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Strategic Foresight, Ideology and Assumptions: Part 2

Strategic Foresight, Ideology and Assumptions: Part 2

We need to have this conversation because we need clarity around the work of professional futurists, what we do and how we do it. We need to accept that prediction for long term purposes is passe, unhelpful and a waste of time. We need to work together to create a foundation that welcome all thinkers, that seeks to integrate methods and approaches to provide a more inclusive toolbox to choose from ...

Strategic Foresight, Ideology and Assumptions: Part 1

Strategic Foresight, Ideology and Assumptions: Part 1

The most important characteristic of professional futurists is that they have an open, curious mind and seek to integrate not reject different ways of thinking about the future. Challenging deeply held and unquestioned assumptions and ideologies is part of the field if you seek to integrate rather than dismiss - and that includes our own.

Predictions of Change vs Implications of Change

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Predictions of Change vs Implications of Change

The end of the year is list season but for some reason this year I am seeing too many inane lists called 'predictions for 2015'. Inane because a prediction is a narrow guess about future unknowns usually requiring a crystal ball - and what is probably going to happen in 2015 is not unknown. It's too close to even need 'predictions'.

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Prediction, Early Warning, Certainty and the Future

I'm not a fan of the word prediction combined with the word future for a whole lot of reasons that I've written about before. And today, I read this article: THIS COMPANY CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE. Of course, this cute headline is misleading and shows just how lax the editor is with his/her choice of terminology - but it does look good.

Read on and you discover it's nothing to do with prediction and crystal balls. This company is really about early warning signals - identifying a pattern of web activity: "a growing analytics startup that hunts for timely topics before they trend on the web...and sniffs out budding conversations across the social media world up to three days before they hit the mainstream."

This tool isn't about the future which is suggested by the headline, it's about forecasting the trajectory of a conversation on a particular topic. It's very clever, but it's not about predicting the future of anything. What is does is provide an early warning signal for companies of something that might happen that they need to pay attention to.

Thinking a little more broadly, what is it about prediction and the need to be certain that keeps editors returning to that term in their headlines? Probably the same reasons some people who call themselves futurists like to 'predict' - they are appealing to this human need for certainty since that is what brings them profile and income in the short term.

But what happens when they are wrong? As an individual, they can do a mea culpa and make all sorts of rational sounding excuses for not getting it right. But for the group of people calling themselves futurists who aren't in the game for the short term gain? Who really care about working with people to shape the future in positive and sustainable ways? The term with which they describe their work is devalued, over and over and over again, to the point where it has no social currency.

Really smart people have been saying really stupid things for centuries. But of course, we only know their statements are stupid in hindsight. They say what they say with such certainty that we want to believe it - and what they say appeals to that need for certainty again. When they are proved wrong as the future arrives, we laugh about it (think about Bill Gates being attributed with saying that 64MB of RAM should be enough for anyone) and move on, wondering how could anyone have said that - well, they said it based on today's knowledge and disregarded early warning signals that would have disproved their statements.

Identifying early warning signals is a very useful activity for people in organisations. It is an activity based on making sense of something that is initially uncertain and a bit fluffy but which either builds or wanes in intensity over time. For the company in the article, that time period is 3 days. For organisations, the timeline is probably a bit longer.

All companies can identify early warning signals if they spend time thinking about the future (AKA strategic thinking) - looking for signs that a change that is being seen on the edges of society, on the edges of an organisation's operations might be disruptive in the future and send them out of business in 10 or 20 years time.

That is, the change might intensify in strength to the extent where it can make today's business models meaningless, or it might decrease in strength indicating that it's probably a fad. Once a strong signal has been identified, go/no go indicators can be developed and used in strategic decision making. This is where the real value is for organisations concerned about their future, not predictions. Maybe that means employing a company like the one described in this article, or maybe it's about building an organisational foresight capacity so that uncertainty is embraced, not predicted away.

As a species, as organisations and as individuals, it's time to move our mindsets from rejecting uncertainty to using it as the driver for our decision making. Spending our time on identifying what is uncertain and how we might respond to it today will produce much more strategic value than looking for certainty in predictions that are, at their core, fun to do but a complete waste of time.

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Being a professional foresight practitioner

crystal ball glowingMy blog posts often  emerge out of a convergence of events over a few days. This time it was getting annoyed - again - with our fascination with prediction, being asked the same day to speak to a newspaper journalist about why predictions don't come true (gladly I said!), and then today attending my last Board meeting of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), where we talked about principles of good practice for professional futurists. The operative word here is 'professional'. First the prediction issue. I do believe that we should ban the word prediction - I've written about it here and here. When I see this year's round of predictions for 2013, I wonder again about how we can go about reframing our brains so that we can see beyond the status quo and stop wasting time and energy on pointless predictions.

Predictions assume that you can extrapolate from today into the future with certainty - that  assumption is flawed because trends are based on data about the past and present, not the future. There are no future facts and there is no guarantee any trend trajectory today will continue unchanged. We are apparently hardwired to like certainty (and comfort zones) but when it comes to the future though, there isn't much of either, and to cope with that, we respond by trying to explain them away with predictions.

My other issue with predictions is that they are usually an extrapolation of a single trend - for example, 3D printing will continue to grow in viability. It probably will (based on my scanning and assumptions), but what trends are influencing and shaping the development of 3D printing? What other trends and changes out there might derail its progress? What would happen then, and how would you respond? That sort of thinking approach creates a very different view of the future than one where the trajectory of a single trend is assumed to be linear and unassailable. Instead of trend lists then, we should be identifying our watch lists for the next year and think about how the trends connect, collide and redrail each other - then we might be paying attention to what really matters for our futures, without the pressure to get the future right.

Second, the APF meeting. The draft document we looked at around principles of good practice was based on strong intellectural thinking and rigour. It wasn't all that easy to read, but it was an excellent piece, and highlighted all the major issues the APF faces in trying to contextualise and define what being a professional futurist or foresight practitioner really means. A couple of comments were around making it easier to read, and while on the one hand, I do understand this, on the other hand, if we are going to be professional futurists, we need to understand the intellectual and theoretical basis of our work - and no one ever said that would be easy. Nor should it be. Furutists work with change that is complex, and understanding complexity requires new ways of thinking not predictions.

Troubled with QuestionsThe processes a professional futurist uses have nothing to do with prediction and everything to do with moving people to new thinking spaces where they can deal with depth of change confronting their organisations and explore what's possible. This thinking shift is often difficult and time consuming, but without it, you'll have an interesting and fun futures workshop, and people will go back to work and do what they have always done, continuing to assume that the future will be more of today.

Without a professional futurist in the room, you risk status quo thinking, prediction of single rather than system trends that have very little value, and superficial scenario work. In other words, more of today and a surprised look on your face when the future arrives.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][Postscript: the newspaper article I referred to in the first paragraph has been published here - it has my comments plus the counter views of Ian Yeoman, a futurist now based in New Zealand (@tomorrowstouris on Twitter).][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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