“To assume that running a foresight or futures program is something that people can do on the side of their regular work would doom the whole thing directly to failure.”
In this episode, we are joined by Dolby Laboratories' first-ever Foresight Strategist and current founder of her own consultancy, Tessa Finlev. As (former) Head of Foresight, she has launched an internal Futures Council, a company-wide resource that scans the horizon and connects the dots back to Dolby.
In addition to a brief explanation of how Tessa "accidentally" became a futurist and a short dive into the foresight activities at Dolby Laboratories, we address the core question of how to run a Futures Council. If you want to learn more about the characteristics, responsibilities, and goals of such a council, but also how time travelers come into play in that context, you shouldn’t miss this episode.
Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.
The accidental futurist
Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am thrilled to welcome Tessa Finlev in her role as Head of Foresight at Dolby Laboratories. So let's explore how Dolby is practicing foresight, how foresight is being developed in general, and also why Tessa calls herself an “accidental futurist”—that kind of interesting! Tessa, thanks so much for joining us.
Tessa: Thank you so much for having me.
Chris: Alright. We do start straight away with a short 60 seconds introduction sprint. Now this is, as always, all about you, your career, and also your current role. So for the next 60 seconds, the virtual stage is all yours. Let's go.
Tessa: Yes, thank you. So I am the Head of Foresight at Dolby, their first internal futurist. And I’m also just launching my own consulting firm. You can find us at veryfuture.xyz. I recently relocated to Kenya with my family. So that's a big reason why I've opened up my own consulting firm, but Dolby is my primary dance partner if you will. I’ve been working with them for the past three years on building organizational foresight capacity across the company, and setting up a program, an ongoing Futures Council. I'm also collaborating with Institute for the Future over in California and Institute for Futures Studies in Copenhagen. So I’m very excited about that future for myself and the future over here in Kenya. So that's me in that short 60-second nutshell.
Chris: So that's an interesting connection: California, Kenya, Copenhagen. Very interesting. To get to know you just a little bit better, I do have three sentence starters for you, and I would like to ask you to complete those sentences. So let's see where this is going to lead us. Number one goes like this: I do spend a silly amount of money on...
Tessa: Candy. My inner child is always with me, looking for candy and sweets and sugar. Yes. And I think if I were to run a budget, it would actually be an unusual amount of money on candy. But don't tell my children because they don't have the same privilege.
Chris: Not for children, understood. Alright, that's great. And then number two: one unusual habit or absurd thing that I love is... (aside from candy, by the way).
Tessa: It probably fits in there. And this one maybe goes in parallel with candy, but I love reality TV. And it's maybe not one you would associate with someone in my profession who thinks for a living. Although sometimes those opposite ends, they fit well together. But I love reality TV. And I like to say it connects to my anthropology background. It's like a study of modern man.
Chris: It does, so I understand where you're coming from. Alright, number three, that's an interesting one: One [piece of] advice I would give to a smart, ambitious college student about to enter the real world is...
Tessa: Stay focused and stay the course. If you are interested in something and it's not quite working out, just keep pushing, keep pushing, and stay focused. Because the people I’ve noticed who really go far they've been working at the same thing for a long time. So stay focused.
Chris: Great advice.
Tessa: And have fun. Try not to stress about it.
Chris: Of course, stay focused and have fun. That is really helpful. So in the tagline on your LinkedIn profile, I read “accidental futurist,” which I find quite funny. Can you tell me about the accident that actually led you to become a futurist?
Tessa: Well, the primary accident is that I found a job posting on Craigslist, which is a website in California that used to be the primary place to get jobs. It was a job posting for Institute for the Future. And I didn't know anything about the field at the time. This was in 2008. I got the job, and I ended up working with Institute for the Future for about a decade. And I'm still working with them, in a relationship with them. So it was a literal accident. In that way. Then I think also just in terms of my professional identity—to be able to call myself a futurist or a foresight strategist—it's something I've had to very slowly grow into and find comfort in. It feels like a very accidental coincidence. Or not a coincidence, but just an accidental happening. I don't quite know how I got here, but I feel very, very fortunate, and very happy to be here.
Spearheading corporate foresight at Dolby
Chris: So it's good that it happened, but you just don't know how it came about. Which is fine. So how did your journey lead you to start the corporate foresight movement within Dolby?
"From a business standpoint, there are so many challenges—with remaining relevant, finding new opportunities, staying ahead of the competition—that having a structure for internal long-term thinking is a critical piece of that broader puzzle."
