Forward-Thinking Teams: Here’s 6 Ways To Train Your Team To Think Long-Term, and Why That’s Important 

Last time in our blog we talked about the connection between ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance factors in companies’ long-term sustainability) and team building. We said that improving ESG requires team building because teams as a whole need to be involved with shaping and implementing long-term goals and visions. But that got me thinking about another related topic: the importance of having forward-thinking teams to begin with.

The importance of forward-thinking teams

Sustainability is a long-term goal that can only be achieved, let alone thought about as a pertinent issue in the first place, by thinking long-term, into the future. It involves recognizing that our actions now have consequences, not just for us but also for future members of the company and those around us. This type of forward-thinking is therefore critical when it comes to big goals and plans, including making positive changes in companies and teams.

And yet, forward-thinking is often hard to inculcate on teams. We are often trained to focus on the present and to complete the tasks in front of us. Moreover, the way many teams are structured nowadays doesn’t incentivize most members to think long-term. Oftentimes, forward thinking and planning for the future is concentrated in upper management or senior members of the team. 

However, we need to start thinking about creating forward-thinking teams. Teams whose members are all engaged in envisioning the future and in taking responsibility for future consequences, and who actively think about how to make the team better. In other words, getting the whole team on board is the only way to achieve long-term goals. And this means instilling a more forward-looking approach on teams.

But is there a way to do this? We’ll try to sort out some possible solutions in this blog post.  In the following, we’ll discuss some ways to create more forward-thinking teams, and how to engage team members to become more inspired to be a part of actively forming the team’s future.     

How to develop forward-thinking teams

Like any muscle, forward-thinking skills need to be nurtured, developed and practiced in order for them to take root. Many of these skills can be cultivated through regular team building (which we will get to later). But more important is that forward-thinking skills are instilled holistically throughout the whole team, so that all team members have the ability and motivation to think long-term.

1. Get your team to think critically and creatively  

One of the major ways to cultivate forward-thinking teams is by getting them to think more critically and creatively, and to look at problems from different aspects and points of view. This is also sometimes called “thinking outside the box”. But no matter what it’s called, thinking critically means questioning given assumptions and having a healthy curiosity to seek out new ways of doing things.

Getting teams to think critically engages them to think differently about the world around them, the problems facing them, and how to solve them. It also expands their field of mental vision–meaning that critical thinking enables team members to see more clearly the larger issues that their team may face.

A great way to get teams to think critically and creatively is through team building, which gives teams challenges that they have solved in a number of different ways. This engages their ability to think differently about issues, and to combine different viewpoints. In the workplace, team members should be given time to brainstorm solutions together, and should be encouraged to not always rely on past ways of doing things.

2. Reward ideas, not just reactions

Forward-thinking teams don’t just react to situations as they come. Rather, they are able to look forward and perceive what situations are coming down the line. In this way, they are also able to formulate new ideas based on their wider and more expansive viewpoint. 

Being proactive about implementing new ideas should therefore be rewarded on teams. Instead of being worried about failing, team members should be encouraged to try out new ideas and test new hypotheses. And if they fail, it’s alright because it leads to more learning and growth (see below). 

Basically, forward-thing teams are proactive by nature. They jump on new ideas and work to implement them together because they know that change is coming whether they like it or  not, But this kind of proactivity requires instilling a desire to think of new ideas and try new things.  

3. Encourage debates and sharing opinions

A great way to encourage more ideas as a way to promote forward-thinking teams is by encouraging more sharing of ideas and debates. Teams that are actively engaged in thinking about the future will naturally want to talk about their ideas and discuss them. But many times, teams want to avoid these kinds of discussions because they can get heated.

Effective F¥forward-thinking teams, however, know how to lead productive conversations about larger goals without letting these debates spiral out of control and affect interpersonal relationships (also known as managed conflict). They also know how to harness these debates and arguments towards creating productive new ideas that merge the viewpoints of the different sides.

Another important point about debating ideas and sharing and expressing views openly is that it makes team members feel more invested individually in the long-term goals of the team. When every member feels that they have a voice at the table, they will be more likely to think proactively about their long-term journey in the company and on their team, which will naturally spark creative ideas that could be made better.      

4. Envision the future together

This last point leads into a major aspect of forward-thinking teams, which is that they can envision the future together. They can create new visions for how they want their team to be and where they want their team to go. And they can be honest about when they need to pivot.

As we mentioned above, many teams are composed of team members that are incentivized to just focus on their own work, or who don’t have the ability or opportunity to share their vision about how the team should be. But what this leads to is a lack of real harmony on teams, who can’t see the larger picture that exists on their team, and can’t perceive the long-term view because they don’t know what other team members are thinking. 

This is not always the result of conscious mistakes. For example, this problem has become especially pertinent with the rise of online and hybrid teams, where there is simply less interaction and chances to understand what’s going on with the team as a whole. All teams, especially hybrid and remote ones, need to be more conscious of making more time to share goals and visions for the future, and to make sure that a shared sense of meaning and purpose on the team is continuing to develop.    

 5. Learn from mistakes

It might not seem obvious to think about mistakes when we’re talking about forward-thinking teams. After all, shouldn’t forward-thinking teams be more concerned with the future. Actually though, in order to move forward on goals and to look at solving future problems in different ways, teams need to reflect on mistakes and learn from them.

Learning is key though. Simply dwelling on mistakes and failures will only lead team members into a cycle of obsessing over the past and what went wrong. Mistakes and failures need to be seen as not simply bad things that should be punished. Failure and mistakes can teach teams to become better, to learn and to grow.

Instilling this sense of learning from mistakes can make teams more prepared for the future, and to take a forward-thinking approach to their behaviors. By learning lessons from past mistakes together, teams will already be taking the first steps towards ensuring that next time, they will be ready.    

6. Mentor and train your team members

Finally, to make sure that all of these lessons sink in better, it’s important that forward-thinking teams get regular mentoring and training. Mentorship opportunities, especially for younger and newer members, are critical in cultivating both the skills necessary to think long-term, as well as the feeling that their needs are being looked after, which creates a greater sense of buy-in into the team’s long-term growth.

Training can also help teams become more forward-looking. Training sessions about skills like conflict resolution and goal-setting are obvious examples that deal directly with thinking long-term. But more informal training, such as team building activities that bring team members closer together and create more opportunities for communication and open sharing can also be beneficial. 

Team building especially can also open team members to new ways of thinking about problems. Through unique puzzles and challenges, team building requires teams to think in slightly new ways, and to combine their skills and perspectives in order to progress forward. While this might not seem immediately connected to long-term thinking, it can affect a team’s ability to share opinions, think more creatively, and become more open to new points of view. 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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