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.
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.
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 possible 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. Strategy without people at its core has no future.
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.
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, others 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.
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. Taking action without surfacing and building our foresight capacities won’t change much.
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).