20 Years of Using Foresight: What I've Learned

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20 Years of Using Foresight: What I've Learned

I have been working with people and foresight since 1999, when I had to look up what ‘foresight’ meant in a strategic sense. I’ve worked with a lot of people in a lot of countries. I’ve received good feedback and some not so good, and when the latter happened, it was deserved. I’ve run successful webinars on how to use foresight in practice and generated a set of free resources. I’ve written a book about using foresight that’s been received well. I’ve redesigned my business approach to focus more on project work based on strong relationships with people. I am writing my PhD on the future for the university, a long held passion. So I’m doing okay.

I can, however, sense another change in how I do what I do that is still emerging. I am, in Theory U terms, trying to let go to let come. What I do know is that Richard Slaughter’s challenge to us as students to find our place in the global foresight conversation still drives me.

In a FuturePod podcast recently, I was asked about how my career in the foresight field has emerged, stalled and shifted over time. That set me thinking about what I’ve been doing and what I’ve learned over these past 20 years. Here are some things that I have come to believe, and that I will take with me as my work continues to evolve.

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Our Foresight Capacities

  • We cannot predict the future and we should stop trying.

  • Comfort zone thinking is a trap, a really bad trap if we want to anticipate the future in the present and build a better world, or organisation, or city or nation, or …

  • There is no such thing as THE future, and we should stop talking about it. That locks us into comfort zone thinking and stops us engaging our imaginations. There are always multiple possible futures available to us in the present.

  • Comfort zone thinking also makes us anxious about THE future, and that shuts down other emergent futures in the present.

  • Our imaginations matter as much as hard data when it comes to thinking about the future and becoming futures ready. Yes, really.

  • Our action or inaction in the present is what shapes the future - foresight and action always go together. That was drummed into us by Joseph Voros at Swinburne University and I’m grateful.

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Building Strategy

  • No single mind is ever wise enough to generate a future strategy for an organisation. Anticipating the future is always a collaborative and participative effort and needs as diverse a group of people in the room as you can manage.

  • People in organisations care about the organisation’s future as much as the leaders. They can think strategically if given the time, information and opportunity. I have rarely seen a person not engage actively with a scenario thinking process - even if they at first thought it was hogwash.

  • Good strategy starts with the people who have to implement it. A strategy that only the leaders own is bound to fail.

  • Feeling a strategy is a more important indicator of the success of a strategic plan than the words in the plan. People have to integrate the future in the plan into their image of the future - words don’t do that.

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Working with People

  • Some people have open minds about the future, some people don’t. Some people with closed minds can open them to the future, other’s can’t. The person you talk with about working in an organisation must be from the first group or its not worth your time.

  • Walk-in, walk-out engagements (keynote speaking, facilitating a single workshop) have little long term value for me and it’s not where I can have a meaningful impact. For others, they make perfect sense and help them build lucrative careers.

  • People need to experience a foresight process to understand its power. Conversations about the future matter, but they must be conversations with a purpose and part of a broader process that anticipates the future.

  • Designing foresight processes collaboratively is critical but hard work, particularly in hierarchical organisations where process and position usually reign supreme. On the positive side, staying open minded in that design process usually results in improvements to my thinking and process design.

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Writing about Foresight

  • There’s a lot of writing about foresight, and it’s not all good. Most of the ‘not good’ is superficial and doesn’t seek to challenge peoples comfort zone assumptions, a prerequisite to becoming futures ready.

  • There’s a lot of good work about foresight, what it is and why it is valuable for organisations contemplating their strategy. There are blogs and books (mine included) that provide frameworks and methods to use foresight approaches in practice or case studies (which I continue to think have limited value).

  • Good writing about foresight is essential but is it enough? Reading is the first step, building our foresight capacities and doing/using foresight approaches has to follow.

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So What’s Next?

I’m not sure. I am focusing on my PhD at the moment (that triggers flow although it’s mind boggling challenging), and I’ll keep an open mind until that is completed. After 20 years, I also know a couple of things about where my comfort zone is and that is part of the equation:

  • I think better when I write. I know I explain foresight and its value better when I write than in person. And I love writing - it is the space where flow also becomes reality for me.

  • I also increasingly believe that I am better at writing about foresight than doing it - I know that sounds weird, but doing foresight invariably involves workshops of one type or another, and after heaven knows how many workshops I’ve done in the last 20 years, I know that it’s not my most effective place. Other people do workshops SO much better than I can ever hope to.

I have challenged myself to move out of my comfort zones quite a few times in the past, and with the power of client feedback, honest reflections about outcomes, and how I feel about my experiences, I have a pretty good idea about how to refresh what I do to find that elusive place in the global foresight conversation. I will of course trust emergence (another thank you to Joseph Voros).

