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

In part one of thinking about the future, I covered how to research and develop possible futures. In this post, I’m going to focus on how to prepare future roadmaps and contingency plans that lead directly to action in the present.

Visioning

Visioning is the last phase before strategy begins to be translated into plans and tactics. Analysts start the process of connecting the alternative futures to the organization’s present reality by asking the organization to consider what it would mean if each alternative were to occur. The alternatives should be formed as “what if” questions. Some basic categories are implications for society, the industry, the organization, and the specific unit or team within the organization. The benefit of “what if” questions is that they can identify gaps in knowledge as well as potential opportunities and obstacles. Moreover, the practice creates a mindset of openness to possibilities and effectively translates the alternative futures from interesting information to potential action items.

It’s crucial to consider unintended consequences and check what proposed solutions could lead to in the long run. Solutions and alternatives should always be investigated for their influence on the whole system, or you could end up with an ecological “cat”astrophe (check out Operation Cat Drop — and sorry for the terrible pun). Analysts must work closely with the organization to establish an effective monitoring system that watches for unexpected consequences over time.

As the organization begins to consider what it would like to do with what it has learned up to this point, it’s essential to step back and formally reexamine the work done to date to uncover and clarify any remaining assumptions or any new assumptions that may have crept in. Collect a comprehensive list of issues, trends, and driving forces that are important to the organization’s future. Don’t rely heavily on one or two key changes without regard to others. Question everything. Challenge orthodoxies. Identify and tear down taboos haunting the organization. Validate assumptions by cross-checking them.

When it’s time to develop a strategic vision, put the vision in a time continuum so progress can be tracked over time. Setting stretch goals can be wonderful motivators and rallying points for an organization, or country for that matter (think President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon).

Planning

Planning is concerned with bringing a vision into being and translating it into a strategy consisting of tactics leading directly to action. It’s the bridge between the vision and action. The analyst’s task is to help the organization understand what could happen (the alternative futures ) compared to what it would like to see happen (the vision) and show the difference between the two.

Human behaviour and societal drivers are central to any strategic foresight activity. Many leading companies have consumer-centered programs that identify trends in the cultural, sociological, psychological, ethnographic, and demographic arenas and explore their implications for various organizational activities.

More diverse business strategies can be achieved when they come from the bottom-up. A business strategy needs to be successful in a number of potential business environments. Engineering a strategy from one individual’s (or group’s) mental model yields a blueprint that can be successful in only a limited range of scenarios. By enabling multiple strategies to evolve across the organization, the organization as a whole is more likely to be viable across multiple business futures (think wisdom of crowds). ***Note: It’s also important to know what not to change. Analysts should ask “What has been conserved that gives this organization its unique present?” as well as “What should be conserved so that history continues into the future?”

The strategic landscape (or possibility space) is enormous and includes opposite possibilities, or branching points. Branching points are often built around strategic uncertainties. Mapping pathways and branching points will not only suggest what the organization should do, but will define the things to watch. It also helps in understanding the underlying logic that governs the organization’s future and can help spot discontinuities that may already be in process.

Strategic recommendations should be based on the organization’s core resources and capabilities and evaluated along multiple dimensions to provide the most robust feedback and increase the odds of success. Factors such as multiple performance measures, stakeholder perspectives and timeframes need to be considered. For example, if a strategy is only evaluated on how well it performs after three years, its strong performance after five years might be missed. Evaluation criteria are best set at the beginning of a strategic foresight activity (see Framing) and should suggest to the analyst whether an adjustment is necessary and whether the strategy is likely to work as intended.

Strategic foresight activities must provide guidance to decision-makers and should include a no-go, most plausible, and preferred option. It is also important to develop contingency plans for surprises. Contingency planning makes uncertainty manageable. It enables and encourages decision-makers to identify what they do not know and make reflected judgments about it. Possible surprising events could be strategic, technological, political, economic, social, or even criminal. For substantial threats, develop preventative and eventual strategies.

Acting

Acting is the final phase in strategic foresight and is largely about communicating and translating plans into concrete actions. The first step is to translate the forecast into terms the organization and its stakeholders can understand. Consider alternatives to the standard PowerPoint deck such as storytelling, role-playing, workshop activities, videos, simulations or gaming.

Keep in mind most executives will be time-strapped. Being provocative can sometimes be good for limited time engagements when the mandate is to get an organization out of a rut. A tried-and-true method is to first shock the organization and describe the threats it faces, then introduce the opportunities. Of course, some organizational cultures are uncomfortable with provocation, so it’s best to know beforehand. Images, experiences and tools that promote in-depth thinking all help make insights compelling and memorable.

Next, analysts must lay out in concrete steps what the organization needs to do to avoid undesirable futures and move toward its preferred one. Introducing an organization to the future is a matter of persuasion. It helps to reinforce what the organization is already doing and build from there. However, some organizations have a tendency to try to address problems that require new learnings with existing know-how.

One dimension of strategic foresight is challenging mainstream ideas and developing alternatives. Analysts should actively stimulate the exploration of unlikely or even seemingly impossible ideas. Going one step further, they should invest in at least one of them. This signals to the organization that considering and preparing for alternative futures is important enough to merit investment.

Finally, analysts must make the case for strategic foresight to be a required institutional capability in the organization. Organizations should create a formal, customized system that monitors and reports on the external business environment. They should also establish an early warning system to detect possible changes or indicators that a crisis is looming. To do this, they must identify the most important fields of operation, determine important questions about the future and strategic opportunities and finally, pick appropriate sensors and sources to keep up with the myriad trends and signals.


Progress is often made in incremental steps that together result in major change. Big change efforts take a long time (some say seven years), but the ability to anticipate future changes and developments and to perceive future threats and opportunities are key success factors for any individual, organization or society.