The Art + Science of Thinking about the Future Pt. I

“If you don’t know where you are going, you may end up somewhere else.” — Yogi Berra

Not long ago, life proceeded at a more leisurely pace. Change was slow, almost predictable. The future approached slowly, appeared to hold little to fear, and concerned only a relative handful of people in each society. But the last 50 years have brought massive and accelerating social, cultural, environmental, and technological change. Now more than ever, people are being asked to think about — and take responsibility for — their future and the future of the planet.

The purpose of looking to the future is to understand the possibilities ahead in order to make more informed decisions in the present. By consciously seeking new information, creating new mental models, and focusing on residual uncertainty, people can improve decisions and reduce uncertainty on a personal, organizational and societal level.

Good futures work is not about getting the future “right” but rather being prepared for multiple futures. It reduces the risk of being surprised or blindsided. It can even build momentum toward more favorable pathways and away from unfavorable ones. The danger in preparing for only one future lies in the enormous risk of preparing for the wrong one.

Strategic foresight facilitates two types of relationships: translation and transformation. Translation involves translating ‘outside and then’ so it can be used to improve the organization’s existing policies, strategies and plans. Transformation involves transforming the identity of the organization by reshaping its purpose, niche, or identity.

There are six critical guidelines to a successful strategic foresight activity: Framing, Scanning, Forecasting, Visioning, Planning and Acting. The first three guidelines cover data collection and creating potential futures. The last three involve thinking through future implications and planning concrete actions. In this post, I’ll cover the first three steps.

Framing

Framing establishes the work context for the foresight activity. It enables analysts to define the rationale, purpose and objectives — and how best to address them — at the outset of a project for the best chance of success. This pays big dividends in the later phases.

Futures work often requires challenging the assumptions and changing the mental models of key decision-makers. Most organizations are more comfortable with straightforward answers that can be answered ‘correctly’ if the right skills and knowledge are applied. However, strategic foresight does not deliver right-and-wrong answers. Dealing with the ambiguity inherent in the activity requires a shift in mindset from simply finding the right data or information.

Analysts must understand the organization well enough to customize and tailor the process. This means having a deep understanding of how the organization views the future. It’s also important for analysts to pay attention to their own biases and worldviews, as bias can lead to ignoring or rejecting trends or information at odds with one’s worldview.

The world involves relationships and systems that are nonlinear and complex (think exponential decline or growth, cycles, etc.). One of the most useful approaches to characterizing nonlinear relationships is the S-curve. It’s used to plot technology diffusion, product lifecycle, and population growth in a new habitat. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about this in his famous bestseller The Tipping Point. ***Note: Another nonlinear relationship to look out for is “the fix that fails,” a short-term solution that increases the long-term problem.

Change happens at different rates and degrees throughout society. For example, the effects of environmental and demographic change can take years or decades to be felt, while the impacts of a technological change can be felt in just months. Likewise, different issues are embedded in different systems, which in turn have different relevant timeframes (i.e., the computer chip industry operates on a far more compressed timeframe than the auto industry). Considering different rates of change as well as different timeframes opens organizations to short-, medium- and long-term risks and opportunities. It also places the concept of change in a manageable context.

Analysts need to help organizations account for both the near-term and longer-term effects of a decision. Opportunities and challenges should be analyzed from different perspectives, viewpoints, and their evolution over time. One problem analysts face when helping organizations think about the future is that the client generally wants to know how this thinking is going to help them in the short-run. Very rarely can leaders accept a short-term downturn in performance with the promise of better future results. Without short-term successes, programs that have merit and promise can fall by the wayside. The analyst must strike a balance between exploring new ideas, technologies, and unproven strategies with exploiting things that have worked in the past, in order to survive in a rapidly changing landscape.

Finally, it’s important for analysts to keep the organization’s higher purpose (raison d’etre) in mind throughout the activity to ensure relevant and actionable outputs that truly benefit the organization.

Scanning

Once the analyst is clear on the boundaries and scope of the activity, it’s time to scan the environment for information and trends relating to the issue at hand. The goal is to develop a knowledgebase with a mix of basic driving forces (drivers) that suggest the most likely future as well as some insight into potential change-drivers that could lead to alternative future outcomes. This involves identifying macro-trends that will form the basis of the baseline forecast and weak signals that may predict discontinuities that drive alternative futures.

It is critical to embrace a global perspective when scanning as nothing is immune to forces and events elsewhere. Some find it useful to use the STEEP framework (social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) to ensure they think broadly enough about what they are researching. Many issues or problems are not properly analyzed because they are only considered from a single perspective that neglects others. Taking an integral perspective helps ensure that all aspects relating to the issue are being considered.

Another tool for understanding context is a systems map, which identifies key stakeholders and driving forces influencing the issues and explores the relationships among them over time.

A systems map of fishery and ocean conservation systems.

Conducting a stakeholder analysis can also be a useful source of information. This identifies important individuals or groups that may influence (or be influenced by) the foresight activity, and explores the implications of their involvement. Failure to pay sufficient heed to stakeholder concerns can lead to unforeseen objections.

