The Polak Game: an exercise to help reveal your theories of the future

Dutch sociologist and Holocaust survivor Frederik Lodewijk Polak's massive future studies text The Image of the Future makes a bold statement about optimism and pessimism, creating four categories of belief about the future, divided on two axes: things are improving/worsening; and people can/can't do something about the future.

From this taxonomy, Peter Hayward from Swinburne University created the "Polak Game," played in workshops to help participants clarify their views about the future and where those views stem from, and what those points of view erases, and what they elevate. The game was picked up by CMU's Stuart Candy, and spread to many other contexts, mutating as it went, becoming a favorite at places like the Institute for the Future (Jane McGonigal and Mark wrote about it in this IFTF report).

In a joint paper for the Journal of Future Studies, Hayward and Candy describe the game's inception, uses, history and lessons.

I definitely belong in the bottom right quadrant: things are getting worse, but it is in our power to do something about them. That's basically the premise of my novel Walkaway.

When you ask players to describe what energises their own image of the future, you tend to get
the following self-descriptions within quadrants:

Upper Right (UR) – Powerful, or Agentic

Upper Left (UL) – Service-oriented

Lower Right (LR) – Realistic, or Stoic

Lower Left (LL) – Free, or Que Sera Sera

The UR may, for instance, think of themselves as powerful change agents, but then hear from
others (moving clockwise) that the LR regard them as being unrealistic or just privileged; the LL
describe them as deluded or hubristic, and the UL see them as the ones who create the world that the
LL live in. You can then move people into different quadrants to "see how things look from where
others stand".

When deployed in an organisation the dynamics of the game can get very interesting. Once I
worked with an executive group who all huddled in the UR, almost competing to be furthest into
that optimistic-optimistic quadrant. As if channelling the UL's critique, I asked: "How do you know
you are not deluded?" When a group of decision-makers cluster in the UR, you can ask, "Where are
your staff standing?" "Where are your customers?" The realisation may start to dawn that others
are not necessarily energised by the same image of the future.

On another occasion, I ran the game with an executive group where, again, most were in the
UR. Later on, however, while developing their strategic plan, I heard them listing all the things that
they "could not do" until someone else acted first. I asked, "So why were you standing in the UR
earlier?" The group quickly dropped the "We need others to act first" comment and got on with
planning the actions they could take.

The Polak Game, Or: Where Do You Stand? [Peter Hayward and Stuart Candy/Journal of Future Studies]

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