Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 23

Nostalgia for the Future

Reading time 6 minutes read
Lucrezia Carnelos, Unsplashed
New Year, New beginnings. I don't know about you, but the turn of the year always gives me the feeling (maybe hallucination) that I can briefly press the reset button, let the baggage of the past months fade into the background and dissolve, start afresh with clear energy and set a new focus, maybe even leaving parts behind that no longer serve. And what definitely no longer serves us, is the way we approach strategy.

The new year is the moment where one intuitively looks forward again, where we are able to open up to our own and our shared future, ready to engage with what could and should be, not just what was, what should have been, or what is. It’s a moment of collective breathtaking, turning our faces and minds towards tomorrow. I strongly believe that there is little, if anything else that we need more urgently, than the ability of confronting our future. In a way that is open, curious, constructive and sincere.Because that's exactly what we have forgotten, lost and unlearned in recent years.
We got tired of the future. It turned out that it’s no longer about rosy daydreaming and unlimited possibilities, most times it feels more like a doomsday scenario straight from the horror movies that we love to watch on Netflix but not so much in real life. Future became the 183rd empty promise that brought no sustainable change whatsoever, making us lose confidence in our collective ability to change anything, let alone any visible improvement. Future became the next transformation that turned our world upside down without making clear what’s in it for us, asking for energy that we can’t muster, leaving us exposed to decisions others made for us, turning us exhausted and cynical. We are tired of the future, so we turned our back on it. That's why more and more people retreat to the good old times, indulge in nostalgia, and increasingly understand life as reheating past experiences in the microwave. Safe, known, convenient but also tasteless. We hold on to the irrational idea that there will be a renaissance of normalcy while calling the life as it happens, irrational and impossible.

We increasingly understand life as reheating past experiences in the microwave.

And who can blame us all? It's certainly a thousand times easier than embarking on the path of serious change. That requires strength, self-reflection, giving up beloved things, and pursuing growth, not just as a lip service or a written intention but as an actual, conscious act - every day anew. Our future is nothing that just happens to us, that is created by only a few, that we can outsource to others and complain afterwards. It’s the sum of our all individual actions, it reflects the quality of our imagination. And if we don’t like what we see, we need to change how we think and act. But for something that is completely detached from who we are and strive to be, we won’t summon the energy or the will power to follow it through.

I believe, what we desperately need is nostalgia for the future. Not just an increase in empty, abstract, futuristic utopias that only appeal to the mind and describe the rational, the correct, the obvious. No normative goals that are completely detached from the perceived reality of people who are supposed to submit to them. No shiny visions for the sake of themselves. Instead, we need ideas, that we can yearn for emotionally, Ideas that trigger something in us and connect to individual strengths, wishes, ideas, dreams. We urgently need spaces of resonance for the reality that wants to be. To stir up this nostalgia for tomorrow, we need to reimagine what strategy means and how we interact with tomorrow's choices. Strategy work needs to be made for emotional responses, it needs to become personal, sourced by individual strengths and aspirations and it needs to refocus on creativity.

Strategy as a space for emotional resonance

We urgently need to adjust how we talk about the future, understand and negotiate option spaces, make decisions, initiate and scale transformation processes. Because the strategy deliverables, the visions and goal frameworks we have in place, obviously don’t work.

I don't know about you, but excel sheets and complex words in pt. 6 have rarely spoken to my soul and made me jump from excitement.

They focus on correctness, but are not very motivating; they are rationally justified, best case based on data, but completely fail in inspiring an emotional reaction; they are focusing on beating the competition, but have nothing to do with the inherent strengths of brands and companies, and above all, the people involved. I don't know about you, but excel sheets and complex words in pt. 6 have rarely spoken to my soul and made me jump from excitement.
No wonder, they rarely achieve the desired effect. We are still humans, not robots. We do not only have brains but also passions, emotions, personal needs, sometimes agendas and plans, a moral compass (some of those people still exist fortunately). Without integrating these facets into strategy, the grand coup will elude us, and we will keep building powerpoint slides that end up collecting dust in some corner office drawer. The societal transformation towards sustainable businesses will not succeed. We must confront this realization, rethink our work, and actively reshape it. How would strategy work look like that has no homo oeconomicus as recipient but humans with colorful aspirations? How can we define narratives for resonance, that do not sound like hollow marketing stories, but inspire us to move ahead. How do we stop the over-correct and rule-following, boring as fuck outlines and decisions that avoid doing anything wrong, especially in the field of sustainability? How can we trigger crazy, rule-breaking actions for the right cause and a lot of fun in the meantime? How can we communicate in a way that rallies people behind the right ideas? How do we use energy as a currency and also KPI for transformation instead of pretending that it’s an endless resource? How can we design strategy for the unreal?

