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future paradox


The Paradox of the Future 2

The last post The Paradox of the Future 1 outlined the nature of paradoxes and the need to craft futures ready strategy to address the tensions that arise from them. This post provides a framework that allows paradoxes to be explored and reconciled for now. A reminder of the definition of a paradox I'm using:

A paradox is “a situation in which two seemingly contradictory, or even mutually exclusive, factors appear to be true at the same time…A problem that is a paradox has no real solution, as there is no way to logically integrate the two opposites into an internally consistent understanding of the problem” (De Wit and Myers 2010, p. 17).

Dealing with paradoxes requires generative thinking that supports rethinking of current approaches to take advantage of emerging opportunities or develop responses to challenges. It's about thinking in new ways about the future and the impact of what's changing. How do we develop the capacity for generative thinking and strategic foresight?u

 Five Levels

I've adapted Richard Slaughter's five levels for the development of social foresight for the organisational setting. Richard writes about social foresight in this way:

"All normal human beings have the innate ability to think (and act) forward. Without this capacity people would be unable to function in daily life. Some organisations use limited forms of foresight as part of strategy and planning. But societies as a whole tend to be powerfully guided by past perceptions of problems and, overall, lack any developed foresight capacity. Hence we have a contradictory situation:

  • humans have and use foresight
  • some organisations use limited forms of foresight
  • society as a whole largely lacks this capacity, therefore
  • it travels blindly into what appears to be an 'unknown' future."

His framework for the development of social foresight has five levels:

  • Level 1: Human capacities and perceptions - foresight is an innate human capacity but it is used in unreflective ways in daily life
  • Level 2: Recognising their foresight capacity enables foresight approaches to be applied - foresight concepts and ideas become influential in the organisation
  • Level 3: Using foresight tools and methodologies increases analytical power - organisations provide training and resources to use foresight approaches in strategy development
  • Level 4: Foresight  approaches are routinely used in the organisation
  • Level 5: Social Foresight  where long term thinking is the norm - for organisations, this level is where consideration of the future underpins decision making

I have adapted and renamed these five levels by combining levels 2 and 3 as shown in this diagram:

St Foresight

Individual Foresight Capacity

It all starts with the individual and their values and beliefs about the future and how things are done today. You can only craft futures ready strategy if each person transforms the way they think about the future. can't transform another individual's ways of thinking. This is why change management programs fail - the change management program is put in place with new structures and roles, but the way the organisation works doesn't change because the beliefs, values and mindsets of individuals have not been tapped.

If people don't recognise the value of the future today and if the organisation doesn't value the future in its decision making, it will be difficult to implement the remaining stages with any integrity. Recognising and surfacing and using individual foresight capacity is the pre-requisite, but this doesn't happen overnight. It comes from being given the opportunity to learn about foresight, what approaches can be used, what it means for organisations and why we should care about it.

Individuals in Action

Individuals in action in organisations integrate the foresight conversations and learning and using foresight tools and methodologies - these need to happen at the same time. Providing spaces for conversations about how to use the future without knowing about foresight approaches will generate little more than interesting conversations. Knowing about and being trained to use foresight tools as well as having the opportunity to talk about the future and how it can be used in the organisation allows the next step to be taken. The Generic Foresight Process is my preferred way of facilitating this step.

Critical Mass of Foresight Aware Staff

This is the step where there is a critical mass of foresight aware staff who "get foresight" and are given permission to integrate foresight into existing strategy approaches. This is the design phase, where foresight is contextualised for the particular organisation to ensure that its use makes sense and generates useful and relevant outcomes. This is the stage where the use of foresight approaches become routine in strategy development.

Strategic Foresight Capacity

Once strategic foresight approaches have been integrated in strategy development, once those ways of thinking long term can't be deleted from the strategy process when a new CEO arrives, when people accept that using strategic foresight is "just the way we do things around here" is when there is an organisational strategic foresight capacity. It's at this stage that futures ready strategy is being developed.

Using Strategic Foresight

Abstract: Busines strategy for the futureNone of this can be learned from a book in any meaningful way. Of course the principles, the range of tools and approaches can be read and understood but application is another matter. There's no one size fits all. Context matters when it comes to using strategic foresight.

Selecting methods to use is critical to ensure the process matches your organisation's foresight maturity. How those methods are executed matters if you want useful and meaningful outcomes rather than comments like 'well that was interesting, now back to the work waiting on my desk'. Poorly executed foresight methods and superficial outcomes are two of the  major reasons foresight exercises fail.

Customisation of the five steps involved in using strategic foresight makes it possible to deal with the paradox of the future in ways that make sense for your organisation right now. A continuing commitment of time, resources and energy is required to do this well. Given the space we find ourselves in where our organisational hierarchies and processes are becoming too slow for a world that is moving awfully quickly, do we have any choice?



