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A Design x Foresight Approach

Steven Fisher, Innovation Leader & Design Futurist

“The best part of being a futurist is: It allows you to take proactive action in all parts of your work and organizations."

In this episode, we welcome Innovation Leader and Design Futurist, Steven Fisher from McKinsey. In addition to his secret sideline as a winemaker, Steven has a deep passion for exploring all the technologies that would change the world.

This talk is all about futurology. Next to methods and challenges, we delve into the question of how important futurology has become in recent years and address the necessity of including futurology as an integral part of corporate culture for better responsiveness. If you want to learn more about the difference between (strategic) foresight and future design, or what Steven's mission of democratizing future thinking is all about, you shouldn't miss this episode.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

What it means to be a futurist

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to the Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am thrilled to welcome Steven Fisher. Steve is Innovation Leader and Design Futurist at McKinsey. He's a futurist, a product builder, a people leader, a maker, and an author. So Steven, I think it's fair to say that you're living and breathing “how to leverage technology” to make everything better. Thanks for joining us. It's a pleasure having you on the show.

Steven: It's great to be here. You guys are doing great work, and it's great to talk about this topic, which is near and dear to my heart, and it is my passion.

Chris: It is. So, let's get into that. And as always, we start straight away with a short 60 seconds introduction sprint. Now you know the sprint is all about you, your career, and your current role. So, yeah, for the next 60 seconds. This stage is all yours, Steven. Let's go.

Steven: Yeah, great. Thank you, Christian. You did a great job. I don't know if I have much more to add to that. I've been in the technology field for about 30 years; 20 years of that as a futurist, and technically, I've been reading software since I was 13. Probably longer than that. I've also been a filmmaker and an entrepreneur. I wrote and co-authored the best-selling book, The Startup Equation, which is about building a startup in a global sense. And I work with the futures team, I also co-lead our internal innovation efforts here at McKinsey. What I'm a part of here is our tech ecosystem. So we design, build, and run the technologies and capabilities that the firm uses, and it's about, you know, world-class impact for that. Love my work, and we are hiring. I can share that at the end; you can go to People think it's just a strict, kind of like the consultant side, but there are a lot of really great things we're doing here at McKinsey. So, yeah, that's kind of the sprint. You did a wonderful job. We can dive into some things in more depth as the conversation evolves.

Chris: Absolutely! As the next thing, Steven, I will want to give you three sentence starters and would like to ask you to complete those sentences, and speed is key. Right? So let's see. Okay, Number one: One thing nobody in corporate life knows about me is that…

Steven: I’m a winemaker. And a new one at that.

Chris: Yes. Oh, wow. Wow, that's interesting. Have to try some. Yeah, but that's not for today's discussion. Number two: A futurist is someone who…

Steven: That's always a great question. Many people think that a futurist predicts the future, right? It's about possible futures, right? What a futurist is, is someone who looks at the trends and signals for a specific topic or an industry. That’s about communicating, like I said, possible futures over a certain time horizon. It's about the things that could happen in the future, and we work to identify those things. So that the future will eventually become the present. The best part of being a futurist is that it allows you to take proactive action in all parts of your work and organization.

“Being a futurist is about the things that could happen in the future, and we work to identify those things. So that the future will eventually become the present.”

Chris: Yeah, that's a great answer. All right. And then number three: The worst advice I hear over and over again, about innovation is…

Steven: …that you should assign it to one person.

Chris: Oh, great. Yeah. Well, why is it a bad advice?

Steven: Innovation can come from anywhere, and it should really be an organic part of the work and culture. You might have somebody who is kind of in that role of Chief Innovation Officer, and there are a lot of people out there who do wonderful work. But I think the important part to emphasize is that innovation can come from all parts of an organization. So being able to build that culture and, like I said, build that within, it really becomes an easier thing to do than trying to kind of force it as a function. It becomes just a natural part of the work that a firm does.

“Innovation can come from anywhere within an organization, and it should really be an organic part of the work and culture.”

A design x foresight approach

Chris: Great. I love it. That's great. All right. So now, going forward, let's start simple and stupid. If you would describe your job to your grandma, how would you describe it?

Steven: I would say I look at the future and where things might go. So teams can make better decisions earlier than they might and prior to that. She would understand that.