Tessa: Well, there's such a clear hunger for this kind of work inside any organizational setting, inside a corporation. And inside any institutions, really. People are so hungry for structured ways to think critically about the world. To think about what's happening. To think long term. To think about things outside of the day-to-day tasks that they engage in. We have so many questions that we're constantly grappling with in terms of what's happening in the world. I find that just on that kind of interpersonal philosophical level, people want to be able to do this. From a business standpoint, there are so many challenges—with remaining relevant, finding new opportunities, staying ahead of the competition—that having a structure for internal long-term thinking is a critical piece of that broader puzzle. So it came about very, very organically and slowly, internally with Dolby. Coming in and kind of finding out: where the energy flows are, where the interest is, what are the kinds of models that make sense? How do you fold futures thinking into a company in a way that is sustainable and has impact beyond one time or every once in a while [when] you might do a presentation or something? How do you keep it going and make it stick?
Chris: And as I learned, you are spearheading this entire foresight movement or foresight initiative. What would be interesting also to know is who were your first followers inside Dolby? From which team? From which department? How did they build up?
Tessa: Yeah, that is a critical question. So the primary sponsor is the Head of our People & Places team, Linda Rogers. Big shout out to her. She's a visionary in her work. And she's been working in the futures space for a long time, since the early 2000s. So that's something that she brings with her. She was the first to kind of open the first door and my first champion. Then, beyond the Head of People, there’s the CTO and Head of Advanced Research—that side sits within the innovation spectrum. And then, of course, corporate strategy and all those different players [are also involved]. The connection to the People team, though, is very interesting. It's actually very helpful and a really critical piece of the whole puzzle. So it's fantastic that within Dolby, the People team is my actual house; that’s my home. But I roam freely across the company and find allies and people to work with. Having the People team be my primary place is a bit of a superpower. Because the People team is seen as having the interest of the whole company, not one particular business group. Having an interest in things beyond product development and revenue, but also employee engagement and talent and all of those other things that are critical to making the whole company function effectively.
Chris: That is super interesting: that the Head of People and the team behind that were your first sponsors or champions if you will. That is a super interesting perspective to take. Not sure if I heard of that too many times before. Maybe that's indeed a key to unlocking additional steps inside an organization such as Dolby, for example. That is brilliant. I also understood that part of your work is leveraging the ITONICS Innovation OS. How did you get the internal buy-in for using any kind of software tool or software platform in general as an individual who spearheaded this entire initiative? How did that go?
Tessa: The internal buy-in was relatively straightforward in many ways. Mostly because having ITONICS is critical to the work. If you want to be serious about having an internal futures program, an internal structure for thinking long-term, you have to have some sort of centralized platform where people can input data. They can input the things they see; they can rate it; they can discuss it. That then becomes an archive of information. Having that centralized place is just critical if you want to do the work effectively. You can try other things: MS Teams for team chats or emails. But these are more ephemeral because they might get erased after a certain amount of time. Also, people forget because they're sending links to different places. Other options lack the same kind of organizational structure as ITONICS.
"The other thing about the ITONICS platform — which is critical and also the more challenging piece — is it forces users to do the hard work. To actually think about the content. To say, “What is this? Why does it matter? Why is it important? What does it mean?"
The other thing about the ITONICS platform—which is critical and also the more challenging piece—is it forces users to do the hard work. To actually think about the content. To say, “What is this? Why does it matter? Why is it important? What does it mean?” When you're just sending links around to each other, you don't do that work together. The person who sends it, reads it and says, “Hey, check this thing out.” Then other people may or may not read it. But within ITONICS, I'm forced to not just send you a link; I'm forced to say, “Here's the thing, and here's why I think it's important. Now you go ahead and tell me, do you think it's important?” That's the challenging work of getting an internal futures program set up—forcing people into this thinking function and then having a platform to do it in.
Chris: Interesting. I guess the last time we spoke, you were just thinking of introducing gamification mechanics to the foresight process. So how did that go? Are you already using that productively, or is it at a stage where you're still ideating and thinking of how to add that “spice” to the process?
Tessa: We're still in the experimentation phase. It's not really something that's taken off yet. We're still in the scaling-up phase where we can pull that in.
Chris: Do let me know how this goes. Because I think that's a really interesting idea to gamify the process and keep up the engagement of individuals. That's really interesting. I also would like to dive deeper into drawing on your experience and your recommendations for organizations, any type of organization basically, to have dedicated futures teams. But before we do that, I would like to play a quick game. The game is called “Either-Or.” It's a really simple game. I would like to give you two options. You choose one of those options and then briefly explain your choice—and speed is key. Let's see what happens. Number one: Do you either read books, ebooks, or listen to audiobooks, and why?