The Paradox of the Future 1

The idea of the future as a paradox has emerged for me from the work of Bob De Wit and Ron Myers in their book Strategy Synthesis: Resolving Strategic Paradoxes to Create Competitive Advantage* where they explore the notion of strategic problems as paradoxes:

A paradox is "a situation in which two seemingly contradictory, or even mutually exclusive, factors appear to be true at the same time...A problem that is a paradox has no real solution, as there is no way to logically integrate the two opposites into an internally consistent understanding of the problem" (De Wit and Myers 2010, p. 17).

Problems in this sense are challenges not previously encountered that require re-thinking of current approaches to take advantage of opportunities or develop responses to challenges.  The paradox of the future has not previously been encountered because it hasn't happened yet and new ways of thinking will be needed to deal with it.

For organisational strategy, the problem to be rethought is how to develop strategy that is futures ready - strategy that is designed with the future at its core and that is flexible enough to allow an organisation to respond to whatever challenges and opportunities the future brings.  Some tensions arise when thinking about how strategy can be developed when the future is uncertain, unknowable and does not yet exist. Conventional approaches to strategy tend to explain these tensions away:

Tension Conventional Response
The future does not exist but we need to plan for it Because the future is not real, there is no point planning for it
There are no future facts, so all we have to think about the future are our imaginations If there is no data or facts about the future, we can't make rational strategic decisions
The urgency of the short term swamps the importance of the long term Change is happening so fast that it's impossible to plan for the future


These conventional responses are based on what we know about the past and the present and generally do not challenge often deeply held assumptions how the future will evolve. The idea that the world will be different in the future is always accepted on a rational level but somehow the connection between that acceptance and the need to develop futures ready strategy is not made at the deep cognitive level. The result is conventional strategic plans produced at the end of what can often be a sophisticated and expensive process often fail when they meet the future, when those unquestioned assumptions are proven to be no longer relevant and reasonable

Futures ready strategy recognises the paradox of the future. Rather than focusing on the short term and not the future in any meaningful way, futures ready strategy looks for ways to reconcile the two in ways that make sense for the context in which the organisation is operating at the time. Paradoxes are never fully resolved so strategic approaches and responses will need to be shifted and adjusted as the future emerges. What works today may not work in two years or five years. This is why conventional strategic planning, with its rational frameworks and underpinning premise of the value of logical reasoning produces those plans that fail when they meet the future.

the unexpectedLogical reasoning has its place. There is nothing wrong with logical reasoning when dealing with the future if we recognise that it usually depends on much information being available about the problem being addressed and there's no future facts. It's useful if we realise that our brains are habitual, pattern recognition machines that will look for the familiar rather than the unexpected unless we think in different ways. We think we are making rational decisions but we are pattern matching. It's only useful if we recognise that our brains are clouded with many cognitive biases that can lead us to unwittingly maintain the status quo in our strategy.

The development of futures ready strategy is underpinned by the premise of the value of what De Wit and Myers term generative thinking, that produces "more unorthodox insights, imaginative ideas and innovative solutions, instead of having a bland, conformist and conservative output" (De Wit and Meyers 2010, p. 39). Generative thinking is the type of thinking at the core of strategic foresight - it provides a way to reframe the present to understand the possibilities of the future.

Unlike conventional planning approaches that are typically structured around a cycle, strategic foresight approaches are continuous. They enable monitoring of change on an ongoing basis and integrate conversation and thinking spaces into strategy development where that change can be assessed for importance and impact. Shifts in strategic direction can be agreed quickly. This only works however, if the organisation has an organisational foresight framework and processes - a system that scans for change that matters ever day and shares what's being found, a culture that values the future, and individuals who recognise that the need to think differently about the future is not optional anymore.

In my work with clients, the paradox of the future is recognised - it's why they get in touch with me. They may have done a scan for their last strategic plan, or as one senior manager at a major university said "We did scenarios, I read a book and just followed the steps". Ultimately, these once off and amateur approaches are new for participants and trigger some interesting conversations, but nothing changes - this is what I call paying lip service to the future. The tick the box approach. My clients have recognised that this approach is not useful, that there's something missing from their strategic processes.

Zeit anhalten

The biggest issue in dealing with the paradox of the future is finding the time and resources to put thinking about the future at the core of strategy and to make it the default thinking mode at the organisation. Balancing short term urgency with long term importance is often overwhelming and the urgency of the short term will usually win unless this happens. As the chair of a university planning committee said to me "we are too busy dealing with today to spend the time to think about the future". That's the same as saying "we're happy to let someone else's future happen to us and we'll accept whatever they do to us".

Futures focused organisational cultures underpin the ability to craft futures ready strategy. Individuals need to have permission to think differently about their work, their roles and the future of their organisation, the short term will always win. They need to be able to challenge today's ways of doing things and participate in the development or strategy or nothing will change. If they can't see themselves in the future that emerges, the likelihood is that they won't see any reason to change. Strategic foresight needs to become 'the way we do things around here'. New planning approaches are needed.

How to move beyond the short term and become futures ready? The next blog post will have a framework for you.

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*Bob de Wit and Ron Meyer, Strategy Synthesis: Resolving Strategy Paradoxes to Create Competitive Advantage, Andover: Cengage Learning, 2010.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]