Chris: Yeah, of course, because you have a smart grandma, most probably Yeah.

Steven: She actually is 96. So she saw war and depression. She saw a lot of stuff.

Chris: Yeah, I see. In terms of definition, and in terms of words and ambiguation, I'll just briefly ask you about what a futurist is, as per your definition. But there are many different other terms out there, for example strategic foresight. How would you explain the difference between strategic foresight or corporate foresight on the one hand and futures or futures design on the other? What's the difference, in your opinion?

Steven: That's a great question. I think for many in the audience that have looked at futures worker are doing it currently, they probably know some of the history. But also, where some of the transitions have happened, may not be very aware of them. So when you think about decades of strategic foresight, it was a methodology. It started in the 50s with Random, and around war gaming used by think tanks, strategy firms, governments, and universities to take these techniques and look at possible futures and look at data. It evolved into scenario planning, techniques like signals. I mean, you've probably all heard of shell scenario planning. They're probably the most famous, in those last second phases in the 90s and 80s. Really a look at a long, long horizon as to where energy is going. But that's kind of where things stopped. And what has been interesting in the last 20 or 10 years is how we communicate the future to people. Especially people that are not very futures fluent, as I like to say, and many times their futures fluency, they will hear that term probably mentioned a few times in our conversation. What you might be familiar with, is companies like IDEOU and the way that they prototype. You would see radical concepts or future designs. But even something like a story, like a Philip K Dick story, things like design fiction. What they do is, help communicate the future. And what I in my role as a design futurist is, there are techniques that have evolved, like design fiction, speculative prototyping, in a more common way. It helps communicate those concepts and experiences to people. And that's a very powerful way to get people bought into a vision and also to drive them towards that future world, in how you live and work, you play in it. And that’s an exciting aspect of the evolution of futures work because it really connects the possible to those who really not live day to day but can really grasp it and truly, like you said earlier, explain it to your grandma. This kind of does that for them.

“What has been interesting in the last 20 or 10 years is how we communicate the future to people. And my role as a design futurist is, to get people bought into a vision and also to drive them towards that future world, in how you live and work, you play in it.”

Chris: And how do you help people embrace the fact that there is more than just one possible future? Or even more than one plausible future? Because, as you know, it is about communication. It's about telling them, you know, maybe a story of what might be possible or plausible, maybe even desired or not. But, you know, then they probably come up with a question like, “Okay, now what do we believe in the most?, Where should we go left or right? Or what do I take from this to make my decisions in terms of product investments? Or even changing the strategy”. So, how do you typically deal with that when people still leave the room and say, "Oh, yeah, that's interesting, but, now I have so many ideas and so many options. I don't know how to turn this into action”.

Steven: That's a great question. When I talked about strategic foresight, a lot of it was around scenarios, which was a little bit more narrow. You had really kind of a rigid, like the future is going one way; it's either going to go fantastically awesome, or it's going to be an apocalyptic nightmare, and a little in between. But it was kind of like, one path or the other. In my work there's a plurality of futures. Because one person's future could be wonderful, and at the same time they're living in it, somebody else is having their own hellscape. So it's like, "How do you deal with the multiple or the pluralverse?". So, that plurality of futures is defined better now. But, like I mentioned, we're scenario stopped. A lot of organizations would do scenario planning, and it would just kind of go into a report and into a drawer, and that would be great. What has evolved too at the other end is something called ‘back casting’. One of the aspects of doing product or strategy work is taking a time horizon like, five, seven, ten, fifteen, or twenty years, whatever that is, and working backwards. So if you want your organization or your product to be in a certain place, or the things that you envision 10 years from now, you have to connect the dots. I think back casting is a very powerful tool in that way, and what it does is, it allows you to map up the trends and the signals that are going to come into play at certain points, according to, what is projected. It allows you to say, if we're going to make these changes, this is probably the best time horizon to do them, and this is how we'll help get there. And it also helps people understand that you're not going to throw money at something that's hopefully 10 or 20 years away, but there's demonstrable action that can be done beyond a typical roadmap of a product, which is may be like 12 to 18 months. But it may look out two years, three years, or five years and help inform the larger organization. But the beauty of it is that as the future becomes the present, you're able to kind of see those signals come into play, maybe quicker. So maybe you have to take action faster, or you know that something's going in a different way, and you don't have to invest in those ways, which can really be powerful, especially for the stakeholders and shareholders that are in the organization. So I think that's a way to do it.

