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?
You 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.