that's important and I guess it could be called nurturing on demand (she laughs)”.
Well, if you are a young futurist starting out, there would be no better non-futurist to consult than Maree Conway.