“So if you want your organization or your product to be in a certain place, or the things that you envision 10 years from now, then back casting is a very powerful tool in that way, as it allows you to map up the trends and the signals that are going to come into play at certain points, according to, what is projected.”

Chris: Yeah, that’s fine. Maybe we can talk about another different study. A study by Professor René Rohrbeck published quite a few years ago. I guess it was in the journal TFSC., Technological Forecasting Social Change, where he did a longitudinal analysis. Some evidence that future-prepared firms did outperform the average by 30% or somewhat more than 30% higher profitability and, double the growth, which is quite interesting. So what he's basically saying is, if you're prepared for the future, you're going to outperform better because at least, you know, obviously, you can't predict, and you can't look into the future, but you have the options you're preparing earlier than anybody else. So that's quite interesting. Is that what we're seeing too? Does your experience and the work you do with other leading organizations as well do they excel in certain things because they start embracing future design and any of these techniques, or what do you see when you work with others?

Steven: Yeah, that's a fascinating study. And I often cite, in fact, we can get into that a little later in the conversation, but I worked and co-authored a paper with McKinsey Global Institute on Asia, and we referenced that a lot because what is powerful about that study, is a longitudinal study. They took 10 years and looked at firms in this way. And it really showed that when you need to build this capability in an organization, the investment gave better responsiveness and the input into strategic decision-making which avoided costly mistakes. It's a compelling effect and something to cite in many ways. What I often talk to people about is that the opportunity is not just with one part of an organization; it is actually bringing this into all facets of an organization. Because they also looked at those who didn't, or maybe kind of abandoned foresight, they actually had lower performance. So I think for those who are maybe financially and investment minded, doing this has a tangible impact.

Walk the talk - democratizing future thinking

Chris: Yeah, and I'm connecting to that. I mean, Steve, when we talked earlier, I've actually learned that you're on a mission right? And the mission you said was to democratize future thinking. Now that sounds compelling. Tell me more about that.

Steven: So many of your listeners are probably familiar with design thinking; it's been around for a while, right? That kind of problem-solving approach, which also here at the firm, is one of our methods that we leverage, and it's very powerful. It's about looking at a problem iteration and the way that we approach creating a product or doing innovation work, right? Well, it began its life inside of design agencies and design departments. Probably, you know, around the year 2010s. As we talked about the history who created it, but that's a different conversation. But it recognizes that push, but what's happened is that it's been everyone who's not even in design knows what design thinking is. They've been in workshops or sprints, and it's really, really great. And then it was democratized, and it should help educate everyone. But that's for current challenges. That's the things I mean, there's like short things we need to add to the roadmap, we need to figure out something short term.

“There's an opportunity to democratize future's thinking, to help organizations and individuals around the world to be future ready, to create it, and not just react to it, but to navigate it and thrive in it. Just like design thinking has done in the last decade.”

What we've seen, especially with the pandemic, as people have shifted to different types of work, the whole world in the end is that there was a whole level of uncertainty and the need for resilience, right? And then thinking about the future was needed more than ever. So I think there's an opportunity to democratize future's thinking, to help organizations and individuals around the world to be future ready. As you said, to create it, not just react to it, but to navigate it and thrive in it, just like design thinking has done in the last decade, and that's what I'm on a mission to do. Quest to evangelize. I think it's very powerful.

Chris: Absolutely. What do you think is required to further democratize futures thinking? Is it to teach futures literacy? Did you call it futures literacy before that? Is it to provide them with tools? Is it collaboration to a certain extent, while talking about open foresight, open scouting and things like that? So what is required to get there? How can we get there?