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Have I really not written a blog post since January this year?

Have I really not written a blog post since January this year?

I started writing this post in early November but didn't finish it until the end of December. It seems this has not been the year of blog writing for me.

It appears I haven't written anything since January. Is that sad? Or is it okay?

Should I feel guilty? Or should I recognise I've been preoccupied with life, family, PhD and just generally trying to make my life as good as I can make it?

Right now, I should be writing my PhD. But my brain won't let me. That's an excuse, I am sure, but my brain is quite happy not writing my PhD at the moment. I'm doing a lot of reading, some useful, some just for distraction. I've written some blog posts this year about my PhD here probably as another act of procrastination.

But I haven't been idle. My PhD is progressing. I'm developing a 'conversations about the future' framework to centre my work on people not process. This is based on my integration of integral and foresight which has also structured the design of this website. It all remains a work in progress and that's okay.

What shall I write about now though? Am I just being self-indulgent writing this blog, thinking it will be useful, tracking social media hits, and ticking off another blog post. Does it really matter?

I'm not being existential here, but I am thinking about this privileged space I'm in as a futures practitioner. I spent a week at the Anticipation Conference in London in November. It was great. I presented with Cindy Frewen and Bridgette Engeler on Human Centred Futures. I met lots of interesting new people, heard some really energising presentations which doesn't happen that much at conferences these days and had a day to be a tourist. But it is - in reality - a closed world.

Someone at the conference talked about how some people have lives where uncertainty is the norm, where a place to stay, food on the table, physical and mental safety and just living are never certain, and how certainty is not likely to enter their worlds anytime soon. We all have to face uncertainty at some point but at least I can make a decision about how to respond to it. Many people can't.  This is the note I took:

Who gets to be uncertain and who gets to be certain with an open future emerging, or who gets a clear path and whose future is always uncertain - where there is no option. How does uncertainty become privileged? How does lack of agency become reality? 

Often when I'm doing futures work in a room full of people who are 'busy' and who lately have been facing organisational restructures and job loss, I wonder about the value of what we are doing. Their lives are caught up in the present, with dealing with what's happening right now. And honestly, thinking about the future in the way I want them to isn't on their horizon. Where is their time, and their opportunity to take time and create space for thinking about the future? Yet, this is what I tell everyone to do.

Make it a priority I say. You only need 15 minutes a day to start with. You can do it. Can they really though? I do it but the future is my job. It's not their job. And the agency thing again. I can act on the future, use it today, because of my training and experience as a foresight practitioner. My work is essentially about building foresight agency in others. But who controls or shapes the context in which how and why foresight agency emerges? Not me, it's an individual capacity. All these thoughts have emerged since the Anticipation Conference, and they are all still ill-formed thoughts. No structure yet, so I will let them sit for a while and see what emerges.

The same goes for the blog. I'll let it sit for a while because I think I need to find a new focus for it, more than the random thoughts that are triggered by reading something or having a conversation. I'll be back in 2018, aiming to have a more well formed idea about how I can continue to help people articulate the nature of their foresight capacity and how they can use it. We all need to move to a position where we integrate the future into our present - and not by forcing ourselves to spend 15 minutes a day doing some strategic thinking. That's not the answer, but I don't quite know what is yet.

An Interview On Being a Foresighter

An Interview On Being a Foresighter

A few years ago now, I gave an interview to people who were developing career resources for people who wanted to be foresighters. I found a copy of my email the other day and thought it would be useful to reproduce on my blog, so here it is (with some editing to keep it current).

What kind of person does it take to succeed in running your own consulting company?

Someone who has a clearly defined vision and purpose for running the business in the first place - without that, you wander all over the place in terms of work, taking what comes. 

Making Predictions Better - If That's Possible

Making Predictions Better - If That's Possible

I think predictions can be of value when they use a short term timeframe - such as elections which this article uses as example. And the concept of Transfer Learning is a good one because it reminds us to move beyond our ingrained, habitutated thinking modes and seek information and data in new places. The aim is to expand our understanding of the issue rather than closing down out thinking to what we know already. Looking for both confirming and disconfirming evidence is how we strengthen our thinking about the future, whether that is by trying to predict the future (not recommended) or anticipating the future by learning to think in multiples and possibilities.

Surfacing the intangible: integrating the doing and thinking of strategy

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Surfacing the intangible: integrating the doing and thinking of strategy

If you are reading this post then I hope you are reading because you realise that this sort of approach to problem solving and to preparing for the future is both ineffective and waste of energy and resources. Doing strategy has taken over how we think about the future, keeping that thinking trapped in today. This I call conventional strategic planning.

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