The young Tom Cheesewright found his purpose in life when his mother bought him a copy of the 1979 Usborne Book of the Future. Now he’s an Applied Futurist, focusing not on teleportation or interstellar travel but on identifying what is going to take an organisation out at the knees in five years’ time.
He discovered that the best way to do that was to create a narrative of the future: ‘We’ve got to be able to tell stories when we’re trying to compel change.’ (Which is why his book High Frequency Change: Why We Feel Like Change Happens Faster Now and What to Do About It is so readable.)
He also discovered that writing a book isn’t like writing a paper, it requires a different approach to structure, and he shares how he overcame that challenge. Pure gold.
Tom’s site: https://tomcheesewright.com/
Tom on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookofthefuture
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club Summer Reading List 2019: https://alisonjones.com/the-extraordinary-business-book-club-summer-reading-list-2019/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s a delight to be here today with Tom Cheesewright, who is an Applied Futurist. Going to come back to that. I love that job title. Through consulting, and speaking, and media work, he helps people to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of tomorrow. And he works with clients ranging from charities and public sector organisations to FTSE 100 enterprises and global tech corporations. He’s the founder of Book of the Future … going to come back to that too … And the author of High Frequency Change: Why We Feel Like Change Happens Faster Now and What to Do About It. Welcome to the show, Tom.
Tom Cheesewright: Thank you, Alison. Thank you.
Alison Jones: So much to start picking up on there, but we’re going to start with that job title of Applied Futurist, which I guess is distinct from a Theoretical Futurist. Tell us why you insist on that difference.
Tom Cheesewright: It’s two things, really. Part of it is that I’m not a specialist in any one domain. I’m not a retail futurist, or a travel futurist. I get to touch on all different aspects, applying the same set of tools across every domain I got into. And the second one is that I’m really interested in solutions as well as problems. So while lots of futurists, everyone from science fiction authors to those who do the long-term trend forecasting, might be focused on what the problems might be, I’m really interested in getting under the skin of organisations and helping them build the solutions as well.
Alison Jones: Which comes back to that job title, doesn’t it? Not just what’s happening, but what to do about it because that’s actually what we care about.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, absolutely. And hence the applied, you know? I like to build things up. I’ve always been sort of an engineer at heart, whether it’s processes, solutions, innovations, or actually restructuring organisations to be more future ready, I like to get involved with the solutions as well as spotting the problems.
Alison Jones: Yes. And you’ve got a lovely metaphor about building out of Lego bricks and sacrificing the overhead of the knobbly bobbly for the flexibility and the adaptability, rather than die-cast steel, which is what we’re used to. Sort of a lovely image.
Tom Cheesewright: I mean, this is probably one of the overriding messages of the book, really, which is about I think we spend years and years building optimization into our businesses, getting better and better at doing what we do today and missing the fact, or sort of leaving behind the creativity that helps us look for problems and the change in problems and recognise actually the things we do today might not make for a successful business tomorrow. And so that trade-off, that shift from the die-cast car to the Legos is about saying “Do you know what? It’s not efficient to be agile necessarily. We have to have these knobbly bobbly bits on the business. But they allow us to plug into new things, they allow us to break the business apart and reassemble it to meet tomorrow’s challenge.”
Alison Jones: And the problem of course is that there’s very little way for organisations to provide an ROI on adaptability, until it’s needed. And then it’s too late because your die cast-car just breaks, and that’s the end of it.
Tom Cheesewright: This is it. But it comes back to our intentions with the business. Are we building a business, running a business, running an organisation for today’s success? Or are we stewards for tomorrow? And I think a lot of our business culture is very focused on short-term returns, extracting the maximum value in a very fixed period of time, whether that’s the lifespan of a single chief exec or a single set of financial results. And actually in this environment where we’re really concerned about the future behind climate change and all sorts of other aspects, we need to be shifting our whole mindset towards this stewardship mindset and that shifts you again naturally from an optimization basis to an adaptation basis, to say “How do we build sustainable success rather than just the greatest possible impact today?”
Alison Jones: And I thought that was fascinating, actually, because you build a link which as soon as you make it is obvious, but I don’t think many people perhaps have articulated like that before, between adaptation for strategy, for business success, for competitive advantage, all that kind of stuff, with the sustainability piece, with the, as you say, the stewardship angle and having to measure success and think about how we … what we’re actually measuring. Because if what’s getting measured gets done, that’s the problem with these short-term measurements, isn’t it? Those quarterly results to the shareholders.