Of course, studying history and understanding how the organization got to where it is can be helpful. The analyst should also gather internal intelligence on current and future developments within the organization. ***Note: An organization’s past success can sometimes lead to thinking in a rut. Moving beyond this requires a shift in mindset.

Finally, colleagues and outsiders — including outliers, complainers and troublemakers — are a great source of different perspectives and innovative thinking.

Forecasting

Forecasting involves creating the widest range of alternative futures, then consolidating and prioritizing the most useful for the organization to actively consider or prepare for as it moves forward. Fellow design thinkers know this as the Diverge-Converge diamond process.

After uncovering information and trends from scanning, the analyst must separate those drivers into relative degrees of uncertainty. Some drivers are fairly well understood, like aging baby boomers. Other forces are far less certain, like nanotechnology. Drivers have both a forecasting utility in that they provide information on potential futures, and a disruptive dimension in that they call into question assumptions about the present. Identifying and investigating the underlying drivers of visible developments — and questioning whether these factors will slow down, reverse, move in new directions, or interact with each other — shifts the strategic focus away from predicting what will happen to anticipating discontinuities and alternative future contexts. Examining drivers in depth also helps to discern what can be influenced and when, and recognizing factors that could affect, constrain, block or influence strategic outcomes. Finally, drivers help make explicit the assumptions behind strategies.

As we saw in framing, change occurs on many levels at different rates. Layered approaches expand the scope of thinking and support a broader and deeper exploration and understanding of the environment in which the organization lives and operates. The approach helps organizations classify their issues according to the rate and impact of the change they create. Sohail Inayatullah developed a useful framework called the Causal Layered Analysis. The deepest layers involve values, worldviews and belief systems. The highest layers tend to correspond to superficial and fast-changing trends, like Nielsen media ratings. Usually when organizations apply this framework, they find they’ve been spending most of their attention on here-today, gone-tomorrow issues, while missing the more fundamental but less visible issues that are slowly but surely changing the rules of the game.

Fundamental shifts are external forces (discontinuities) that have the potential of shaking the core assumptions of an organization by disrupting the existing industry, diverting part of the revenue stream to competitors, or altering the organizational ecosystem (i.e., how the players interact). Discontinuities are often treated as if they exist in isolation, when in fact they exist in an ecosystem of other trends fighting to survive. Organizations tend to look only at the future of one trend and perhaps its immediate implications, while holding the rest of the world more or less constant. They often don’t consider how the trend itself will change because of changes in other conditions and trends.

Analysts can look for turning points by characterizing the past as a series of eras. For example, technological eras might include discontinuous events such as the railroad, automobiles, airplanes, electricity, telephones and computers.

Diverge — Generate Ideas

There are many creative approaches and tools analysts can use to provoke new lines of thinking and generate a wide range of ideas that may be included in alternative futures: Learn from other industries. Learn from nature. Learn from fiction. Concentrate on the desired outcome (in other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits — they buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.). Assume what is known for certain is false. Combine the rational data of analysis with opportunities for people to apply their imagination, hunches and beliefs.

Converge — Prioritize Ideas

Now it’s time to narrow down the list of generated ideas into a manageable set for inclusion in alternative futures. Two simple criteria to rank the ideas are importance and likelihood. When working with diverse actors, it can be helpful to identify and prioritize areas of common ground. Analysts should also remember to balance ‘realism’ with a critical approach. This means seeing reality not as a given truth, but as a mental construction. This point of view suggests that any assumption — general or concrete — about society, the economy, technology, etc., should not be considered final because there are myriad ways of understanding reality.

When it’s time to start crafting alternatives, it’s important to keep in mind that the baseline forecast is almost always wrong. The reason is that data, no matter how much or how good it is, never automatically leads to one and only one conclusion. Whenever empirical data is being used to support a forecast, the analyst should consider how the data could be correct but the forecast could be wrong.

There are four types of futures: Possible, Plausible, Probable and Preferable. Possible futures are anything positive or negative, probable or improbable, that could potentially happen in the future. Plausible futures are reasonable outcomes with a discernible pathway from the present to the future. Probable futures are the most likely outcomes. The preferable future is the most desirable outcome for the organization. These futures are then evaluated by consistency, quality, desirability and probability.

Talking about the future is difficult and therefore risky. People who do stand up to talk about the future often don’t really talk about the future at all; they talk about trends and issues, which are in the present. It is important to take the next step and describe in detail what the future could actually be like, look like, feel like, when it finally arrives. The analyst’s job is to alert the organization in the most respectful yet persuasive way possible that change will occur and that it needs to start preparing for it soon (if not right away). The alert does not have to be negative or critical of the present, but it does need to be challenging — urging the organization to get ready to leave the past behind and to confront the future and all its differences.

In Part II, I’ll explain how to bring consideration of the future back to the present by addressing the question “So what?” and how to translate that into strategy and action.