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One quick Google search is all it takes to find a cornucopia of advice on how to prepare for unexpected future events, whether a hurricane, a cybersecurity breach or an upswing in millennial consumers.
But there is no magic google answer for how an organization can prepare for the future competitive environment. That future is too complex and contingent to be predictable. For that, smart organizations turn to robust activities such as Strategic Foresight and the creation of a new Strategic Narrative. These activities produce options, innovations and new frameworks, rather than cookie-cutter instructions.
As an organizational leader, you may be keenly aware of the long term value of such activities, and sense that they could supercharge decision making in a fruitful way. But that doesn’t mean that all the stakeholders you will need to work with you are as ready to you are.
If you are contemplating a strategic foresight or strategic narrative engagement, I invite you to begin with this assessment to better gauge which elements need to be in place to get the strongest return on your investment.
Just one brief note before you dive in: I created this assessment based on my own experiences in leadership roles and as a facilitator and consultant.
Developing new visions of the future and new narratives is a demanding task—not because it requires heavy number crunching, or lots of hours at a desk—but because it asks people to leave behind their usual way of thinking. Instead, they need to exercise imagination, and accept that empirical data about the future is a guide, not a prediction. This makes heavy demands on our professional egos and is difficult and humbling to do. Making sure that everyone on the team is ready for the brave task is a critical measure of the potential success of your investment.
But watch out: when stakeholders are truly ready to delve into the uncertainties of the future, the synergy and strategy that results can be spectacular.
For each statement, mark the answer that best represents your level of agreement.
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Strategic Foresight ready!
Your organization is in an optimal position to pursue Strategic Foresight activities. Many people in it share the mature mindset that is so essential to assessing ambiguous and uncertain situations. Adequate resources are available to make an investment in future-focused exploration and planning meaningful and, critically, leadership is prepared to incorporate future-focused insights into current day decision making, the first step in shaping the future in desirable directions. In addition to any discreet Strategic Foresight projects you may be planning, you may also want to consider these:
Strategic Foresight is not, of course, an end point but an instrument for becoming a future-oriented organization. Consider integrating a future facing orientation into strategic planning. For example:
- Make environmental scanning for emerging trends an ongoing aspect of knowledge gathering for strategic purposes
- Annual or bi-annual explorations of the long term future—10-15 years—to consider risks and emerging opportunities
- Develop bottom-line metrics to gauge future-focused strategy and decision making as part of the annual assessment process, and to track and adjust forecasts
Fruitful projects may include:
- A deep scenarios exercise, designed to provoke deep thinking across the organization about how to ensure and amplify future success
- Events such as a conference or workshop to deepen and diversify thought, and showcase industry thought leadership in this area
- Gamification: Card sets and games that encourage people across an organization to consider unexpected events or the impacts of trends can help prompt discussions that are otherwise difficult to engage in.
If you would like to explore how the Strategic Narrative Institute can support you in shaping your organization’s future, I invite you to get in touch for a conversation. Contact Amy.
At the tipping point.
Your organization is virtually ready to take advantage of Strategic Foresight activities. There are high levels of understanding, commitment and interest. In order to take advantage of this interest, consider initiating a limited Strategic Foresight activity that begins to integrate future-focused planning into the fabric of your firm’s decision-making.
- Develop specific-focused questions about how the organization will address particular potential emerging environments and develop opportunities for these to be considered in ways that do not drain time or money. For example: A two or three hour facilitated meeting for leaders, or a participatory activity that invites the entire workforce to share their best ideas.
- Create a lightweight, but ongoing, environmental scanning effort that tracks emerging trends and keeps them visible; create opportunities for the workforce to develop or explore innovations to adapt or leverage opportunities.
- Explore potential future focused landscapes: take advantage of the innovative and committed mindset that prevails to move your organization even further forward by widening the understanding of potential futures
If you would like to discuss the results of your Assessment or these suggestions further, please feel welcome to contact Amy.
Move the needle.
Your firm hovers at the edge of readiness to engage questions of long-term success through Strategic Foresight work. Perhaps an understanding of the future is strong, but the resources are not quite in place yet. Or there are pockets of awareness in the institution, but they have not reached critical mass. Here are a few suggestions for proceeding that may be relevant to your situation. They revolve around spreading existing awareness beyond a small group and mainstreaming the understanding of Strategic Foresight.
