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When people complain, as many will today, that they haven’t yet gotten to ride around on hoverboards like Marty McFly, the grumbling probably won’t sound much different than what a lot of CIOs feel like they hear every single day.

Though there appears to be some dispute among die-hard fans, Oct. 21, 2015 is the day the hero of ‘Back to the Future II’ made his way to what seemed like the far-flung future. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if the screenwriters had chosen 2020, or even 2025: putting a date on it meant that inevitably, our society would have to do a sort of self-assessment to see how well the vision matches reality.

Although Business Insider suggested the film was more accurate than some people have realized, there could be a lot of people living and working today who don’t feel we’ve lived up to the technological promise offered by ‘Back to the Future.’ Probably the most insightful rebuke I’ve read to this stance comes from Adam Owen, who reflects on the subject in the online magazine Hazlitt:

Futures—the stuff of which science fiction is made—are a product of modernity. When we started seeing human history as a progression, the future became possible to conceive . . .At its most powerful, a proposed future can constrain our ability to imagine anything else, ultimately becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Like it or not, CIOs are often in charge of leading organizations, and by extension much of modern life, into the future, and are therefore forced to work within those constraints. Forget about hoverboards and power laces: a lot of people would like to have mobile apps that don’t crash, databases that aren’t impossible to search through or enterprise software that is as intuitive to use as Facebook.

The effectiveness of Back to the Future II—and the power of fictional futures—is apparent every time a nerd whines about having to tie their own shoes and travel on the ground. It constrained our ability to think of the future so tightly that these are the biggest injustices we can think of that the future-cum-present has tolled upon us.

As they explore the technologies that can be truly transformative for businesses, CIOs need to keep Owen’s words in mind. This has been true since the hype around Web 2.0, big data a few years ago and more recently the Internet of Things. Within all these areas, the possibilities seem so infinite IT leaders may need to teach their coworkers that the end results will, in fact, be finite. Or at least more limited than vendors, futurists and even analysts will admit today.

On the other hand, I think this is one of the great things about working as a CIO in late 2015; while the world feels deflated about the technological progress that’s still out of reach, they can keep their heads down and continue driving change forward. In other words, they can keep going back to the future.



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