Tom Cheesewright: I’ve always been staggered when I go in and consult with businesses and it’s a big… You know, I think I’ve worked with about 50 of the global 500 now, and you’re amazed at what is measured and what is not. And particularly when it comes to the internal functions, those functions that are critical to the happy working, productive working of everybody in the business, how little ability there is to measure the success of them. So things like procurement, things like HR, when they are measured, those measurements are quite often poor or out-of-date, or actually don’t map very well to the overall function of the business. And so you find people working really on gut feel. And again, this is something that … We think we live in a data-driven age where we’re all sort of hyper-intelligent about what’s going inside and outside the business. When you start to dig into most organisations, even those ones we all respect and admire, you find an incredible amount of gut feel underpinning everything.
Alison Jones: And of course those sorts of processes are pretty much opaque to the senior managers, aren’t they? They’re just black boxes. They’re just things that happen to make things work. That’s not where their attention is focused.
Tom Cheesewright: Absolutely. And part of my … I preach this idea of athletic organisations-
Alison Jones: Yes, I love that.
Tom Cheesewright: Part of which is breaking organisations down into these functional Lego bricks. And as part of that process, what you do is you naturally have to think about “Well, what is this functional unit? What do I want from it? What should I be measuring from it? And actually, how much control do I really need of it as long as it’s delivering what I want it to?” And so it’s a conversation that in the past has often only happened when we’ve chosen to outsource stuff, when we’ve been in a downsizing mode, when we’ve been in a money-saving mode, only then have we had these conversations about “How do I measure the success of this function? If I’m going to put it in somebody else’s hands, how do I know they’re doing a good job?” It always struck me from very early on, like, why aren’t we having these conversations when they’re inside our organisation? Because that’s still a really important conversation to have. And once you have it and you push the power of delivery of that organisation out to this functional unit, you say “Look, you go off and do your thing as long as you keep delivering what I need.”
Alison Jones: Yes, really interesting. And again, it’s what you’re measuring and what you’re optimising for and making those strategic choices. I want to ask you as well about the title you chose, Book of the Future, which of course as a publisher is very resonant. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. But I read in The Bookseller, in fact, that this was driven by the Usborne Book of the Future 1979. Is this true? Because if so, I just love that story.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, absolutely true. In fact, if I reach just about far enough with my right hand, I can probably reach my original copy of the Usborne Book of the Future, bought for me by my mum at a book fair when we briefly lived in London for a few years as a child. And I’ve kept it and thumbed through it on a regular basis ever since. And I think … People often ask me “How do you become a futurist?” I can probably trace it back to that book fair, to be honest.
Alison Jones: So what was it about that book that caught your imagination?
Tom Cheesewright: I think it was that combination of optimism and science fiction. You know, I grew up in the age of Star Wars, not when the Star Wars films were first coming out, but where it’d become sort of a fleshed-out culture with toys and comics and everything else. We were sort of surrounded by this, in many ways terrifying and fairy tale science fiction, but also quite optimistic science fiction about human abilities going beyond what we recognise and the ability to travel between the stars.
It wasn’t just Star Wars. It was lots of these other different science fiction stories. And what The Book of the Future brought to that was it gave me a connection between where we were today and where we might be in those sort of dreaming science fiction realms of tomorrow. It said “Look, these are the possible scientific and technological advances over the next 20, 30, 40 years that might take you to that dream of the stars.” And that’s always just been a huge thrill to me, this possibility that as human beings we can take our understanding of the world, something we’ve always defined ourselves in many ways by utilising that understanding and applying it, and we can do it over the next sort of … It’s probably not 20 years, 30 years to getting to see a deep space, but we can use it to take ourselves beyond the realms we understand today and into the realms of science fiction.
Alison Jones: And I guess that comes back to your insistence on being an Applied Futurist, as well. You’re not thinking 40, 50 years, you’re not thinking these wildly speculative teleportation things. You’re thinking, actually what can we do next? Where are we going to be five years from now? What do we need to do now to prepare for that?
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, and in many ways that was a very mercenary decision. I left my startup six and a half years ago now, and I’ve been broadcasting about technology and the future with the BBC since about 2006. I’ve been writing a blog about the future since about the same time and decided to make this my business. And I sat down with a friend of mine who’s a brilliant branding guy and we put this website up and said “I’m an Applied Futurist,” and we came up with this title. And within the six weeks, I had phone calls from LG, Nikon, and Sony Pictures. The Sony Pictures one was a fun job. It was “Can you help us talk about whether our new science movie is a realistic view of the future?” But the other calls I was getting were very much not about what might happen in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. They were about … The question was “What’s going to take us out at the knees in the next five years?” In 2012, a lot of these big business failures of the second wave of the web were quite fresh in people’s minds. It was the … Blockbuster wasn’t yet a cliché and we watched companies like Kodak disappear because they’d failed to catch on to the digital camera despite having built some of the early ones.