Tessa: Audiobooks. I've never really read ebooks. I still read the paper books. But sometimes I'll listen to an audiobook.
Chris: Second one: Would you either stay in your mid-20s forever or stay in your 60s forever?
Tessa: 60s forever. Because you cannot go backward. And I haven't been to my 60s yet.
Chris: Finally, number three: For your vacation time, either relaxing on the beach or going hiking.
Tessa: Oh, both! That is not an either-or.
Chris: Okay, that's fair. Let's take both. Thanks for that. You were very fast in answering those questions.
Building a collective Futures Council
Chris: Alright, let's get back to serious business. I learned you recommend having a dedicated futures team inside a company. Can you tell me more about that? Why do you recommend that?
Tessa: It is so much work. I think it goes across the board with any kind of innovation program, foresight program, or futures program. If something doesn’t exist, it's easy for people internally to get inspired and spin something up. It's maybe successful at first, but then their day job takes over, and they just can't keep it going.
“To assume that running a foresight or futures program is something that people can do on the side of their regular work would doom the whole thing directly to failure.”
It's so much work to get something up and running, and then it's so much work to keep something going. You need not only someone who understands futures thinking, how to do it, and can train people, as well as find out the right levels of engagement that make sense for the company. Then you need a facilitator, a trainer, and a researcher. You also need a community manager, someone who is able to bring people in and find out what the process is for keeping them engaged. It's a full-time job and then some. To assume that running a foresight or future program is something that people can do on the side of their regular work would doom the whole thing directly to failure.
Chris: Let's dive into that for some time. I read you are talking more specifically about having a Futures Council in an organization. So let's define that. What are some of the characteristics, responsibilities, and goals of such a Futures Council, and how could it be structured?
Tessa: Yes, at Dolby, we launched what we're calling a Futures Council. We're rounding the corner of year one, so it's still relatively fresh. It is a council that sits across the company. As I went through a journey of experimenting with different ways of bringing futures thinking into Dolby, I discovered that the most effective thing—and this has always been the way I view futures thinking—is to act collectively and include a diverse group of participants. So within a company structure, these are people who sit across all business groups, functions, and different levels. And they're coming together to help the company gain a long-term perspective on what's happening in the world. So the council is made up of people who sit across the company at different levels within the organizational chart. We, of course, have our executive sponsors, the people who help make it legitimate. They legitimize it, and they bring on some of the internal star power that attracts other people. Then we have our advisors, who are sitting next to the executive leadership team and are a little bit closer to the potential topics that we're researching and how we are actually running the program. Then we have time travelers. These are people who are getting trained in strategic foresight, futures thinking, and research methodology. Their work is to do the research to help us build a perspective on possible futures without necessarily saying why it matters to Dolby. Then we have our strategists. That's a group of people who then say, “Why do these futures matter to Dolby? What are the potential opportunities or challenges? There's another base of people we're going to be activating next year who are using ITONICS—those are the raters, the voters. With just the lightest touch, they can come in and actually say, “This trend is interesting. It's critical to Dolby. This one is non-critical to Dolby.” That's our general pyramid of participation or kind of a circle of participation. It's a bit of a moving target in terms of understanding what's the best way to engage people because they all are very busy. They have jobs. It’s an ongoing process to find those different ways of gaining people's time and attention and using it effectively so that it gives them something valuable in return. In addition to participation and defining particular roles, there is also the need to share the information and outputs we produce. We're transitioning to having like a monthly newsletter, which will highlight things that are coming out of ITONICS. The time travelers are putting in the future-relevant data and signals that they find, and every month, we synthesize it to derive bigger trends for zones of impact, etc. Then we send out newsletters to highlight those topics.
Chris: That's a pretty impressive setup. How many people are currently part of the obviously growing Futures Council?
"Part of [its success] is about understanding the engagement mechanism and how to make sure that people's time is being used productively. You want to scale up slowly rather than just have a bunch of people come in and do something."
Tessa: It's relatively small. Including our sponsors, strategists, time travelers, and everybody, it's about 30 people. Part of [its success] is about understanding the engagement mechanism and how to make sure that people's time is being used productively. You want to scale up slowly rather than just have a bunch of people come in and do something. If they spend energy and time to produce something and think creatively, and then it goes nowhere, it's going to feel very flat. It's going to feel like they've really wasted their time. That's why there's a slow build-up. Starting next year, we're going to bring in another set of people to the time travelers community to help us scan interesting emergent futures around the world.
