My last blog post was about this graphic I am playing around with to show what foresight 'is'. I work with people in organisations, so what I write here is with that in mind. It occurred to me, in one of those 'duh' moments, that I'm missing something right at the start - our brains. The reason I get 'glazed eye' syndrome when I talk to some people about foresight is that their brains aren't foresight-ready.
I fell into the trap of viewing foresight as a thing that you can capture in a drawing. While you can certainly capture a process that uses foresight, you can't capture foresight. It's something that goes on inside our brains and that has a lot to do with how we think about the future. I increasingly believe that buried deep in our brains is a foresight switch. Unless it's turned on, eyes will glaze over when I talk about foresight.
The need to add to my graphic occurred to me today as I read an article by a colleague, Riel Miller of Xperidox Futures Consulting who wrote about the nature of much work in the futures field today which attempts to understand the complexity of the future with a particular focus on meeting the practical needs of organisations today:
"...overall this work shows a marked epistemic bias - focusing mostly on how to acquire knowledge of "the future" (the epistemological challenge) while leaving to one side the problem of "what is the future" (the ontological challenge). "
A principle question of ontology is around 'what can be said to exist?' and when you apply that to the future, you can see the problem. The future doesn't yet exist, but in our work today, we assume all sorts of things about how the future is going to evolve. And we seek certainty through predictions, when there is no certainty.
That was when I realised my graphic was missing a brain - because that is where our assumptions live. That reminded me, in another 'duh' moment, of the need to take an integral view of how we begin to understand 'what is the future?"
Integral futures isn't a method in my mind as much as it is a way of thinking about the future. Integral futures reminds me that when doing futures work with people in an organisation, I am helping them make sense of the context that is their present so they can build strategy for their future - this is helping them 'know the future'.
But I also have to help them understand that their individual worldviews and organisational cultures shape that future in ways they may not even be aware of. This is work to open minds to the complexity that is the future, not to help them find the right answer, but to allow them to think about the question 'what is the future' - in their context.
Starting with the Lower Right, the realm of the social and the collective, we find the world of trends and change. We can identify and measure the trends, and many people make a lot of money out of telling you what trends you need to pay attention to. At the core of mainstream futures work is exploring the implications of change for your organisation that emerges from the interaction of these trends. At its most basic, this is seeking 'knowledge of the future', and the approach critiqued in Riel Miller's paper.
That work takes place in organisations in the Upper Right where people come together to identify what the nature of the change they are facing, and to work out strategic responses to deal with that change. They bring to this process their assumptions about the future which, consciously or unconsciously, shape how they view change, and how they respond to it. And this process and how it plays out is influenced by assumptions underpinning the organisation's culture (the Lower Left Quadrant).
Group think emerges in this Upper Right space if those assumptions aren't challenged. A lot of scenario work is supposed to challenge these assumptions, but this sort of challenging focuses predominantly on assumptions underpinning the business, and how the business will need to adapt. Few practitioners venture into the Upper Left Quadrant to challenge the individual to think differently about the future, and to then apply that different thinking to the business.
If you don't change the way you think about the future, you might think you are changing the way you think about the business to respond to change, but you aren't. Your unquestioned assumptions usually generate a business as usual future, because they constrain what you think is feasible for the business in 3, 5, 10, 20 years time. Think about all those books written about failed strategy and execution - business as usual strategy will fail when it collides with the future. How many of those books suggested a step that says 'spend time to help your staff get inside their brains to change the way they think about the future?'
The Upper Left Quadrant is where the foresight switch is - somewhere deep in our brains, our consciousness. No one else can flick that switch, and even more interestingly, the switch often gets turned on without you noticing. Then one day, you realise you think differently, your perspective on the world has changed, and how you view the future has changed. This is the realm that mainstream futures work rarely ventures into - because it's truly difficult, and because you and I don't like having our innermost assumptions about the future challenged. These are our assumptions about 'what is the future' and the part that we as individuals are going to play in that future. These assumptions help us make sense of future complexity, but only as individuals.
We need to understand that complexity as a whole - as an organisation, as a country, and as a planet - and that involves letting go of the assumptions that make us feel comfortable. I often say in workshops that if your brain hurts, you are on the right track. Because your brain will hurt when you are letting go of your assumptions about what is right and true because you are letting go of certainty and that means you know know the answers.
So, understanding foresight really starts with our brains - identifying the assumptions that we have about the future and challenging them to test their validity. Asking 'why do I think that?" when that little voice from your amgydala says "that's rubbish". Because when that happens, you have hit an assumption wall - your way of viewing the future is being challenged, and rather than defend your assumptions, you need to open them up to investigation.
For me, I realised my foresight switch had been turned on at the end of the first year of the Masters in Strategic Foresight course I was doing at Swinburne University. I understood one day that the concept of 'responsibility for future generations' wasn't just a phrase - it actually meant that I was responsible for future generations, and that every action I take today sends something downstream into the future. That was the turning point for me and eventually led me to leave my great career as a university manager to start Thinking Futures. And as someone said to me recently, once that foresight switch has been turned on, you can't turn it off - but I wouldn't want it any other way!
Riel Miller (2008). Being without existing: the futures community at a turning point? A comment on Jay Ogilvy's "Facing the fold", Foresight, 13 (4): 24-34.
If you are interested in scenario planning and haven't read Jay Ogilvy's book, read it soon - here's my review of it (A foresight saga (2011). Australian Universities Review, 53(2): 122-124).