Leaders everywhere no longer express as much confidence about the future as they once did. When they speak candidly, it often sounds as if they feel trapped in quicksand, unable to move forward easily. The methods and tools that helped them succeed in the past no longer work.[i]
Cast your mind back to 2015, if you had closed your eyes to imagine 2020 would a pandemic, lockdown, social and economic upheaval and an increasingly hostile climate have been in your mind?
If you were taken by surprise by the events of 2020 there is a way to prepare for future challenges and opportunities – by developing your futures thinking capability through practicing foresight.
In formal terms, foresight is the action science of the Futures Studies discipline. In practical terms, foresight is the application of futures thinking and research in useful ways. This can be conceived of as answering the why and where questions about direction and destination, before strategic planning takes care of the who, what, how and when implementation issues.
Foresight occurs across individual, organisational and community levels. It is action oriented, open to alternatives, participatory and multidisciplinary. It is these aspects, in particular, that differentiate it from other strategic planning exercises.
Futures thinking is the human capacity that is engaged through a foresight process. Futures thinking capacity is enabled at the individual level, but enacted at the organisational or community level.
Futures thinking is developed through raising ‘the fog of conventional thinking’ to paraphrase Dr Richard Slaughter, this is achieved through asking people to think about deeply about issues at levels which are not normally considered, also by asking questions about assumptions, values, identity, language and culture. It rests on a language comprising futures concepts and metaphors. It is through investigating these concepts and metaphors, via strategic conversations, that a shared culture and language around futures is developed.
Futures thinking happens at the level of ‘where are we going’, by asking ‘why are we choosing that path, rather than another one’? It prepares people to make choices about their preferred futures, thereby equipping organisations and communities.
Foresight processes are not about attempting to predict the future as this not particularly useful as most predictions will tend to be wrong. Instead, organisations need to develop capacities within their people to interact with future possibilities in order to:
Prepare - to cope with those things we know are coming.
Prevent - to stop those things happening that we do not want.
Shape - to ‘create the future’ through directed desire; to understand those parts of the future which can be changed and influence them.
Our need for control means that organisations spend increasing amounts of money trying to generate certainty in uncertain times. Developing your ability to apply foresight provides individuals with a level of comfort as you learn how to hold complexity without needing to simplify, and to interact with possibilities to deal with problems as they arise, rather than trying to ‘solve’ the insolvable.
Foresight approaches allow for the growth of innovation and creativity within organisations, helping to create spaces in which conversations and thinking ‘outside the box’ can occur. Having their people thinking about the future is often a very good way for organisations to check their direction and core purpose, identify white space opportunities for action, or to develop new products. The utility of foresight practice for Government is predominantly in the realm of policy development. Foresight tools can inform the thinking process behind policy allowing for both wind tunnelling of proposals and installing pro-action rather than re-action in the policy delivery process.
Foresight is the perspective of the leader, and in these days of flat structure and teams, leadership is important at all levels of an organisation. The ability for groups of people to develop and share preferred futures images informs organisational culture and it is in the future space that conversations about organisational direction can occur without seeming to be a ‘waste of time’.
[i] Gerencser, M; Napolitano, F; and Van Lee, R (2006) The Megacommunity Manifesto, Strategy + Business Magazine, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.