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The Perks of Imaginary Time Travel

Bob Sutton, Stanford University August 14, 2019

A former U.S. Air Force Academy cadet wrote to me about a mind trick he used to survive encounters with more senior cadets who berated and insulted him. During trying episodes with these flaming jerks, he imagined that his tormentors weren’t there, envisioning instead that it was a few years in the future and he was flying a plane. It worked: He graduated from the academy and went on to spend nearly 20 years as an Air Force pilot.

A hodgepodge of behavioral science research suggests that this cadet was wise to shift his attention from the present to the future. His approach can be a smart strategy for people who lead organizations, too. They can harness the human capacity to “transcend the here and now” by nudging others to engage in “mental time travel,” as psychologists Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk put it.

Help others look back from the future

The first time I noticed a leader use imaginary time travel was back in the 1990s, when Andrew Hargadon and I did an 18-month ethnography research project at IDEO. Today, IDEO is a renowned innovation consulting firm, but back then, it was a small product design company with about 100 employees.

IDEO’s founder (and then-CEO) David Kelley used an intriguing tool when designers complained about things that upset them, like difficult clients or tough technical problems. Kelley would acknowledge their immediate pain. But he would soon shift the conversation away from the present and focus on either the past or the future. Kelley made three kinds of points that seemed to calm and motivate those distressed designers:

  • He would suggest that, in a month or so, when the designers looked back on what upset them, it would seem like no big deal — just a temporary rough patch.
  • He would remind designers of past troubles with clients or vexing technical challenges and how, by persisting and banding together, they endured, did good work and had fun.
  • He would talk about exciting new projects that IDEO was about to land, which the designers would love working on.

By urging designers to imagine how much less upsetting current problems will seem in the future, the IDEO CEO was using what psychologists call temporal distancing — reminding them that the pain of a current experience would fade as time passes.

[L]eaders can ease the sting of current troubles by reminding others (and themselves, too) that “this too shall pass.”

Six studies by Bruehlman-Senecal and Ayduk confirm that when people focus on the impermanence of a distressing event, such as a poor exam performance or a relationship breakup, they feel less upset about it and less worried that it will hound them in the future. Similarly, leaders can ease the sting of current troubles by reminding others (and themselves, too) that “this too shall pass.”

Promote “rosy anticipation”

Research by Terence R. Mitchell and his colleagues at the University of Washington has focused in on the “rosy view” phenomenon. These researchers studied emotional reactions to experiences such as vacations to foreign countries and a three-week bicycle trip. Mitchell and his colleagues found that, compared with their feelings during the actual experiences, people were more positive about their vacations and bike trips when they anticipated them or remembered them.

Seeing the past through rose-colored glasses isn’t unusual, but a phenomenon called “rosy anticipation” also occurs — because most people also have positive illusions about the future. They believe, as psychologists Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown put it, that “the future will be great, especially for me.” People — especially those with good mental health — are prone to savor an event before it occurs. They downplay the risks and resulting aggravation, such as, in the case of an upcoming bicycle trip, the saddle sores and annoying companions they will likely experience.

Seeing the past through rose-colored glasses isn’t unusual, but a phenomenon called “rosy anticipation” also occurs — because most people also have positive illusions about the future.

Alas, “rosiness” is a double-edged sword. Some leaders exploit their employees’ optimism. They entice employees to work for yet another cruel client or on another slipshod project with hollow promises that things will be better next time. Instead of identifying and repairing problems, such leaders twist the facts in ways that condemn their people (and often themselves) to live through similar ugliness again and again.

That said, when used with proper precautions, wise and ethical leaders can use rosy anticipation to shift focus and crank up constructive energy and enthusiasm for future adventures.

Identify risks with a failure premortem

Leaders can use imaginary time travel to do more than fuel good feelings, constructive optimism and persistence. Some use it to identify dangerous risks and delusions in order to avert future failures, through “failure premortems.” The premortem is psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s favorite method for making better decisions (he credits psychologist Gary Klein for inventing and developing it). A failure premortem works something like this: Leaders and their teams are asked to imagine that it is, say, a year after they’ve made a decision, and that the decision turned out to be a massive and unambiguous failure. The leader asks people to imagine looking back from that terrible future and develop detailed lists and stories about what happened and why.

A failure premortem works something like this: Leaders and their teams are asked to imagine that it is, say, a year after they’ve made a decision, and that the decision turned out to be a massive and unambiguous failure.

Premortems improve decisions in part because dissecting an event as if it did happen rather than might happen makes it seem more concrete and likely to really occur, which motivates people to devote greater attention to understanding its nuances.

Experiments by marketing professor Deborah J. Mitchell and her colleagues found that, compared with looking ahead at an event that might occur, imagining that the same event has already occurred “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.” In addition, when a premortem is convened by a trusted leader, naysayers and pessimists feel free to speak their minds. A well-run premortem creates a competition where people score points for identifying risks and obstacles that others haven’t. As psychologist Klein puts it: “The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.”

Motivate employees (and yourself) with imaginary futures

Finally, everyone — leaders and employees alike — can use imaginary time travel to manage themselves, not just others. Stanford’s Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao and his students recently conducted a field experiment on the impact of writing personal premortems. The experiment involved more than 750 new hires at a large software company. Preliminary findings suggest that new hires benefited from looking back from the imaginary future and explaining why their first year on the job had been either a failure or a success. New hires who were randomly assigned to write failure or success premortems were more likely a year later to have received large pay raises — over 10% — compared with new hires who were randomly assigned to control conditions, and thus didn’t write premortems.

It’s true that some cynical leaders do deceive people by promoting wonderful imaginary futures that they don’t believe will ever happen. On the other hand, wise leaders master the delicate art of helping others (and themselves) navigate the here-and-now by understanding when and how to shift attention to the past and future. They do it in ways that protect and inspire people and that help their colleagues (and themselves) make better decisions by engaging in mental time travel.

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the Sloan Management Review