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environmental scanning

Futures Ready Strategy Development

Futures Ready Strategy Development

For some time now I've been using this graphic to talk about the steps involved in futures ready strategy development. I decided to turn it into a circle to make the circular and interdependent nature of the process a bit clearer but never got around to doing it. And I realised a little while ago that there was something missing from the process - an evaluation or check in stage, where you can stop and review how you are going, is everything still relevant?

Scanning Process Graphic

Scanning Process Graphic

Here's a graphic that summarises the basic steps in the process of environmental scanning. Different people and organisations and groups will have their own version of this but ultimately when you scan you need to know four things.

Download my free scanning guide here to find out more about scanning and how to do it in practice.

How I scan

How I scan

The last few months I've been focusing on getting my first ebook published: Foresight: a How-To Guide for Using Foresight in Practice. Which meant I didn't have much time for keeping up with my daily scanning and sharing. I kept posting but it was a bit random. I am back to my usual schedule so you should see me more often on social media.

So it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I scan and where I store my scanning and how you can access it.

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Understanding Foresight

Talking to people about foresight is a double-edged sword. Usually, people recognise the word but not the sense in which I am using it. When I explain it, some 'get it', while others maintain what I call the 'glazed eye syndrome'. It's an important term to understand because without foresight, we have no chance to shape our futures, our organisations' futures, and the planet's futures. The status-quo we have today is not going to be sustainable into the future, and foresight is increasingly the basis of developing strategy that is both long term in context and actionable today.

Helping people understand what foresight is and how to use it in their day-to-day strategic work is at the core of my what I do. Some people have told me to avoid using the term, and go into stealth mode, because most organisations today won't respond to the term. This might be so, but that doesn't mean we need to play by today's rules, particularly because those rules need to change, urgently.

I've been playing around with a visual to simplify the concept of foresight - this is what I've come up with so far. Three major realms of activity (at the top) and three major sets of capacities (at the bottom). While the diagram makes the process look linear, in reality, it's an iterative process, moving backwards and forwards as understanding deepens and a longer term view emerges.

Foresight is a thinking capacity. It starts by thinking about what is happening today, looking for trends, drivers of change, wildcards and seeking patterns of change that are relevant to your organisation. You are attempting to answer the questions - what is changing and why does it matter?

scanningYou scan in this stage. Not everything you find will be relevant, and some things will be more relevant and meaningful than others. Some will be weak signals, others will be strong trends. Don't dismiss anything until you are sure that it won't be influencing your organisation's future in some way in the future.

This is divergent thinking. That means dropping the constraints that normally guide your thinking when you are at work, when you are developing strategy, or when you are trying to decide how to respond to a wicked problem. You look for change in all the places you can find it, the places you know and the places that just seem a little weird. If you feel uncomfortable when you are scanning, then you are in the right space.

A lot of organisations scan today, but they usually focus on industry information - their unchallenged mental filters focus on the short term and the familiar, the things that will affect their work this year and next year. You need this type of scanning, but the focus must be on what is driving the industry trends, what is shaping them into the future.

Then you take your change information and feed it into what Joseph Voros calls a 'prospection' process - thinking about possible futures, including those that seem preposterous today. This is expansive thinking. You challenge your assumptions about what you think will happen, and question whether the way you see the future evolving is valid. You do this in the context of the information you have found, and ideally, you do it with your colleagues. This phase is all about conversation and deepening your understanding of the forces shaping your organisation today and its future.

Finally, you let those constraints back it. You identify your preferred future - the one you want to happen. You start to develop ways to respond to the change today that are meaningful for your organisation to be able to move towards that future. You write that strategic plan. That plan will be all the stronger for the time and energy you have put into really understanding the potential boundaries of your future operating environment, and thinking about different ways to respond to change.

You are not looking for a right answer. You are looking for the best possible options you can identify to influence and respond to the changes your are finding, given the picture of the preferred future for your organisation that you have built. If you start at the last step - writing your strategic plan - then you have no one to blame when you are exposed to a shift in the external environment that you didn't see coming. Strategic surprise is a symptom of lack of foresight.

And...you don't stop watching for change. This is probably the biggest mistake made today in strategy development. You look for change at one point in time, and then think you understand. Maybe that was the case 40 years ago hen the world was more stable, but not today when the complexity and chaos of the world today challenges even the best minds. You need to keep scanning, keep seeking and keep questioning.