- When interest and understanding of Strategic Foresight are unequally distributed through the organization, those who are interested can become grassroots cheerleaders who spread interest. Consider a brown bag lunch or community of interest among volunteers to begin exploring shared concerns about future environments
- Identify opportunities to develop a lexicon and a culture that appreciates the critical importance of strategic foresight through internal publications or other modes of communications. Once a blog, article or another item has a concrete existence in a sanctioned venue, it can be passed along to influencers or leaders in the organization to start a conversation
- If there is resistance to or limited appreciation of the exploratory mindset necessary to think critically about the future, it may be useful to develop an agenda around helping organization members think in new ways: holistically, playfully, critically.
If you would like to discuss the results of your Assessment or these suggestions further, please feel welcome to contact Amy.
Lay the Groundwork.
Your organization is in need of significant preparation to take full advantage of a strategic foresight project. People may be unfamiliar with structured approaches to assessing uncertain futures, or wary of departing from more familiar planning modes. You may want to consider taking the time to lay some groundwork and gain buy-in before seeking to execute a strategic foresight project.
Some ways to ramp up your preparedness:
- Seek opportunities to introduce the concepts and arguments on behalf of futures work in a non-threatening way
- Present evidence about how environmental changes are impacting your industry to elevate awareness of the future environment
- Using your answers to the questions in this survey, generate a list of concrete specific barriers that you must overcome in order to pave the way for Strategic Foresight
If I can support you in your preparatory work, or you would like to discuss the results of your assessment in a discreet context, please feel welcome to contact Amy at the Strategic Narrative Institute
Comfort with Ambiguity
The dictionary definition of ambiguity is the quality of being inexact or open to more than one interpretation. Because the future does not (yet) contain empirical facts it is by definition an ambiguous space. It is important that people who are exploring what the future might hold be ready to work in this space whose defining quality is probabilities, not certainties.
One way to manage this challenge is to become conscious of our inhibitions around ambiguity. Most of us, if we were to be fully honest about our professional environments, realize that we are not now in circumstances over which we have full knowledge or control. “Certainty” is an important fiction that helps us get through the day.
We can leverage our anxiety around ambiguity as a guide. Why are we anxious about not being able to know certain futures? Could we become more curious about the future at exactly the point where we feel most anxious? How do we want to manage that uncertainty, at the individual level? At the organizational level, what forms of resilience or adaptation will help us address a potential range of multiple futures?
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
Project participants are comfortable with ambiguity
A readiness to look far beyond our own professional domains is an essential aspect of assessing the future. The world today is a complex place. Most severe threats and bright opportunities result from the interaction of multiple trends. For example, political instability can arise when demographic trends collide with resource scarcity. Opportunities in healthcare emerge out of advances in technology and new cultural notions of wellness.
These interactions are not clearly visible on the horizon. They must be teased out through environmental scanning and analysis. This work begins with the readiness to be holistic in our approach to the future. When we are open to looking at everything, even the unfamiliar, we stand a much greater chance of finding patterns and opportunities we may otherwise have missed.
Project stakeholders are open-minded about exploring trends beyond their own areas of expertise
Dr. Jim Dator, one of the most highly respected futurists in the world today, once posited that “any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous; and would be dismissed as such.” The most obvious ideas about what the future might hold are just that—obvious and in plain sight already. Ideas that are ridiculous, far from being silly, signal that you have expanded your vision to areas where nuanced insights are possible. This willingness to think beyond the obvious is especially vital when you are looking at a long time horizon.
As a reality check on the value of the ridiculous, consider how absurd some of present-day innovations may have sounded a century ago, and how difficult they would have been to explain: growing human organs inside pigs; the need for laws to manage robot-related liability in the workplace; Skype, or Facebook, or Twitter; the ability to change the gender of your body; weaponized drones; cooking meat in a sous-vide machine. Although all of these have roots in scientific discoveries, cultural changes and technological innovations of the last century, anyone trying to explain any of these in 1950 would have sounded ridiculous or fanciful to most people.