And lots of the companies that were calling me up, not necessarily true of some of those names I gave, but lots of the companies who were calling me up were asking this question about “What is our near future? What are the big threats on the near horizon? How do we avoid being a Blockbuster, a Kodak, one of these other big names that’s been wiped out?” And so I found that I really had to find a way to help them answer that question and the tools I looked at, the tools of futurism … Again, futurism is a long-established discipline. You can go and do a degree in future studies if you want to. But most of the tools I looked at and examined were based on what might happen in 20 or 30 years, not what’s going to take us out at the knees in the next two to five. And so I had to build a kit of tools to help me answer that question. And what I’ve learned since and applying them in different scenarios is that most organisations are really bad at thinking about the future, because we’re so busy thinking about the immediate future and how we keep delivering those short-term targets, which is where we started.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And what is interesting as well … I love the idea of consulting on the film. “Yes, I think this is a realistic view of the future in 20 years’ time.” But it brings it back to really what caught your imagination in the first place, which is the story stuff, isn’t it? And you talk a lot in the book about how vital stories are at creating that narrative of the future and the jeopardy and the resolution and what the future might look like as a way of mobilising change, as a way of putting it into human-speak, almost. And your own background, obviously you’re a scientist, but you’re also a storyteller. You come from a marketing background. Just explore for me a little bit how that works for you and why you think the storytelling angle is so important.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, I have a sort of unusual career history where yes, having read The Book of the Future, I decided that I wanted to be an engineer and build this future. I went and studied mechatronic engineering at university, but rather quickly came to the conclusion through two different routes that I wasn’t going to be an engineer. Firstly, because I kind of struggled with the maths beyond a certain level, and secondly because I got involved in the students’ union and sort of student politics and found that I loved, or rather sort of remembered that I loved frankly standing up on stage, just telling stories, getting involved in public relations and making change. And so when I left university, I found the perfect blend of those two jobs, which was working in a marketing company for tech firms. And they very quickly realised that they could parachute me into a room of engineers around the world and I’d get stuck on a plane to Helsinki or Boston to go and interview engineers and translate what they were saying into something people could actually sell. This very early induction into the importance of a story. Because engineers are often convinced that the sheer merits of what they’ve built will sell it, that the merits alone are what will carry a product or a service to market and make it incredibly successful.
And with my engineer hat on, I don’t doubt the important of building great things. But I came to understand that actually great things aren’t always the ones that succeed. You have to be able to build a narrative around it. And if anything’s reinforced that over recent years, I think it’s our politics. We’ve watched the rise of storytellers and the success of storytellers in the face of people trying to use objective facts as the fundamentals of their narrative. We’ve got to be able to tell stories when we’re trying to compel change. And given this high frequency of change we’re dealing with, the ability to do that is increasingly important in leaders, I think.
Alison Jones: Yes, and it translates into books as well. Often authors are so in love with that. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all. I get it. You’ve got to be passionate about your stuff and they know that what they have to say and their message, their methodology will really, really help people. But it’s kind of a necessary but not a sufficient condition, isn’t it? You’ve got to capture people’s imagination, you’ve got to give them a story that puts it into context and shows them what it could be for them.
Tom Cheesewright: Absolutely and that starting with the audience piece is really important. Who are you talking to? I think it’s symptomatic of a wider failing in leaders. And to be honest, I don’t blame them because it’s so widespread, it’s clearly it’s not just individuals who suffer this. But we really struggle to shift that perspective from the one from behind our eyes and the things we see and the things we know, to understanding what it is our audience needs to hear and feel and see in order to respond to what we’re telling them. And I think … I have a general rule of thumb that you can spend a maximum of six months inside an organisation before the blinkers come down, that’s why I limit my consulting engagements to a maximum of six months, because I start giving the same answers that everybody else does. I start saying “Oh, that won’t work here,” or “This industry’s different.” And those things are almost never true. But once you spend six months inside an organisation, the blinkers are down and you believe that you are different and that you are somehow insulated from the change the rest of the world’s experiencing. And you also stop being able to put yourself into the shoes of your customer. That’s why I think things like user-centred design and user testing are so important.
Alison Jones: Yes, because you get that fresh, rough perspective from outside that shatters your comfortable group think. Yes, absolutely. And another way that it plays out in the book, this emphasis on story, is that the multitude, I mean I don’t know if you’ve counted how many case studies are in there or how many just even anecdotes, but you can’t open a page without looking at one. It’s threaded through with stories and illustrations. It must have … Are these all from your own personal experience? How did you pull all that together?
Tom Cheesewright: They largely are, yes. I mean, I’d say that the core of the book is really I’ve been writing in many ways since I started this business, since I started being a professional futurist. And because I didn’t … If I’m honest, I didn’t 100% know what I was doing when I started. I started, in many ways, quite naively that: I’ve been writing about the future, I’ve been broadcasting about the future, maybe I can tell you about the future. But I didn’t really understand the questions that people wanted answering. And so I sort of documented my thought process. It’s like doing your working out when you’re in an exam. I’ve documented my thought process as I went along the way and sort of remembered a lot of the conversations and wrote them down.
Actually, blogging really helped because I was writing these stories up as blog posts as I went along. And the great thing was I got the chance to go back and speak to some of the people who were there at the time. So Simon Eckstein is now working for the government but was then a local councillor I was working with and remembered these stories again. But also, I get them from all sorts of places. I’m also a judge on a few different awards. So one of the stories … There’s a story about pushing power to the edge of your organisations. That comes from being an awards judge and seeing lots of entries about how different organisations are doing things. And some of them are just from outright reading. The best thing about this job is that if you have a thirst for knowledge, you are bouncing between different knowledge domains on a weekly basis. And so you are forced to just learn and learn and learn and learn. So even what I’m learning about is completely driven by which client I’m working for, but I found a lot of that learning really applicable in writing this book.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant, because as a writer, and I can hear it in your voice, you’re absorbing this stuff nonstop. You’re learning, you’re curious about it and you’re synthesising it and you’re applying it in your own argument and so on. Now as a writer and one of the things we do on this podcast is going to go under the hood, yes but how? How do you organise that stuff? You talk about your blog, so you’re putting stuff there, but how do you actually hold those things together so when you go “There was a story about that. How do I find it? Where did I write it?”
Tom Cheesewright: So I have a really odd memory. I’m absolutely hopeless at remembering where I’m meant to be, or things like dates and birthdays, but I have a fairly good recollection for stories and narratives. And because I do a lot of public speaking, they’re often reinforced. So while I might have a sort of core theme, every time I pick up on something through a consulting engagement or any other place, it probably gets absorbed into my talk as a new thread or a new example of why I argue for a particular position. So the stories are constantly getting reinforced and actually retold and refined, if I’m honest. There’s always a level of narrative around these stories. The combination of that constant use of them, combined with writing them up in the blog, is in many ways for me much more effective than any sort of formalised catalogue or note-taking system. This sort of evolving narrative that I’m telling and retelling constantly, which makes actually sitting down and writing it much easier.
I’m actually in the process of writing my second book now. I shouldn’t talk about it because the first one’s not out for a little while. But-
Alison Jones: No, go on, talk about it. This is what we want to hear.
Tom Cheesewright: But that’s in many ways been much more challenging because I have an idea at the heart of it, I’m really compelled by this idea, but it’s not something I’ve done any consulting around or any really much speaking around. And so I’m doing a lot more original research this time. And the way I’m doing it this time is that I’m doing it actually following your methodology. I’m doing interviews for my podcast and capturing the information as podcast episodes, which I can then retrospectively write up into stories. And I’ve literally just this morning, sending the questions off to recording next week.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I mean, it works really well, doesn’t it?
Tom Cheesewright: It’s a fantastic opportunity because you have your stock questions, but you’re in a conversation. So you get to expand way beyond perhaps where you thought you were going. And so I’m interviewing someone next week who’s building this incredible platform for augmented reality business that I think is potentially one of the next of the unicorn businesses. And I’m interviewing someone who’s done a load of research. They’ve got up to 70,000 different user journeys for how we buy stuff. And yes, two completely different ones but they all play into the same sort of core theme around the book that I’m writing.
Alison Jones: And also, it’s fun, isn’t it? Those conversations, as you say, particularly when they go in places you don’t expect and they trigger thoughts you haven’t considered before, it’s just so much fun.
Tom Cheesewright: They’re the absolute joy of this job and to be fair, there are many, I’m very lucky, but one of them is meeting and interviewing lots and lots of smart people. So one of my sidelines, I’m resident futurist at the National Graphene Institute, one of the areas of technology I’m completely obsessed by, I think will be utterly transformative to our world is the new revolution that’s going on in material science. And they let me sit in on the presentations they do every Friday afternoon of the new research, back to these Nobel Prize winners who then critique them. So I understand about one word in three and I’m gradually picking up the lingo, but it’s just fascinating, the applications of these new technologies.
Alison Jones: Isn’t that based in Manchester?
Tom Cheesewright: It is, yes, yes. So I’m Manchester-based, so I can hop on my bike and cycle up there and sit in and learn a lot for an afternoon.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Yes, that’s brilliant. How exciting. And then when you are writing … And I’m really pleased, actually, that you’re writing at the moment because the experience of it and the … You know when you finished writing your book, it’s like childbirth. Well, you don’t know this. But anyway, it collapses into a sort of this thing that happened and look now, here’s the baby, here’s the book. But when you’re actually in it, it’s a different feeling and it’s incomplete and it’s got all the uncertainty and all the just mess that’s involved in writing a book. So just tell us a little bit about that. What techniques and tips and tools have you been developing?
Tom Cheesewright: So mess is something I really struggled with, as someone who’s used to writing … The two formats I write most frequently are blog posts and for clients I quite often write 4,000 or 5,000-word papers. And you can hold the narrative of a 5,000-word paper in your head, just about. You know where the beginning, the middle and the end is. You know where the arguments are structured. When you’re writing a book, I found it really difficult to hold all of that in my head and map that narrative out and know where I was going. And what I found myself doing was actually writing it as a series of blog posts. I probably restructured it five or six times, ending it with a structure of lots of short chapters, where I had a sort of one-line heading for each chapter, so I knew what point I was trying to make.
Then I could get my head around “Okay, I only have to focus on telling that particular story in this chapter and I can forget about the wider narrative for a minute. And I think I’m probably going to go down the same route for the next one. I am going down the same route for the next one, because I just couldn’t hold that whole structure in my head at one time.” I could do it on one sheet, if I had one sheet of paper in front of me that plotted the arc, but I couldn’t do it when I was trying to write. Even with my Word documents, I couldn’t cope with having all of the words of the book in one document. I had to break it down into individual 2,000-word documents and then reassemble them at the end for editing.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. It’s just so useful, I think, for people listening who are struggling with exactly the same thing, a) to hear that they’re not uniquely inept or something. This is a thing, especially if, as you say, you’ve got the kind of brain that does normally hold the whole narrative, the whole picture. And a book just doesn’t translate to that. And then also to hear how you pragmatically … I mean, I was the same in a sense. I found I didn’t really have a grand arc of narrative. What I wanted to do was really practical tools and techniques and tips and so I organised my book in a short, tip-based way. So there’s ways around this and you have to be smart about: what do my readers need? and will I allow them to dip in and zoom … Because of course people do read business books in that way. They zoom in on the things that catch their eye. They’re time poor, but they’re curious.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, and that’s exactly the way I consume business books. Particularly, I really like that sort of short, digestible, okay I’ve got that, particularly when you’re reading when you’re commuting or things like that. So I like that structure. For me, it works well for me and I’m hoping … I’m pleased to hear you say that. I’m hoping it works well for the reader as well. But I think it’s really important to understand what works for you, that there is no one right way – it’s finding that intersection of what works for you and what’s going to work for the reader.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that’s it, isn’t it? That’s a brilliant tip. Thank you so much. And I always ask people as well to recommend a business book that they have found particularly useful, they think everybody listening should read. I mean, obviously apart from your own, what book would you recommend people should read?
Tom Cheesewright: So I’m very tempted to recommend a recent guest of yours, Bec Evans’ book Happy Hustle.
Alison Jones: Oh do.
Tom Cheesewright: It’s wonderful. I have to say, my paper copy has just arrived and I got to read an early copy. So if you’re thinking about doing anything, I highly recommend that. But I’d also recommend an economics book, actually. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, because there is a dominant narrative about business and the environment in which we all do business that’s been constructed over the last 40 years, into which we all buy to some extent, I think. And Ha-Joon Chang’s a professor of economics at Cambridge and really resets that default narrative about capitalism and about the system we’re in, and about this sort of low-level understanding of economic history we have. He retells that story in a way that gives you perhaps a very different understanding. I think it’s very relevant now in the state we’re looking at more responsive and sustainable business.
Alison Jones: Fascinating. Thank you. They’re somewhat of a contrasting pair as well, so we’ve covered every mood there.
Tom Cheesewright: Completely different books, but both incredibly valuable.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. And Tom, if people want to find out more about you and about what you do, more about future of the book, where should they go?
Tom Cheesewright: The best place to start is probably tomcheesewright.com. So that’s got everything there. You’ll find my blog, stuff about what I’m doing, bits of video, all sorts of stuff are there.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I will put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com and along with the transcript for this interview, which will bear a couple of re-readings, I imagine. Thank you so much for your time today, Tom.
Tom Cheesewright: Absolute pleasure, Alison.