An exercise to help you understand how you see the future
The Polak Game was created by Dutch sociologist and Holocaust survivor Frederik Lodewijk Polak. In his classic work, “The Image of the Future,” he introduced this powerful tool to test our view of the future.
Though the exercise was originally designed to understand our view of the long-term future, it can be used to address our vision of the short-term future, too. Especially, in an unnerving and stressful time as the current coronavirus disruption.
The Polak Game: Introduction to the Exercise
The Polak exercise captures our view of the future using a 2×2 matrix, measuring it along two axes:
- Optimistic/ Pessimistic
- I can make a difference/ I can’t make a difference
To see where you (or your colleagues) stand, you must answer two questions.
- In the next 10 years, do you see the world as getting better or worse?
- How capable do you feel of personally affecting the future?
Depending on the answer, people will fall into one of the four categories as shown in the matrix below.
POWERFUL: You acknowledge that things are good and believe that they can get better. You are confident in your ability to act and create a better future.
PASSIVE: Though your vision of the future is positive; you tend to be more of an observant than an active change agent. You expect those in power to make the call; you’ll adapt and play along.
POWERLESS: Not only your perception of the present is negative, but you also feel that things will get worse. That perception makes you feel free. As there’s nothing you can do about it, you don’t feel responsible if things get even worse.
REALISTIC: Your vision of the future is not positive, but you still believe in your ability to influence the outcome. However, this duality creates some mixed feelings. You think it’s worth trying but are not so confident about how much of a difference you can create.
The Polak Game: Facilitation Guide
This is an individual exercise but works really well to understand how a team views the future.
First, ask each individual to answer the following two questions:
In the next 10 years, do you see the world as getting better or worse?
How capable do you feel of personally affecting the future?
Once everyone has answered, introduce the Polak Game matrix. Just the four quadrants without getting into much detail. Ask each participant, based on their answers, to write on a post-it where they stand. Let them not only choose the quadrant by the relative position –– some people can be extremely optimistic or mildly, for example.
(note: you can also facilitate this exercise virtually using Mural)
Once you have all the members mapped in the Polak Game, have an open discussion to identify tensions, understand gaps, and create alignment.
Here’s another take on the matrix that could help you discuss not only people’s perception but also the roles they are playing. The purpose is not to blame a team member if they are too passive, but to understand what might be causing that.
Address the tensions both from an individual and a collective perspective. Ask people to reflect on their behavior and why they feel that way? As a team, reflect collectively on what mindsets or actions might driving people to act in a particular manner.
Variation 1: Instead of just asking about the long-term future (10 years), also ask people to reflect in 5 years, 1 year, 1 quarter, and 1 month. This is important considering the current situation where people are worried about the immediate future.
Variation 2: Try doing two rounds and see how people’s positions vary. In the first round, ask people to focus on the future overall (environment, economy, technology, politics, society, etc.). In the second round, they should answer considering their perception of the future of their team/ organization.
This can unearth some interesting tensions. For example, some people can be very pessimistic about the future of the economy, but still are confident about the future of the team. Or the other way around.
From Powerless to Powerful
One of the reasons people feel powerless is because they focus too much on the things that are outside of their control rather than on what they can manage.
A nice way to dive deeper into what’s causing that and change things around is the “Regain Your Power Canvas” shown below.