Last year, I posted about the need to have thinking workshops - because thinking about the future and how to respond today, is work too. Rather, it should be considered as work, because right now, it's usually regarded as something we don't have time to do because we are too busy dealing with short term imperatives and deadlines. We spend a lot of money on strategic planning workshops that create plans based on what we know about the past and the present, rather than investing some of that money in a process to think first about what the shape of the future operating environment might be over the next 10-20 years, and what challenges and opportunities might emerge over time.  The process might look something like this.

  • Schedule a thinking workshop 1-2 months before your planning workshop. Invite a wide range of people - staff and stakeholders - to attend. You are looking for diversity of perspectives about the future here so you can test your assumptions about doing business in the future.
  • Send out a survey or open up an online discussion forum for staff and stakeholders to get their views on what they think will influence the shape of the future of your organisation over the next 10-20 years.  Provide some background reading about key issues today, and ask them to think about how those issues might evolve over time.  If you have been doing environmental scanning, you will be able to produce a report on trends and drivers that have been identified in that process.  Not everyone will take up the opportunity to participate; providing the opportunity is the critical step.
  • Analyse those discussions and identify key trends and drivers of change.  If you have time, do some environmental scanning around the trends and drivers to make an assessment of whether they are relevant for you to consider.
  • Provide a report on the trends and drivers to people who will be attending the thinking workshop.  You can include an initial assessment of likelihood and potential impact on the organisation in the report, and including some questions to trigger discussion is useful.  You are aiming here to stretch the thinking of people beyond today, to begin to be open to what is possible, rather than what is impossible.
  • At the thinking workshop, ask some simple questions: What is coming? When might it appear on our horizon? What is important and relevant for us? What might we do today? Encourage participants to question their assumptions underpinning their views, and to seek out alternative perspectives to inform their thinking.
  • Take the output from the thinking workshop to your planning workshop, where you can review your options around what you will do today, and document in the plan. The actions in your plan will be stronger because they are based in a systematic and information rich assessment of future possibilities, as well as an understanding of the present and past.

Finding the time for thinking workshops is critical, because no matter how smart we think we and our leaders are, and how much we think we know about what is going on out there in the external environment, there's always something we don't know we don't know.  If you want to be proactive in your strategy, you need first to think about what's coming over the long term and how how you might respond today. Without this step, you will continue to be surprised when something shifts in the external environment and you have to enter crisis management mode again.  Thinking about the future is work too.