Steven: Yeah, it's a great question because I think a lot of times that futures thinking and strategic foresight have been overcomplicated in many ways. It's just to create the complexity to show how important it is. But in a way, it's made it harder to implement, and just like those who did take the challenge, they saw performance increases and growth in that way. Then, the opportunity for us is just like design thinking, there's design sprints thinking through ways that are steps and communicating signals like open signals, research, getting trends together, creating larger libraries. One of the biggest challenges with futures work is trying to find the right trends in the signals, doing the good old-fashioned desk work to bring the themes and to actually have the right conversations. I think it's also the tools which is open sourcing, how to build a scenario, how to do a futures wheel, like there's a lot of good training out there. I've benefited from some of that, but there's a lot of people in the world who don't have access to it. There needs to be equitable access to that, and I think that, for me and the concrete and stuff in the comments is really a great opportunity. I think organizations like the Design Futures Institute are wonderful. They bring together futures from all over the world, and they have chapters all over the world. It's a great way to really just connect with people. And I think from there, there's a lot of actionable activity on a local level. And then with those tools together, you have to find a local action with the maybe globally shared resource that you can then take action.  I think that over time, it will spread because, like again, teach to fish right, and then that'll hopefully a wave.

“One of the biggest challenges with futures work is trying to find the right trends in the signals, doing the good old-fashioned desk work to bring the themes and to actually have the right conversations.”

Chris: Taking action is, you know, what triggered me because I 100% agree with everything you said. And some of the conversations we have is that, we see organizations create beautiful trend radars, technology radars, maybe even competitor radars, radar charts basically showing their assumptions on what's next. That's really helpful for sparking conversations, get everybody on the same page, make sure you don't overlook something. So there are a lot of value and benefits in doing that, having this as a continuous process, and then communicating it for example, through a radar. It might be a closed activity, it might be an open one, or it might be in your community whatsoever. But then, oftentimes it stops here, right? And then they say, “Well, okay, now we have a nice looking trend radar. We have had some great conversations. Beautiful. What do we do with that?” Right? So helping them to actually transform this into an actionable thing is a challenge we see, identifying future opportunities out of this, making sure that they actually also, walk the talk, not only talk-talk. That's become quite challenging. What's your view on that? Why does it just feel hard to be very actionable? And just look at the report or look at the trend radar and say, "Well, great job, everybody. Great”. But no action is following.

Steven: Yeah. I think there's a disconnect between the activity and the action. I think what happens is that there's a great momentum around the activity to do futures thinking because it's exciting and it kind of allows you to break free, just like with design thinking, right? Kind of allows you to get out of the building and really think differently. But then it's like you get to the end of the sprint, and we draw some parallels. So design sprint to the end, you kind of have your prototype, you’ve done the testing. Well, okay, great. Why do we actually have to build a live prototype? And the need for organizations, if you're doing that, there's probably funding behind that. There’s a desire to do that. There's a financial need, and there's a drive to take action. What will really benefit others if they're thinking of doing the activity is to get support for the action. So if there are outcomes, you need to arise awareness at those who will benefit from it and ensure that they're going to come up with this. Are you going to be able to take action? Are we going to be able to work with you to make these potential projects or initial future outcomes possible? I think that is what happens in a lot of places. And again, it's like the more people can understand futures work, and design futures, and how to communicate it, the easier it will be to get people involved and also to get them active to carry on. Because if you think about organizations, you think about really great leaders and different phases of organizations, right? There are different CEOs for different phases. There's the person for the big merger; once the merger is done, there's the integration. There may be a different person, there's a person for the turnaround. It's the same thing. There are futurists who maybe are good at a certain aspect, but then there are different kinds of active futurists and that's why, in my role as a design futurist, I know the normative integrative type of general work practice. But at the same time, I have very specific skill sets that benefit parts that can take it to a different place. And I think further defining that and finding ways to get people engaged with their gifts to bring that I think it's a journey. It's a wonderful question, because I think we have to think thoughtfully about how we do that.

Chris: Yeah, exactly, that was what I was aiming for. And, you know, I love what you were saying before “You need to also have a strong focus on communication, but do this in a mindful way”. You know, just recently I had a couple of conversations on people doing strategy work and, corporate strategy and making sure they think about the future and potential strategic moves and implications on the product and technology, and so on. There is a close group discussing this, strategizing, and applying futures thinking on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, you have the actual people who have to implement that. Say engineers, say R&D departments, say all the people that actually come up with the technology and develop the technology. There seems to be a slight disconnect between those groups because there are the ones who think about the future, and then the people from technology are like, “Come on, we have been in this for 25 years, we know the technology, we know what's possible and what's not, and now you being strategy people want to tell me what the future looks like?” So there is a clash of interests, maybe if you don't involve them early enough in the process, and so on. What do you see as typical pitfalls in that process when organizations try to apply future thinking or even democratize it further in the organization? Are there any pitfalls to look out for and not tap into that?

