Strategic Foresight and Escaping the Tyranny of the Present

Most of us struggle to imagine the future – even our future selves are complete strangers to us. Studies have shown that when we think about our own future we imagine ourselves as a wholly different person. 

This week I attended an event run by the Disruptive Innovators Network featuring the futurist Tracey Follows. She questioned how many organizations routinely scanned the horizon for future trends. Based on the attendance (a third of the number who attended a talk on digital transformation earlier in the week) I’m guessing ‘not many’. Which is ironic, as one of the reasons that many transformation programmes fail is the lack of any strategic foresight. The vision set at the outset is one of an imaginary future organization, not based in any kind of reality.

Strategic foresight is a structured way of using ideas about the future to anticipate and better prepare for change. It is about exploring different plausible futures that could arise, and the opportunities and challenges they could present.

We can all get better at thinking about the future by attempting to seek out what Vijay Govindarajan calls ‘weak signals’. These consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, the economy, and consumer tastes and behaviour.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear – they exist at the edge of our vision, if at all. 

Tracey outlined that you’ll almost never pick up a weak signal from the mainstream media. The clue is in the name, once it’s featured in the mainstream – it’s no longer weak. Importantly she reminded us that if we are thinking about what the future looks like we should also look to the past. If you’re imagining what the next 10 years look like, you need to be looking at the trends of the past 20.

How much of our organizational time , if any, is spent looking for clues to the future? Smart organisations know that these weak signals exist but also take active steps to detect them. Is the ping of the signals getting weaker, or becoming ever more incessant? 

One of the themes that I think is getting stronger is that of a decentralisation of power, of a desire amongst citizens for more control over their lives. This will likely only accelerate in the post-pandemic years as people seek to rebalance what has been an , arguably necessary, extension of state power into the running of our lives.

Already we are seeing this in the employment market – where people’s newly found commute-free working has led to a reconsideration around the role of work in their lives. Work isn’t quite as important. Employers have lost a degree of power over the individual. 

My interest is less in this and more in how this trend affects communities. How will a desire for more control and influence shape our future social sector?

Power doesn’t flow downstream naturally. Whereas the internet promised us decentralization and empowerment, what we actually ended up with was the collective of FAANG – the power pooling with a small collection of titans: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. 

The Web 3.0 movement , the next generation of internet that heavily relies on the use of distributed ledgers, machine learning and artificial intelligence, has the potential to build a more sovereign and open internet.

So how does this affect us? Well let’s just look at the social housing sector for example. 

There were more than 1,600 social housing providers registered in the United Kingdom in 2021 the largest share of which are non-profit (1,356), followed by local authorities at 215 and for-profit companies at 53. 

That’s 1,600 HR departments and CEOs. 1,600 different ways of forming policies and vying for homes and delivering services in a sector that exists to solve the same shared problems.  This puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of organisations rather than citizens.

What decentralisation might bring is an realization that organisations should scale back, doing only what they do best, partnering with others and delegating to the consumer through decentralized applications and blockchain infrastructure.  

In the future we may no longer be stuck with the choice between the public sector and the private sector. The citizen sector should be recognised as a viable, industrial force. We saw this in the original vaccine rollout where the NHS partnered with private suppliers and community groups to deliver a haphazard , but brilliantly effective supply chain. 

As J. Peter Scoblic has said, strategic foresight doesn’t help us figure out what to think about the future. It helps us figure out how to think about it.

Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but happen much faster than you expect.  Those weak signals are getting stronger and louder all the time.

Why We Fail To Predict The Future

rns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

The emergence of new infectious diseases is unpredictable but evidence indicates it may become more frequent. In light of evidence from recent emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika, the likelihood of this risk has increased since 2015.

UK National Risk Register 2017

A lot of money and time is going to be spent on corporate risk registers in the year ahead. Following a crisis, regulators and managers naturally take steps to prevent a recurrence. There’s a danger of retrospective risk management: believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but is no longer a relevant tactic in the present, never mind the future.

In military terms it’s called fighting the last war. A famous example is when France built a series of concrete fortifications along their border with Germany: the Maginot Line. What was a winning move in WWI didn’t help in WWII, when Germany flanked the Maginot and invaded from the North, from Belgium. A border that the French hadn’t fortified. The line has since become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

It’s one thing to imagine a future scenario and an entirely different thing to preempt it. Pandemics have been top of national risk registers since the end of the nuclear threat, but that didn’t stop most of the western world failing to seal their borders in January 2020. In fact, amidst a global panic many threw out their carefully draw up pandemic response plans and did something entirely different instead.

This week I’ve been at a couple of events where we discussed horizon scanning.

Most executive teams will tell you they scan the horizon on a regular basis. I made a comment the other day that when you probe what horizon scanning means in practice it often equates to just reading the news and following Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. Helena Moore responded “I raise you a HBR subscription and a friend thats a futurist 😀“.

Far from something that is only done randomly, horizon scanning is a structured process designed to capture, make sense of and assess the importance of emerging issues and trends that are often not very obvious today.

In an increasingly complex world organisations need to horizon scan to prepare for future disruption. By the time significant emerging disruptive risks are known, quantifiable and recorded on a risk register, it may be too late to respond effectively.

Weak Signals Getting Stronger

How do you look for non-obvious trends?

According to Vijay Govindarajan weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. “Planned opportunism” is his term for responding to an unpredictable future by paying attention to weak signals. Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

What We Can Learn From Super Forecasters

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is the forecaster featured in Adam Grant’s book Think Again. He has an outstanding record in predicting the outcomes of elections. While regular pundits rated Donald Trump as a joke, with just a 6% chance of gaining the Republican nomination, Jean-Pierre gave him a 68% chance. How? By constantly challenging his own beliefs and biases.

As he says “I would advise people to question assumptions that are unsupported or weakly supported by the evidence. That is the best way to spot potential opportunities to set yourself apart from the crowd. You also need to become adept at evaluating evidence. I would also advise people not to trust their gut. Thinking with your gut is what pundits do and that is why they are so often wrong.”

Most of us don’t have the skills to become super forecasters, celebrated historians or futurists. So what can any of us do practically? I’d suggest:

  • Create a circulatory system for new ideas and provocations
  • Develop the capacity to prioritise, investigate, and act on those ideas
  • Build an adaptive culture that embraces continual change
  • Be prepared to constantly change your mind about what you think you know

No-one can predict the future but history shows us that it often turns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

And let’s remember the future is not a far-off point: it arrives daily. Our choice is whether to be an active participant in what it looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around us.


Photo by Paola Ocaranza on Unsplash

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