A note with Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow at Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley

Tell us your name and a little about yourself.

I’m Bob Johansen. For more than 40 years as a working futurist at Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Silicon Valley, I’ve been living my life future-back—rather than present forward. I’ve always focused ten years ahead of where we are in time. Right now, I’m focused on 2030 and beyond.


What exactly does your company do?

Institute for the Future is the longest-running futures think tank in the world, having started in 1968 as a spinoff of Rand Corporation. We are an antidote to short-termism. We use our independent outside-in global foresight to provoke the insights and actions of others. We believe that if you look long and reflect on directions of change, you will make better decisions in the present. Our latest book focuses on what we call “full-spectrum thinking,” the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility—while resisting the temptations of categorizing people or concepts inaccurately or unfairly. Looking future back, it is obvious that we will have powerful new mixes of tools and media for full-spectrum thinking. Sloppy categorical thinking, so common today, will become far less common and more obviously wrong when it does happen.


What were the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

When I was running Institute for the Future at the time of the Dot Com Bust, we faced a financial crisis when—suddenly—all of our clients started paying late. Up to that point in our history, about half of our clients paid early and half paid late. We are an independent nonprofit, but we still have to make payroll and pay the rent. We recovered by instituting the nonprofit equivalent of martial law. I had to lay off people who I valued deeply, which was extremely difficult. We tightened everything and shifted to day-to-day survival mode, even though our practice focuses ten years ahead. Gradually, the economy around us recovered and we did as well. The Institute for the Future is doing very well now and we learned from this near-death experience. Even nonprofits need more than accounting systems, we all need ways to try and anticipate financial challenges before they become critical.


What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

The advice I never got: don’t read your press clippings. I was a high school all-state basketball player in Illinois and I received a full scholarship to play at the University of Illinois. It was a great experience, even though I was a marginal Big Ten player and not nearly good enough to be a pro. I made the mistake of reading the sports pages in search of accounts of how I had played after each game. Reporters always travelled with us on our team plane, so the press was everywhere—though not nearly like it is today with social media. The whole process made me very self-conscious and that hurt how I played. I was an outside shooter, so staying in the flow of the game was critical. If I made three in a row and observed to myself “Wow, I made three in a row!” I would likely miss the next shot. Now, I don’t read Amazon reviews of my books and I don’t check to see if my work is cited in other publications. The advice I’ve now learned for myself: focus on my work and listen to only to direct feedback.


Who are your biggest influences and people you admire and why?

I seek out people with clarity, but I avoid people who live in certainty. The future will reward clarity (being very clear where you are going, but very flexible about how you get there), but punish certainty. With regard to the novel coronavirus, for example, Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, and Deborah Birx are all clear, without being certain. Many politicians commenting on the COVID-19 crisis are often certain, without being clear. With regard to social justice, Martin Luther King was clear without being certain.


None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Professor Arthur B. Shostak introduced me to the discipline of sociology when I was in divinity school. I later went on to Northwestern University for a PhD in sociology of religion. Because of Art Shostak, I learned to write about social change with a futures lens. When I was at Northwestern, what we now call the Internet was just getting rolling and I was able to focus on the human, values, and organizational issues provoked by people communicating with people through computers. Art Shostak taught with passion and purpose, in a way that I had never experienced before. In a real sense, he changed my life.


What do you see as your greatest success in life?

I’ve chosen books as my medium for communication. Full-Spectrum Thinking, my new book, is the twelfth book I’ve written and the final book in a trilogy I’ve done on the mindset, skills, and literacies that will be needed for leaders to thrive in the future. My books have become conversation starters for many projects at the Institute for the Future. I find it most satisfying when my books about future provoke insights and actions for others to make the future a better place.