I wrote about slow strategy recently. Slow strategy is part of moving beyond conventional planning approaches. It occurred to me in 2005 that we needed to move beyond strategic planning through the use of foresight tools and methods - this after several years as director of university planning units developing and implementing conventional planning frameworks! I've written about this since here, here, here, here and here.
Today, I am convinced that not only is conventional strategic planning obsolete but in our quest to come up with alternatives that integrate foresight, we are at risk of over-complicating things.
There are a multitude of foresight tools and methods to use in an organisational foresight process - see the Foresight Diamond shown here (from Popper 2008). Have a look at this presentation by Michael Keenan (Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, 2007) to get an idea of the complexity involved in choosing the right combination of tools. He suggests using foresight principles or foresight stages to guide the selection of methods (I use stages).
I suspect though, that whatever approach is chosen, less in more when it comes to selecting those tools and methods. And we need to remember that we use foresight tools and methods as a means to an end.
My experience is that people who are in the middle of using foresight tools are in the room because they want to think in new ways because conventional strategic approaches aren't working any more. They recognise the paradox of the future. They are generally very smart people who for the most part, are ready to open their minds to the possible. But they have very little time away from the urgency of today and that's just the reality that all foresight practitioners work with at the moment. Developing a process that will achieve the desired outcomes with the most efficient use of participants' time is critical.
For me, that means a process that easy to 'get into' (that is, not overly complicated) and that is underpinned by good, deep and meaningful conversations. So while the choice of methods may involve navigating through complexity, the resulting process must appear to be simple and easy to 'get into' for participants. This doesn't mean the thinking will be easy or not deal with complexity - whether or not participants' brains hurt at the end of the day is a key success measure for me!
Keeping Foresight Infused Strategy Simple
Most foresight processes involve a pathway that involves seeing, thinking and doing. Different practitioners and theorists will call the steps in this pathway different things even though each step will have essentially the same focus. Here are a few examples.
|Peter Bishop and Andy Hines||Thinking about the future: guidelines for strategic foresight||Framing Scanning Forecasting Visioning Planning Acting|
|Avril Horton (1999)||A successful foresight process||Inputs (collection, collation and summarising) Foresight (translation and interpretation) Outputs and Action (assimilation and commitment)|
|Michael Keenan (2007)||Five mental acts (stages) for Foresight||Understanding Synthesising and models of the future Analysis and selection Transformation Action|
|Wendy Schultz (2006)||Key activities of integrated foresight||Identify and Monitor change Assess and Critique Impacts Imagine Alternative Outcomes Envision Preferred Futures Plan and Implement Change|
|Joseph Voros (2003)||Generic Foresight Process||Input Analysis Interpretation Prospection Strategy (decisions) Action|
At it most basic what we are asking people to do when we ask them to think in new ways about the future is to:
(i) see what's happening - find the change that matters to their organisation,
(ii) think deeply with a systems and future focus about the implications of that change and identify possible strategic responses or actions, and
(iii) then decide on what to do today. No matter what terms are used and how many discussions are held about the right terms to use, foresight is about developing a view of the future relevant to your organisation's context to inform decision making today.
The KSSS Approach
Ultimately we are looking for ways out of the stagnation of the strategic planning status quo to find pathways to the future that work for people in organisations in context. Using foresight tools and methods will help those pathways to emerge from the uncertainty and complexity that characterises the future. Here's what I suggest.
- To see the change that matters: use environmental (horizon) scanning with STEEP or VERGE or similar framework to analyse what you are finding.
- To think deeply with a systems and future focus about the implications of that change and identify possible strategic responses or possible actions: scenario learning (planning) to generate a range of alternative, plausible futures for your organisation. Scenario learning is a mainstream strategy tool now but that doesn't make it a good one - unless it has foresight tools at its core. Often the scenario development process is reduced to a process taken from a book that focuses on completing the process and writing cute stories to publish in a glossy report at the expense of spending time on deepening the thinking that goes into the scenario development. In scenario learning done well, possible responses emerge from analysis of the organisation's strategic issues across all scenarios and a backcasting process that connects the future with today. Which of these responses do we need to pay attention to today?
- To decide on what to do today: once decisions about action have been made, write a strategy document that details not a range of objectives, goals, actions and KPIs but a vision of your organisation's preferred future and the broad areas where your organisation needs to focus - right now. This is really a statement of strategic intent that is broad and long term in nature.
Our limited energy is best spent on ensuring there is sufficient time for meaningful strategic conversations among a wide range of people in an organisation to explore the complexity of the future and customise the tools to suit the organisation. I'm arguing here that thinking needs to be the focus of the choice of tools for a foresight infused strategy project not the tools themselves. Let's KSSS: Keep Strategy Simple Stupid.
Andy Hines and Peter Bishop (eds) (2007), Thinking about the future, guidelines for strategic foresight, Social Technologies.
Averil Horton, (1999),"A simple guide to successful foresight", foresight, Vol. 1 Iss 1 pp. 5 - 9.
Michael Keenan (2007) Combining Foresight Methods for Impact, NISTEP 3rd International Conference on Foresight, Tokyo. Accessed at http://www.nistep.go.jp/IC/ic071119/pdf/3-3_Keenan.pdf.
Wendy L. Schultz (2006) "The cultural contradictions of managing change: using horizon scanning in an evidence?based policy context", foresight, 8 (4), pp 3 - 12.
Joseph Voros, (2003) "A generic foresight process framework", foresight, Vol. 5 Iss: 3, pp.10 - 21.