Driving Next-Generation Research Through Future-Focused Leadership

By Deborah Westphal

The global research ecosystem is estimated to grow to 1.25 trillion dollars by 2025—and it is changing rapidly and dramatically. The hyper-connected web of business, government, academic, high-tech, and nonprofit entities is fueled by a diverse network of people dedicated to discovering new knowledge about ourselves and our world. 

Who, what, where, and how research is funded or conducted is increasingly impacted by developments in geopolitics, social activism, security, trust, transparency, technology, public/private interactions and intellectual property. The implications of these escalating forces will create new funding models, new methods of collaboration, and new ways of conceptualizing research and measuring its impact. They will also generate new threats to traditional research processes and organizations. 

The Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT) is strategically and purposefully exploring the evolving impact of these various forces to create opportunities and build momentum for young investigators working on early-stage, high-risk research. Through the Toffler Scholar program, we’re forging strong partnerships with leading universities to support these promising young medical researchers, physicians, and scientists who are at a pivotal point in their careers. With critical funding and a vital, relevant network, recipients have the resources they need to continue their groundbreaking work. But financial and network support are only part of a much bigger picture. To develop into experienced, confident professionals, these investigators need to understand how the interplay between current global forces will shape their work years, even decades, into the future. We achieve these aims through Exeloop and through strategic partnerships, like the one with the Future-Focused Leadership (FFL) program.

Preparing Researchers for the Future

For today’s post-doctorate medical researchers to succeed in this rapidly changing environment, they need to develop new mental models. They must build the capacity to spot changes and trends and then work to understand how those changes can lead to new opportunities to solve our world’s most debilitating diseases and conditions.

For the last two years as Executive Advisor for the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT), I have been working with Dr. Bradley Hyman to develop Future-Focused Leadership, a workshop-based program designed to help young researchers build new mental models and leadership skills for future success. Dr. Hyman is the John B. Penny Chair in Neurology at Harvard Medical School, a Toffler Scholar university partner, and Director of the Massachusetts Alzheimer Disease Research Center and Memory Disorder Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General). Through the FFL program, we hope to help researchers better understand the dynamics of change happening around them and use that information to create a better future for all of us.

“The FFL workshops have been highlighted by the fellows and faculty as one of the most valuable parts of the fellowship program at Mass General. The breadth of ideas, the principles of thinking both inside and outside the box, and the emphasis both on teams and what it means to be a leader all resonate strongly. I believe if we are to train leaders of the future, we need to equip them with the tools to help build the future. For us, the FFL is a powerful way to do just that.”   

– Bradley T. Hyman MD PhD

Building a Future-Focused Culture

As our starting point for the FFL workshops, Dr. Hyman and I turned to the seminal works of Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers presented numerous mental models and frameworks for helping past, present, and future leaders understand how to use the forces of change to shape strategy and decision-making relative to their position and career direction. Through the Future-Focused Leadership workshops, we seek to build an equally future-focused culture that continues beyond today’s postdoctoral researchers. Through FFL, we’re able to expose early career researchers to new ways of thinking about what affects change around them. This analytical process equips them with tools to support creative thinking and better decision making for the future.

“As someone early in my career, I have often found myself at the mercy of unexpected new events that derail plans. The Future-Focused Leadership workshops taught me a useful framework for speculating on the future and planning for different possibilities. This insight has given me comfort as I plan the next steps in my career.”

Theodore Zwang, PhD, Instructor of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Inherently adaptable to the dynamics of an environment, the mental models adopted by these researchers will reliably, consistently, and progressively transfer across situations and contexts. These young researchers will be able to apply the models in every direction—outside and inside their laboratories and organizations—throughout their careers. As they experience discrepancies in their understanding, they will be able to challenge or decide whether to hold onto or adapt their beliefs. Adaption acknowledges that changes never happen in isolation. As the Tofflers identified so early on, changes are interconnected and systematic. Particularly as our world becomes more networked and connected, every decision and action has tremendous potential for far-reaching, short- and long-term impacts.

“The Future-Focused Leadership workshops opened my eyes to the importance of seeking knowledge from outside of my own specific field. Deb connected me with an individual from a different field who grappled with problems similar to the core problem my research focuses on. This valuable experience taught me that having conversations with, and learning from, individuals in completely different domains, even outside of science, can help me gain a broader perspective and big picture view of my own work.”

Rory Boyle, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

The Importance of Collaboration

Collaboration, discussion, and ideation across divergent disciplines is also a key component of FFL and KTCT. By viewing their work through the eyes of experts outside their fields, investigators are able to explore new ways of thinking. And through open dialogue, researchers facing similar challenges in disparate studies can gain novel insights, achieving otherwise-impossible revelations. These interconnected ideas are a dynamic catalyst for innovation and have the power to generate world-changing breakthroughs.

A common thread throughout FFL is challenging participants to get outside their comfort zones. We are pushing them to think, examine, explore, investigate, and collaborate in unorthodox ways, ultimately empowering them to consider and develop nontraditional approaches to solving humanity’s most intractable problems. Some of history’s greatest scientists, theorists, inventors, academics, and leaders rely on precisely these types of future-focused mental models to inform their strategies, solutions, and methodologies. By actively seeking and identifying shifts and trends, and then understanding the possibilities they hold, they are able to drive exponential impact. 

“The FFL Workshop helped me understand how leaders of large organizations think and make decisions towards a future goal, analyzing trends and counter-trends, deciphering the complexity of “systems of systems,” anticipating the foreseeable changes on the horizon, and the potential unexpected consequences associated with change in a given direction, and ultimately placing their organizations in advantageous positions into the future. The FFL Workshop provides a framework and tools that will enable the attendees to get out of their comfort zone and gain insight into the future with practical examples and interactive exercises.”

Alberto Serrano-Pozo, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Assistant in Neurology Massachusetts General Hospital

Programs like FFL help KTCT support investigators as they push our collective future in a brighter, more hopeful direction. If you would like to learn more about KTCT or support our efforts to triumph over some of humankind’s most devastating diseases, reach out to us today. Connect with Deb Westphal on LinkedIn and contact The Karen Toffler Charitable Trust directly via our website.

About the Author

Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. She is the author of Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future and the Foreword to After Shock as well as a speaker, executive advisor, and management consultant.

Her career spans more than 30 years, government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse.

Deborah is a world traveler who enjoys time with her son and running in the mountains. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.