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ATD Blog

The Benefits of Forward-Focused Thinking

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

How often do we as learning professionals take time to think about the future? Lately, we’ve been barraged with circumstances that require us to think in the moment, including COVID-19, mass shootings, and other crises.

It’s time now to get back to thinking about our future and reassessing our priorities. As we make this shift, it sometimes feels like we are making up for lost time; many are racing back with reactive chaos, trying to catch up.

Pause for a moment. Think about what is occupying most of your attention lately. Are you engaged in activities that are more reactive or proactive? Are the things you are working on necessary or just busy work? Are you looking ahead and planning for opportunities or focusing on the past?

Use the questions below to determine if you, your leaders, or your clients are being reactive or proactive.

Four backward-facing questions:
1. What’s broken?
2. What needs to be fixed? (Checking a box or moving forward?)
3. What problems can you solve? (Once fixed, will it help you move forward?)
4. What’s wrong? (Is it time to move from what’s wrong to what could be?)

If you or your leaders are stuck in this mindset, your future languishes while your best talent focuses on the past. Most leaders spend much of their time fixing broken systems, solving people problems, or trying to develop weak team members that are not going to help you move towards the future.

Four forward-facing questions:
1. What future do you imagine for yourself and your organization?
2. How will you bring your vision or imagined future into reality?
3. Who do you aspire to become?
4. How might you take responsibility to leverage your talent to accomplish a shared vision?

“How can we be so frantically busy yet have no idea what we are really working to build? The future is created by applying talents to aspiration. Move from problem to possibility.”—Dan Rockwall, Leadership Freak Blog.


The Eisenhower Urgent-Important Principle reminds us to consider which activities are important and which are essentially distractions.

  • Important activities have an outcome that leads to achieving a desired personal or professional goal or outcome.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate action and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s requests or goals. These are often the ones we focus on because of the consequences associated with not immediately dealing with them.

Forward-focused thinkers who live in the “important” principle sector are prepared for change and can adapt when applicable. They are described as being curious, innovative, non-traditional, progressive, dynamic, broad-minded, positive, enlightened, liberal, radical, and revolutionary. At the core, we’re talking about leaders capable of strategic thinking, which is necessary for forward thinking.

A Forbes article entitled, “Are You a Forward Thinker?” asked the four questions below. Let’s take a deep dive into them:

1. Do friends, family, or colleagues ever acknowledge you for your imagination? If so, it’s a good sign that you’re someone who thinks ahead. Do you engage your imagination to turn ideas into reality?

2. Do you periodically audit your information diet? How healthy is your daily intake of numerous information sources, including social media, news, reports, books, content, research, emails, blogs, podcasts, trivia, or gossip? Do an assessment to determine how you can eliminate the garbage from the good stuff.


3. Do you regularly sharpen your forecasting skills? In a University of Pennsylvania study, Professor Philip Tetlock and his researchers hosted “forecasting tournaments” to identify people who were highly adept at forecasting. Common traits included being philosophically cautious and humble, comfortable with numbers, open minded, intellectually curious, enjoying mental challenges such as word games, and being alert to personal bias and wishful thinking. By working on these traits and reflecting on the accuracy of your predictive decisions, you can sharpen your ability to accurately forecast your future.

4. Do you benchmark the best practices of leading innovators? Noted forward-focused thinkers, such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, have figured out how to spend the bulk of their time on thinking about how the world will look three, five, and ten years from now.

In my introductory article in ATD’s Handbook for Training and Talent Development, I asked the question, “Are you willing to shift your mindset and attitude?” It’s very easy to slip back into the status quo (or what I refer to as the stagnant quo). The current speed of change will not tolerate inertia. Being forward-focused when thinking about how we spend our time, work, interact with others, and develop and operate our business will determine future success.

The ability—but more importantly the willingness—to think forwardly will be a key component of organizational and personal success going forward. The next decade is certain to be more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than ever before.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”—Maya Angelou

Here are 15 considerations to continue developing a forward-thinking mindset:

1. Develop and stay focused on a plan.
2. Read great books and watch documentaries.
3. See the bigger picture, be open to possibilities, and look for opportunities.
4. Lean on your network when feeling lost, uncertain, or overwhelmed.
5. Find the energy in others.
6. Take time to get away, take breaks, and recharge.
7. Do ongoing scenario planning to consider a range of plausible futures that can emerge from today’s realities.
8. Collaborate with universities to tap into academic innovations.
9. Think, work, and respond differently.
10. Balance between creative and analytical thinking.
11. Persevere; build your resiliency.
12. Take responsibility, and practice taking initiative.
13. Take risks and experiment.
14. Give up control.
15. Most importantly, set aside time for forward-focused thinking in your schedule.

About the Author

As CEO and Founder of QVF Partners, Rita partners with organizations and individuals who want to transform ordinary work environments into high-performing, profitable cultures. She shares her expertise and resources to help create workplaces where enlightened leaders can leverage the strengths and diversity of their people as a competitive advantage. During her 25 year career at Southwest Airlines, Rita served in several roles including customer service, sales, marketing, public relations, and HR. In her last position she was director of the Southwest Airlines University for People. She was responsible for the design, development, and implementation of leadership and personal development programs for over 32,000 employees. She also established a career development services team, responsible for helping employees develop a career path. Rita has served on several advisory committees and boards and was a member of the ASTD Board of Directors, serving as chairwoman of the ASTD Board in 2005. She is often quoted in publications such as Harvard Business Review, Business Week, Corporate Meetings and Incentives, and The Wall Street Journal on topics of recruiting and training practices. Rita is the co-author of the new book, Destination Profit: Creating People-Profit Opportunities in Your Organization. As an international speaker and consultant, she has presented to and worked with groups in Europe, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, and Japan on topics including organizational culture, people strategies, leadership, innovation, customer service, and branding. When asked what business she is in, the answer is simply "the people business."

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