Strategic Foresight and Futures Thinking Skills Pay Off
When the world is changing second by second, is there any tool that leaders can use to help them better manage the future?
Fortunately, the answer is “yes.”
Futures Thinking (aka Strategic Foresight) is a key competency in an uncertain and volatile environment.
“Strategic Foresight” isn’t a term that rolls off the tongue, but it is one worth knowing as it refers to the key, critical competency of leaders going forward.
What is strategic foresight?
“Foresight” refers to knowing what will happen in advance of an event. “Strategic Foresight” is a specialized term used by futurists to describe the intentional use of this advance knowing to develop your organization.
Organizations that use strategic foresight well have it incorporated into their culture and their process infrastructure in two ways. First, it has become a natural way of thinking. Second, it is an important set of activities and tools used to guide future forward decisions.
Why does your organization need futurist thinking and strategic foresight?
Increasingly, organizations that are not already using futures thinking and strategic foresight are seeking it out. Why? They recognize that 20th-century planning tools are not sufficient to meet the demands of an uncertain and volatile present. Most of the strategic planning insights that large organizations have inherited from the late 20th century were designed to help them grow in relatively static and stable conditions—clearly, no longer the case. As a result, another set of thinking and planning tools have evolved. This set is designed to help leaders plan and make decisions in uncertainty.
Our news media is littered with stories that should serve as warnings for what happens when institutions don’t anticipate what could happen. Or they don’t take stock of changes that might seem unimportant when they first appear but can grow to devastate companies and communities.
The oldest package tour company in the world, Thomas Cook, collapsed in 2019 after several years of failing to adapt to emerging challenges of self-booked low cost travel and DIY services such as Expedia.
But for every deep failure, there is an innovator that saw the same set of conditions emerging and sought to create a new to fit them. Thus, Thomas Cook collapsed, but AirB&B rose.…
These real-life examples are the best proof that learning about strategic foresight is vital to any organization that wants to remain “in the game” in any meaningful way.
How does strategic foresight actually work?
There are many ways of approaching foresight. They include research and intelligence gathering, strategic processes and frameworks to help make use of research, and structured ways of guiding people to think in new ways about what might happen in the future. [Learn more about the cone of plausibilty, and how complexity science is useful for foresight. You are also welcome to join us at our deep dive course into foresight.]
But the basic shift is this: instead of thinking of the present and the future in rigid terms and seeking to “predict” the future, you move to a more fluid and accurate understanding of the future as a range of potential outcomes of present-day phenomena. Once you have this mindset, a lot of opportunities open up to better anticipate and influence your own future.
Seem trivial? It isn’t.
In fact, there are at least five good reasons why it is worth seeking to create this shift in a deep, not superficial way at your own company by investing in strategic foresight learning.
1. Futures thinking and strategic foresight makes companies more resilient
Resilience, the ability of an organization to weather adversity and emerge intact or even better, begins with anticipating what could happen in the future. Any organization whose ranks are filled with people who think “that could never happen,” or at least “not to us,” is not in a good position to anticipate the wide range of not only imaginable but nearly unimaginable events that can happen.
Appreciating that the future could genuinely be different from today is the first necessary step toward preparing and strengthening in the case of that eventuality. People who have thought the unthinkable are not surprised when it happens.
2. Futures thinking and strategic foresight makes you more competitive
Historically, one version of competitive advantage comes from having information superiority. If you know more than your competitor, you are in a far better position than to make a winning move. But knowing more than your competitor is punishingly difficult today. Unimpeded data moving through the air (or a fiber optic cable) can travel around the earth several times or more in a second. Since we all see the same news and have much the same access in business environments, it is hard to have a good secret…and even more difficult to keep it to yourself.
However, there is one kind of information that is completely unbreachable and that is an informed and imaginative vision of the potential future. This isn’t an empirical fact, so it cannot be stolen or capitalized on by anyone else.
This is the kind of information that comes in the form of a new way of seeing the world and in appreciating how new conditions could lead to innovations and new business opportunities and models. The iPhone started with foresight; using micro-grids to create community energy began with a new story.
3. Futures thinking and strategic foresight helps you create a more sustainable business
Thinking and planning for the long-term health of a system are at the heart of sustainability, and they are the key elements of foresight. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that futurists in the 1970s were some of the first people to be exploring the the long-term viability of the earth’s resources and the ability to sustain human life. Today, sustainability is also a corporate focal point for global corporations from asset management to food supply chains to technology.
Strategic foresight thinking not only helps people understand what might happen in the future if current trends continue. It also helps to break down the false idea that planning for the long term requires a trade off with short-term profit by showing how they are connected. Short-term thinking tends to cost much more in the long-term.
4. Futures thinking and strategic foresight increases employee satisfaction
Increasingly, employees are clear that corporate culture and values matter to them. Employees consistently report that they seek companies that align with their values and behave in keeping with them, i.e., actually run the company according to those values. Executive Director of Ethical Systems, Alison Taylor, calls employees a stakeholder group that employers ignore at their peril. In order to even begin on this trajectory, organizational leaders need to understand the values and long-term vision of their employees.
5. Futures thinking and strategic foresight is the key to leaving a lasting legacy
What world do you want to leave to your employees, your family, your world? If you seek to have impact and leave a legacy, considering how your actions help shape the future is the first step.
OK, we think we’ve done a great job convincing you that your organization would benefit in so many ways from strategic foresight. Time to put that to the test.