None of this is done on your own. Apart from understanding - very clearly - your own worldview and cognitive biases, you cannot 'do foresight' in a strategic context on your own. This is why the era of the leader at the top who makes all the decisions is past. We are moving into an era of collaboration and strategy development is not immune. New ideas emerge from one brain, but they take their form and impetus when they collide with the ideas of others during conversation and collaborative thinking about the future.

Finally, if one day you find yourself thinking that the way you think and what you see in the world is just different, but you can't quite explain how, you have found your foresight capacity.  You have moved to a different level of consciousness, a different way of understanding the world and its complexities and interdependencies. You are now in a better position to use your understanding of the future today to inform  strategy in ways that will contribute to a sustainable future for your organisation.

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Doing Environmental Scanning Part 6: Reporting Your Scanning Findings

This is the final in a series about doing environmental scanning. In the previous five posts, we've discussed focusing your scanning, setting up your scanning team, how to start scanning, recording what you are finding and analysing your scanning output. This sixth post is about reporting your scanning findings within your organisation.

This is a critical stage in terms of ensuring your scanning findings are 'used' within your organisation's strategic processes. It's very easy to read a scanning report, say something like "that's interesting", put it down and go back to work. The aim with futures focused scanning reports is to trigger thinking about new ways to address strategic challenges, to move thinking about possibilities beyond the status-quo.

A scanning report is an opportunity to change the way people think in your organisation, so they need to be prepared with care, particularly in terms of tailoring the report for your audience(s).  There are different types of scanning reports:

  • a snapshot report of the external environment, covering the status of a selected number of trends at a given point in time,
  • a background paper for the strategic planning cycle,
  • regular trend reports on single trends that you are watching (including other trends influencing the trends on your watch list),
  • more detailed quarterly reports on implications of trends and drivers, and
  • Quick snippets about what you are finding, circulated at regular intervals across your organisation.

The type of report you prepare will depend not only on your audience, but also how embedded scanning is in your strategy processes. If you are just starting out, the aim will be to ensure your first reports as accepted as valuable additions to your organisation's strategy processes.

There are also many formats for reports, some more detailed than others. Explore options for presenting beyond paper as well - presentations, videos and other technological formats can be useful.  My advice, particularly for a first report, is to keep it simple and very clear. Focus on relevance for your strategy, credible sources and a range of strategic options that connect your scanning to today's challenges. Focus on the quality rather than quantity in your report.

In all cases, you should include trigger questions that help generate some strategic conversation about what these trends mean for your organisation. Trigger questions for specific trends can take the forms of answers to the following questions:

  • What impact might it have on your industry today and in the future?
  • What might be the implications for your organisation?
  • How could you respond?
  • How, and in what ways, could this information be relevant to my organisation?

The only way you will build an organisational conversation about your report is if you have worked out ahead of time where scanning 'fits' into your existing planning/strategy process. If you don't do this, people will see no value in the conversation and won't contribute - because the relationship between scanning and strategic decision making is not clear. They will find your scanning reports interesting, but not useful, and nothing will change.

If you have time and the capacity, test your report with a trusted group of people inside the organisation who can give you feedback - this will allow you to adjust the content and/or presentation to ensure it is received positively.

A Final Comment

Scanning is a continual process. For it to be of any value in strategy development, it needs to be done on an ongoing basis. It needs to be someone’s job.  Adapt the processes described in this guide to suit your organisation.

You are aiming to build your understanding of the external environment in ways that are broader and deeper and more meaningful to your organisation’s strategy development processes.

The aim of scanning and of futures work in general is to enable organisations to be ready to respond to the challenges of the external environment, and to adjust strategy accordingly. What you are trying to avoid is the ‘head in the sand’ syndrome where you believe that you don’t need to keep an eye on what might be coming because the future will be just like today.  Expect surprises with this approach, and expect to stay reactive!

You will find that your focus on what really matters sharpens over time. You will still be under the influence of the busyness syndrome on a daily basis, but you will have clearer signposts about where to focus your energies – both as an individual and as an organisation. Your biggest challenge is likely to be finding the time to scan and to think about what you are seeing – but you must make the time.  You will change the way you think, and you will be able to contribute to the development of a longer term view of your organisation’s future.

More information on scanning is available at http://thinkingfutures.net/resources/scanning-resources-2/.  And, if you have any questions, get in touch with me for a chat.

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