Project stakeholders are capable of playing and willing to entertain what seems ridiculous or silly
A professional friend recently called me to ask my advice: She had one week to develop roundtable materials for her company’s executives to explore future trends at an upcoming offsite retreat. Did I have any materials or ideas?
The company in question is a large government services firm operating in major vertical markets in several different regions of the world. Although I tried to be helpful, it was clear that her managers did not understand the scope of their request, or how best to gain a meaningful return on the time they were asking executives to commit to the workshop. They had not properly resourced my colleague to do the job she was asked to do.
With a longer lead time, and a more resources to develop a structured approach, my friend could have worked with her supervisors to better understand what aspects of the future interested them most. She could have ensured she had appropriate, evidence-based materials on emergent trends available for discussion, and had queued up solid questions for participants.
The future is a big place and easy to get lost in. No organization can afford that kind of waste or wandering. It is worth taking the time to draw a map of how exploring the future fits into your larger strategic landscape and developing measurements to make sure that you are reaching the milestones you seek along the way.
Project stakeholders and project leaders are prepared to commit financial and human resources to exploring the future
Impact on Decision-making
Exploring the future to better understand what might lie ahead is always a good idea, but for an organization seeking to improve its performance, that exploration only matters if it impacts the quality of decision-making.
Some firms, looking closely and honestly at changing conditions, will find the need virtually to reinvent themselves. Others should prepare to adapt to new conditions, using insights into emerging trends to help them steer their course, mitigate risks and leverage new opportunities. One way to ensure that your futures work has lasting value is to incorporate the process into your strategic planning — take an ongoing long view of the horizon to inform your direction.
Our leadership is committed to bringing insights to bear on decision making
Reliance on Experts
Anecdotal and empirical evidence demonstrates that strong futures work is best performed by a diverse group of both generalists and experts. Although expert knowledge is critical for identifying trends in different domains, this is only part of the work of assessing the future.
Generalists and creative thinkers, whatever their fields, are often superior at holistic, lateral thinking, creative leaps and finding patterns in noisy, disparate fields of knowledge. Experts, moreover, are no better at forecasting than the rest of us; according to the Good Judgement Project, a long-term study by IARPA, the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, experts make incorrect forecasts in over 50% of their efforts.
In other words, paying attention to how participants think is just as important and possibly more important than what they think when you are putting together a team for a foresight study or workshop.
Our organization doubts the abilities of ‘generalists’ and prefers to work only with experts.
Comfort with Uncertainty
By definition, the future is a probabilistic system, and it is impossible to obtain proof or quantifiable certainty that it will develop in a particular way. Making predictions in a scientifically verifiable way requires complete knowledge about the conditions shaping the future. Even forecasters with highly sensitive measurement tools, like meteorologists, cannot make perfect predictions.
For institutions operating in complex social and political environments, the variability of potential behaviors within the future system are far less predictable than the weather, and approaching futures work with the intention to “know” what will happen will undoubtedly be a disappointing task.
If, however, you approach the future seeking to understand the implications of existing data and patterns, and to explore their future reverberations, your chances of developing new insights are good. If, additionally, you approach the future willing to explore different pathways toward desirable futures, your chances of a greater sense of empowerment and future options are good.
People in my organization are comfortable with the idea that the future is uncertain, and cannot be quantified or predicted
Ability to be impartial
Both excessive optimism and apocalyptic pessimism about the future can cloud the ability of organizational leaders to make clear-headed choices about approaching change. Yet both optimism and pessimism typify how people perceive the future, especially when their only encounters are via mainstream media and marketing accounts of what may come. In reality, the future is always most likely to be many things, both hopeful and fearsome, at once.
A readiness to engage beyond the headlines is a good step toward a more sophisticated engagement with the possibilities that the future offers. As a famous futurist once asked, “Should I be optimistic or pessimistic about the future? I believe the answer is: neither. I should be aware and active.”
(Jim Dator, cited by Stuart Candy in The Futures Of Everyday Life: Politics And The Design Of Experiential Scenarios, August 2010)
Project stakeholders can be impartial and dispassionate about the future, neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic