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  • The Futures Triangle - Understanding the three time dimensions when planning for your company’s future

The Futures Triangle - Understanding the three time dimensions when planning for your company’s future

20 August 2019

Original content provided by BDO South Africa

Business strategy is about looking to the future. Strategy formulation involves making decisions today and considering different strategic directions that could be taken in the future. Inherent to strategic planning is the set of desired goals – i.e. a desired future, which is based on a specific image of the future. The desired future pulls an organisation into the future. To define a desired future, is nothing else than making a normative statement about the future – e.g. “we want to put a man on the moon”.

Nevertheless, the pull of the future (aka the image of the future or the desired future) is but only one-time dimension to be considered during strategic planning. There are two other time dimensions to be considered – and, alas, many times ignored by decision-makers. The other two-time dimensions are the pushes of the present and the weight of history.

In other words, business strategy should incorporate / consider the present and the past too – over and above setting the desired future. Present pushes and the weight of history will impact on the desired future, if we like it or not. Unfortunately, many times, these two dimensions are ignored during strategic planning exercises; as a result, organisations are not prepared to embrace the pushes of the present (e.g. current trends) and counter the weight of history (e.g. legacy issues and thinking in the business).

Demographics are a good example of the pushes of the present. It is disturbing how organisations and governments would ignore the importance of demographics, and how it could impact on their desired futures. The USA government ignored the baby boom after the Second World War, and, as a result, they ended up with a systemic shortage of educational and support facilities – first there were not enough primary schools, then secondary schools and then colleges and universities, and, today, not enough old age homes. As a country South Africans ignore or are unaware of the positive spin-offs of a huge young population. A huge young and educated population could result in a “demographic dividend” where we can experience accelerated economic growth – but on the condition that they are employed. Regrettably, however, policy uncertainty, among other things, hampers investment and growth in South Africa.

Another push of the present is new technology. Changes in our environment and advancements in technology can have a significant impact on the way a business operates. Companies are often not brave enough to examine honestly how they can improve products, services and methods and adapt their way of operating by implementing new technologies.

History, as a time dimension, is the Steph Child. Organisations might still consider the pushes of the present, but the history of the organisation or industry is considered not relevant. Unfortunately, history is “a pool, sometimes benign, often sulfurous, that lies under the present, silently shaping our institutions, our ways of thought, our likes and dislikes” (MacMillan, 2010: xii). As a result, history becomes a weight – a weight pulling an organisation away from its desired future. For example, the greatest danger to innovation in an organisation is paradigm fixation – i.e. on what has worked in the past, or that which the business was originally established to do. Too many businesses cling to historic successes and processes, products or services, which may blind them to necessary changes required to keep their offerings relevant in the future – i.e. a better way that competes with the business’ proven and existing recipe for success. Other examples abound.

It is crucial that the Futures Triangle is used during strategic planning – and all ‘three time’ dimensions should be considered. But special attention should be given to the weight of history as it has the potential to pull an organisation not to its desired future, but away from its image of the future.

Time advances towards the future in a linear fashion, and would therefore always entail the past, present and the future. Figure 1 below illustrates the progression of time:

Figure 1: Time progression
Source: Own compilation

Above figure basically resembles the three time dimensions a strategic decision-maker is dealing with, albeit in a very dynamic and complex inter-relationship with each other (Inayatullah, 2015: 9), as illustrated in the important “Futures Triangle” mapping tool (see Figure 2 below):

Figure 2: The Futures Triangle
Source: Inayatullah (2008:29) with some adjustments

The three time dimensions facilitate:

  • Hindsight (into the past or the “weight of history”).
  • Insight (into present-day trends or the “push of the present”).
  • Foresight (about the future or the “pull of the future image”). According to Inayatullah (2004: 8), the:
  • Pull of the future image represents the “dominant and contending images of the future”.
  • Push of the present represents “trends as demographics, technology, globalization”.
  • Weight of history represents the “deep patterns that are resistant to change (patriarchy, feudal structures, silos, macrohistory)”.


Inayatullah, S. 2004. Futures and Change: From Strategy to Transformation. International Asia-Pacific Course in Futures Studies and Policymaking, 24 August, 1 - 24.

Inayatullah, S. 2008. Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, Vol. 10(1), 4 - 21.

Inayatullah, S. 2015. What Works – Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight. Taipei, Taiwan: Graduate Institute of Future Studies.

MacMillan, M. 2010. The Uses and Abuses of History. London: Profile Books.

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