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]