Chris: How do you activate the insights generated by the Futures Council, and who are you targeting? Are you rather aimed at decision makers internally—a small and narrow group—or are you reaching for the broadest possible audience? What is the goal?
Tessa: It is a “yes, and” situation. On the one hand, just having people participating in the Council—as strategists, time travelers, advisors, and sponsors—that in and of itself is a goal. Because then we have a growing community of people who are sharing a framework for making sense of all the noise in the world. Then our strategists are typically at a higher level in terms of decision-making because we don't want them to have to spend all the time doing research. The time travelers sit across the hierarchies.
It's not divided that cleanly, but we want the strategist to be people who are decision-makers. For instance, part of our work is to compile annual futures reports that present multiple scenarios on emerging technologies or trends like blockchain or augmented reality and what these scenarios mean for Dolby. That is how these annual reports and the work of the time travelers influence the strategists. There's also the innovation side within our advanced research group as well as the talent and culture side within the People team. All of these potential futures have quite broad implications in terms of the company culture, talent, and alignment with the bigger vision. A lot of this is very soft work, and that's why we're transitioning to having these monthly newsletters. They've been quarterly, but hopefully, with a monthly newsletter, we’ll be able to get another kind of audience to interact and engage with the content.
Chris: That’s perhaps also why you call it a “movement” and just not an initiative. You’re clearly building momentum over time, which is a key success factor.
Tessa: I love this. I have not thought about it as a movement until now, but it's true. I'm going to fold that back into the way we talk about the Futures Council.
Chris: There is also an ongoing debate about where foresight fits best within the corporate context. So we’ve learned that when you started, you found the first champions and sponsors in the People team. My question is, where are you today, and what would you recommend? Because many organizations, as you said, they link foresight to product, innovation, or strategy departments. But in your opinion, where does foresight ideally sit?
"Wherever [foresight’s] organizational home is, what matters most is that its goal is broader than that home."
Tessa: I don't know if where it sits is the most critical piece. I think that the people who participate need to sit across the company. Wherever [foresight’s] organizational home is, what matters most is that its goal is broader than that home. If it's within the innovation structure, it’s important to make sure that it's not solely targeting product innovation, for instance. It should also target organizational processes, culture, and all the other things that help products actually get created and defined. And if it's in corporate strategy, make sure it connects to a bigger vision. If you're doing that correctly, those things should feed out to culture and organizational process and not just be targeted at the next big innovation or product.
Chris: What are some of the most relevant horizon two and horizon three topics you're dealing with currently?
Tessa: Within the Futures Council perspective—this is not the corporate Dolby perspective—we’re intentionally trying to extend the things that we think about as part of work. So then there's a blurring. There's a mixing of finding topics that are immediately relevant and top of mind and finding topics that are seemingly not quite relevant and maybe further out or not quite related to our industry. So it's a pretty broad mix. That being said, some of the things I've come along are very technical things within audio and video. Then a lot of my work is to push us into broader categories that are more transformational on a global or regional scale. We do spend a lot of time thinking about the democratization of technology, broad access to technology, cloud technology—how there's the shifting of who is able to innovate and make new innovations that traditionally required a big company and a bunch of people with PhDs who have very highly specific knowledge.
"Democratization of technology is really shifting a lot of dynamics around, [for instance,] where new competitors and products are coming from."
Nowadays, typically young people, but anybody who is very motivated and very smart on a computer can do things that not that long ago were quite unheard of. Democratization of technology is really shifting a lot of dynamics around, [for instance,] where new competitors and products are coming from. So we spend some time thinking about that. A personal [topic] of mine is blockchain technologies. Not necessarily from an evangelizing perspective of: this is happening, let's all get on board. But to say: if blockchain really takes hold—whether it's a financial utility or some other social utility or something—these are some ways in which you could have some pretty fundamental transformational effects. And it behooves us to stay aware and to track those so that, should it take hold, we're not suddenly kind of left out in the cold. I think that's something everybody should be paying attention to. Even if it feels like blockchain has no relevance to the thing that you're doing. We're definitely at the stage where we should all be paying attention and getting some level of education on what it is and what's happening.
