This post is the final installment in a series devoted to four engineering management roles that can boost an engineering team’s velocity and impact. The other roles include The Critic, The Nowist, and The Cloner. These roles are also related to the 6 engineering roles laid out in an earlier post: 6 Unique Engineering Roles Designed to Boost Development Velocity.
As you learn about each of the four roles, hopefully you’ll see things that you can learn from and emulate. Think about how strong or weak you are at this particular role, and who you know that best embodies it.
Role #4: The Futurist
The Futurist obsesses over what comes next in the same way most people obsess over what’s happening right now. Futurists live in the future, in a world of choices.
Futurists are acutely aware of what the organization needs to have the capacity to solve, and then are able to create realistic steps to make it happen. A Futurist lives in a world of possibility, a world with many possible futures. They choose from these many futures and try to move the organization towards the best one.
New managers typically copy the patterns around them without fully understanding what they’re doing, but this is usually exactly the right thing to do. Managers gradually build up an understanding of why the patterns are there.
Intermediate-level managers start to understand the patterns they’re working in, and are able to work effectively within those patterns. That’s the state most managers live in.
Refactoring the organization
But the true experts, the Futurists, are able to redesign the patterns of the organization to better align with the future vision. They are able to imagine large-scale refactoring of the organization, and design a path to get there.
Non-Futurists typically start with the existing situation and resources and extrapolate from that into the future to decide what they can do. To a Futurist, planning the future is an act of creation—based on imagining things as they should be, not built upon what’s there today.
A true Futurist does this at all scales, large and small. They think about the future state and then work backwards to get to the present. Instead of concentrating on what the team will do, the Futurist focuses on what will demonstrate that the team has done it. They choose something concrete, and show instead of tell.
A shared future
The Futurist also tracks everyone else’s vision of the future. They’re constantly attempting to bring these visions together, but use the disparate views to help craft the best possible one.
Futurists view the future as a shared creation. They constantly talk about and revise their view of the future with others. They discuss the direction things should go in, taking the best ideas they hear and crafting a narrative. Ideally, these narratives have a way of becoming what everyone agrees upon as the best way forward.
Planning to be a Futurist
If you want to be a Futurist, it helps to set aside time for thinking about the future. As an exercise, look back at the last week on your calendar. Take a screenshot of it, and overlay the time horizon of your thinking onto the calendar. Maybe you should schedule a little time on your calendar to be truly strategic.
One approach I’ve used is to sit down and think about the next six months. I ask myself a lot of questions: What do the next six months look like? What are the biggest failures and successes I can imagine? What should the product look like? What should the team look like? What should we have accomplished by that time?
Or, I imagine that we didn’t focus on the most important thing. What did we neglect? Did we not do something because we didn’t have the right resources at our disposal? What caused us to fail?
Then, thinking backwards from that time, I create a plan. What has to happen each month to get us to where we want to be? As I develop my project plan (which is usually week by week, with the most detail in the coming month), I continually ask myself, Is this the right solution? Am I solving the right problem? Do I have the right people? Do I have the resources I need?
Then I create a plan for the coming week. What would a great week look like? I try to look at it from the perspective of each individual on the team. I try to develop a narrative for them so that they understand how it fits into the bigger problem being solved.
Finally, I try to constantly shuffle between these time spans. I keep going back to the future, over and over again.
How Futurists fail
One of the most common issues with Futurists is that they only look at the big picture to the exclusion of the details. This can have a number of consequences that can destroy the very future they’re trying to build.
Futurists have to be careful to pay enough attention to execution and the small details. They need to build this skill themselves, or pair with a Nowist, because many Futurists can find details and the present hard to manage.
Finally, Futurist must be careful not to become a distraction during tactical meetings. It can be annoying to a team to always have to keep a Futurist on track when the purpose of a meeting is to solve a very limited, immediate problem.
That’s it—we’ve now gone through all four engineering management roles! I encourage you to try them all, one at a time, for a month to give yourself a chance to get good at them. Hopefully, before too long, you may discover that you’ve become a better engineering manager.