Steven: Yeah, I think you mentioned some engineering teams; I think it's about finding those who are futures minded. Like we talked about culture, innovation culture and building it into the way that people work. I think it's also a challenge as people have their current work to do but there's also an opportunity to build. I actually think if there's a real creation of a product or something, creating an incentive or ways to do that as part of their personal development or the team's development for the organization, I think it makes it a real valuable connection that they're not just kind of more like feeling a volunteer, but actually contributing to their work. I think tools like back casting, which we've talked about before, bring things into a closer horizon. People want to feel connected to a positive future, but they very much need tangible outcomes sooner. And with creating those connections, is it the answer? Probably no. There's probably 20 ways to do this. But that's just what I've seen.

“People want to feel connected to a positive future, but they very much need tangible outcomes sooner.”

A futurist's glimpse of the future

Chris: Yeah that’s super helpful. All right. We are quite far ahead, with the conversation. Maybe we can start thinking of summarizing some of the things we discussed in the conversation. What would be the three key takeaways that you want listeners to take away from the conversation we had today.

Steven: Everyone, I think should bring futures thinking into their work. There are many possible futures and if you can understand yours, you can be prepared to thrive in it. I think that there is a real opportunity to make this a differentiating part of your career or your work, so that it helps you stand out professionally. But also, not just in the day-to-day work, but also in the outside volunteer or other things that you're a part of, that allows you to bring this skill set into helping people think differently and more positively and proactively. Those are the things I would recommend.

Chris: Awesome. Now let's look ahead, let's look at your future. Steve, what can we expect from you in the future?

Steven: Oh, well, I want to continue speaking about future trends. I'm hoping to write another book soon in the future. One of the things I got a chance to do, was applying that we have an approach we use at McKinsey which is called ‘Design by foresight’. It's called “Imagining your customers’ possible futures”. And it allowed us to take a look at how people might live in 2030. And I think that was a great opportunity for us to show the future thinking we can do, and I hope to do more of that. And for me, I also want to make some great wine that my friends and family will enjoy. And of course, with that all collectively democratizing futures. Thanks.

Chris: Alright, so still on the mission? Sure. That sounds great. And finally, we would look back on your professional career. You know, I have to ask you this. Steve, I want to hear from your greatest Innovation Rockstar Moment so far.

Steven: I wrote the book Startup Equation with my wife. So if you really want to know your wife or your spouse better write a book with them, you’ll figure a lot out. It was actually great, we found a lot of our strengths and defeats in our opportunities for growth, and we worked with that and found a lot of great insights we built from that book. We also built an organization called "Revolution Factory", which she's still running and which is designed for helping entrepreneurs, like the book which has been translations into Chinese, Korean, Japanese. There are fascinating look at the different covers for me. And I know it's used globally. But we've helped at least as far as we know, 100,000 entrepreneurs all over the world create and launch new businesses. And this goes from the Kiva loan shops in Africa, to coffee shops in Europe to mobile startups in Silicon Valley. That's for us was getting to democratizing startup approaches. So that was a big theme in my world, but that's what I'm very, very proud of. Yeah, I’m very, very thankful to be able to share that and help others avoid the things that I did and we both did over the years.

Chris: It’s not even a rockstar moment, but it's an entirely rock star period. That's great. Congratulations! That sounds really compelling. Thanks for that Steve, and thanks so much again for being my guest on this episode. And as always, it was a pleasure to listen to you. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Steven: Yeah, that's great, and then, if you're into the future, come work with me. Check out McKinsey, and come to work. We have some great stuff, and I'm very excited to see where your organization goes. And again, thank you for the time today and well, to the future we go.

Chris: That's it. Thanks, Steve. And to everybody listening and watching, if you want to learn more about the concept, and all the different things we discussed today, simply leave us a comment on this episode or just drop us an email at That's it! Thanks for listening, take care, and bye-bye.

Show notes

  1. “A Design x Foresight Approach”Co-authored article, Steven wrote for McKinsey
  2. “The Start-up Equation: A Visual Guidebook to Building Your Business”Bestseller, Steven wrote with his wife

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Steven Fisher is Innovation Leader and Design Futurist at McKinsey.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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