Chris: Especially on democratizing technology, that's actually very interesting. I know this discussion from the areas of machine learning or artificial intelligence where, of course, the more open-source libraries you have and the more knowledge you get, the more building blocks to train a model or do something else with it becomes freely available or just accessible to even students and kids these days. It’s very easy to experiment with that and maybe then connect it to some problem they see or observe and come up with actually a brilliant solution that 20 years ago, you would need to have five mathematicians with a double PhD to come up with that. So that's accelerating a lot, right? And the more building blocks you have, the more building blocks you will have in the future. It keeps on accelerating. That's the foundation of technology, accelerating technological change. So very interesting to hear that you're observing and also thinking proactively.
Tessa: As you're saying to AI and generative AI, very big space of interest and curiosity. It's advancing at lightspeed. What was happening six months ago is already very outdated. We don't know the degree to which it's going to impact media content. We know it will. Is it going to replace it? Is it going to be parallel? We don't know exactly how it's going to go, but it is definitely groundbreaking. Also, for how we work, because now generative AI—like text-to-image or even text-prompt-to-better-text, text-or-video, whatever it is—it's becoming a work partner. That's something that we all need to consider: how do we take these new AI programs and use them as a working buddy? Rather than having to, every time in my case, write a new forecast and write a new scenario, maybe I can work with my AI buddy to get it done.
Chris: For example, also maybe to fuel creativity or maybe supercharge creativity. That's pretty cool. I could possibly talk about that for the next hour or something.
Cultivating a hive-mind community
Chris: I guess we're already kind of close to the end of this episode. But before we close, two things: one is maybe we can aim to summarize. I'd be interested to hear your three key actionable recommendations that you want listeners to take away from this episode with you.
"Be very intentional and small when you start [building internal futures capacity]. Make sure you build your ecosystem of allies and cast a wide net in terms of who you bring in to participate."
Tessa: Let's just say for anybody who is interested in building internal futures capacity: be very intentional and small when you start. Make sure you build your ecosystem of allies and cast a wide net in terms of who you bring in to participate. If you keep it siloed off into its own corner, it's not going to be sticky. It's not going to grow roots. So make sure that you can fold it into your organization across the board.
Chris: Super helpful. Alright, finally, when you look back on your professional career, what would you say was your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment to date?
Tessa: Oh, boy, this is a very hard one for me because it requires really putting myself on a literal pedestal. Recently I did a visioning session with a group of senior leaders. It was a very brief visioning session. And it was the feedback across the board—it was very positive, and it fed into some of the strategic directions that they are moving into now. So that is definitely an Innovation Rockstar moment that I'm quite proud of. It's also just a great example of where having an internal futurist, who is not just a futurist that does the research and talks about the future, but someone who can facilitate teams of people to do this work on our own or as a group. It's such a helpful resource to have. It's not something that just sits around randomly; you have to actually intentionally go out and find that person and bring them in.
Chris: That's when you know you're making an impact. So that's a great rockstar moment. Absolutely. Congratulations!
Tessa: I'll share another one. Okay, now you got my juices thinking. It's actually happening tonight because I'm in Kenya and the time zones. One of the goals of the Futures Council is, in some ways, [to create] a movement. Yes. But also, we're building an internal hive mind that anybody within the company—if they're trying to work on the strategy of this thing or trying to figure out the future of this thing—they can call on us to think about this. So tonight, we're actually having a meeting with someone who's working on an internal strategy. And as the Futures Council, we've swarmed on that topic. So tonight, we're having a meeting to talk about that topic with this guy and help him in creating his strategy and making sure that it is future-leaning. The ultimate goal for me is to have an internal hive-mind community movement where the company is aware. “We're working on this strategy. We're working on this vision. We're working on this thing. Let's pull in the Futures Council.” That's a very exciting moment.
Chris: Experiencing that kind of pull moment—creating a pull, not only a push—that's actually a brilliant achievement in that short amount of time that this is now live at Dolby. Congratulations! I think with those two brilliant rockstar moments, we can close the episode. Tessa, thanks so much again for being my guest. It was a pleasure listening to you. Thanks for drawing on your experiences and conclusions from your professional career so far. Thanks again for being my guest.
Tessa: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Chris: All right, and to everybody listening or watching: if you enjoyed this episode, then simply leave us a comment on this episode or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it. Thanks for listening. Take care and bye-bye.
About the authors
Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Tessa Finlev was Dolby Laboratories' first-ever Foresight Strategist and is the current founder of her own consultancy, Facilitating Foresight.
The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Innovation Operating System. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy, or growth? Then shoot us a note!
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