Access to ourselves

To be able to make future work for humans and create strategy that resonates with people, we need to integrate the desires, needs and aspirations of those, who are asked to deliver on them. But we don’t even know who we are ourselves, most of the time. Do you know who you are? Ok, let’s start a bit easier. Do you know what you want today? Tomorrow? From life? Do you know what makes you happy? Do you even know what you’re good at? Unless we can answer those basic questions about yourselves, how are we supposed to be able to help others in fulfilling their needs (leadership), how are we supposed to develop a stance, an opinion, reach a decision, take responsibility if we aren’t quite sure what we considered a good outcome? How can we shape narratives to rally behind, if we don’t know what it takes for us to believe? (My bet is that a high frequency of business bullshit bingo plays no role) How can we even talk about working for purpose companies, if we don’t even know what ours is? We have lost touch with ourselves, have tried to fit ourselves into pre-conceived role definitions that have nothing to do with our strengths, have persuaded ourselves that some abstract goals some other person came up with are the ones we strive for in life, have been working for years to finally claim a role that makes us deeply unhappy. We pretend to be rational beings, trying to leave our emotions at the rack at the door, but immediately bring personal arguments into business decisions, let our ego dictate our actions, confuse data points with interpretations based on personal experience, and make important decisions based on personal agenda instead of sense. We don’t know what we want, but let it subconsciously dictate a lot of what we do. Not a great mix. It’s a form of knowledge that we rarely pay any attention to, but that we need to build and integrate. Which sometimes might mean that an investment into personal development, (maybe even into therapy) might be a better investment than some strategic directive. I’m dead serious. Instead of seeing things like self-management, relaxation, meditation, or even some spiritual work as some new work bullshit that is out of limits because it has not played a role up till now, we might need to accept the uncomfortable truth that some sort of access to ourselves and some access to our emotions and intuition (however it’s enabled) is actually the prerequisite of talking about visions, strategic choices and transformation at all.


When - if not in times of crisis - should we focus more radically on imagination and creativity as a way of finding out of this mess?

Everybody in our bubble seems to have read and hyped Rick Rubin’s book “The Creative Act”. That’s great. I was immensely inspired by its lightness, its simplicity, its wisdom and the radical honesty of all of it. It was a call to action. Problem: most people will content themselves by putting it onto their coffee table or their book shelves, only few will actually dive into exploring, how their individual creative life could look like. But we desperately need all sources of creativity that we can get our hands on to be able to reimagine stuff that doesn’t exist yet. Yes, technology might play a significant part in it. But the current over estimation of AI and the overhype of anything with those two letters signals to me, that we are so incapable of forming our own ideas that we rather surrender to handing out uniform orders to some machine that will do the job. Mainly using the past as point of reference. Being creative is not a synonym for overseeing the generation of ideas by others (whether human intelligence or not). Maybe we need to relearn the basics of what it means to be human, to express ourselves, to actually have dreams and desires, to perceive and experience the world or at least the surroundings of our existence. Maybe we shouldn’t use AI (only) to generate ideas for us, maybe we shouldn’t use it to create more time for us to defend the status quo, but instead of freeing us from the tedious everyday in order to take longer walks, sleep in, take showers - whatever gives you the context for being imaginative. What if you organized your calendar not for maximum productivity, increasing the amount of meetings and calls you can have - how would it look if you optimized it for leading your most creative life possible? Many people will have tuned by off by now or starting to cite critical times, polycrisis, dying companies, swindling returns of investments as arguments for a stronger focus on control, efficiency and processes. My argument is the opposite: when - if not in times of crisis - should we focus more radically on finding a realistic way out of it, on imagination? When there’s little left to save, to rely on, to extend into the future, to count in being there tomorrow? Would you rather steal everybody’s time with asking them to defending the status quo that obviously no longer works or would you rather hand out as much time to as many people as possible in order to increase the chance of someone coming up with a really good idea? I know what my choice would look like.

I have no definite answers in place, I just know that following the same pattern over and over again while expecting a different result, is pretty irrational and something new is needed. And I have some urgent hunch what that might be. So I’m going to venture to explore, try, shake up, fail, create exactly this kind of strategy work in 2024. No fucks given, nothing to lose. Because if we're honest, there will be no “normal” ever again, so we might as well just surrender to that fact and make the most beautiful version out of it.