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Understanding Foresight - A Missing Element?

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.

Let me recap integral futures, or at least the four quadrants, which are essentially the top level of an integral approach - or the bottom level, depending on how you view the world.

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!

Reference

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).

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Understanding Foresight

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?

scanningYou 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.

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Doing Environmental Scanning Part 6: Reporting Your Scanning Findings

This is the final in a series about doing environmental scanning. In the previous five posts, we've discussed focusing your scanning, setting up your scanning team, how to start scanning, recording what you are finding and analysing your scanning output. This sixth post is about reporting your scanning findings within your organisation.

This is a critical stage in terms of ensuring your scanning findings are 'used' within your organisation's strategic processes. It's very easy to read a scanning report, say something like "that's interesting", put it down and go back to work. The aim with futures focused scanning reports is to trigger thinking about new ways to address strategic challenges, to move thinking about possibilities beyond the status-quo.

A scanning report is an opportunity to change the way people think in your organisation, so they need to be prepared with care, particularly in terms of tailoring the report for your audience(s).  There are different types of scanning reports:

  • a snapshot report of the external environment, covering the status of a selected number of trends at a given point in time,
  • a background paper for the strategic planning cycle,
  • regular trend reports on single trends that you are watching (including other trends influencing the trends on your watch list),
  • more detailed quarterly reports on implications of trends and drivers, and
  • Quick snippets about what you are finding, circulated at regular intervals across your organisation.

The type of report you prepare will depend not only on your audience, but also how embedded scanning is in your strategy processes. If you are just starting out, the aim will be to ensure your first reports as accepted as valuable additions to your organisation's strategy processes.

There are also many formats for reports, some more detailed than others. Explore options for presenting beyond paper as well - presentations, videos and other technological formats can be useful.  My advice, particularly for a first report, is to keep it simple and very clear. Focus on relevance for your strategy, credible sources and a range of strategic options that connect your scanning to today's challenges. Focus on the quality rather than quantity in your report.

In all cases, you should include trigger questions that help generate some strategic conversation about what these trends mean for your organisation. Trigger questions for specific trends can take the forms of answers to the following questions:

  • What impact might it have on your industry today and in the future?
  • What might be the implications for your organisation?
  • How could you respond?
  • How, and in what ways, could this information be relevant to my organisation?

The only way you will build an organisational conversation about your report is if you have worked out ahead of time where scanning 'fits' into your existing planning/strategy process. If you don't do this, people will see no value in the conversation and won't contribute - because the relationship between scanning and strategic decision making is not clear. They will find your scanning reports interesting, but not useful, and nothing will change.

If you have time and the capacity, test your report with a trusted group of people inside the organisation who can give you feedback - this will allow you to adjust the content and/or presentation to ensure it is received positively.

A Final Comment

Scanning is a continual process. For it to be of any value in strategy development, it needs to be done on an ongoing basis. It needs to be someone’s job.  Adapt the processes described in this guide to suit your organisation.

You are aiming to build your understanding of the external environment in ways that are broader and deeper and more meaningful to your organisation’s strategy development processes.

The aim of scanning and of futures work in general is to enable organisations to be ready to respond to the challenges of the external environment, and to adjust strategy accordingly. What you are trying to avoid is the ‘head in the sand’ syndrome where you believe that you don’t need to keep an eye on what might be coming because the future will be just like today.  Expect surprises with this approach, and expect to stay reactive!

You will find that your focus on what really matters sharpens over time. You will still be under the influence of the busyness syndrome on a daily basis, but you will have clearer signposts about where to focus your energies – both as an individual and as an organisation. Your biggest challenge is likely to be finding the time to scan and to think about what you are seeing – but you must make the time.  You will change the way you think, and you will be able to contribute to the development of a longer term view of your organisation’s future.

More information on scanning is available at http://thinkingfutures.net/resources/scanning-resources-2/.  And, if you have any questions, get in touch with me for a chat.

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Follow up: What big questions do we need to ask about the future?

For the last twitter chat (#futrchat) held by the Association of Professional Futurists, I wrote a blog post on the topic: what big questions do we need to ask about the future? The twitter chat was great, so I thought it might be interesting to record all the big questions and big issues that were raised in the chat. Five questions were asked in the chat, with only the last one dealing with big questions themselves. The other questions all generated interesting points and comments, so I've included some of them here too. Big questions actually emerged throughout the chat, and I've tried to cluster them all under question 5 (the question about big questions).

I've not tried to see if there's any common themes or patterns, just cluster the answers to the questions so they are easier to follow than the transcript of the chat.

 

Question 1: Why ask big questions about the future? What's the point?

  • The question is not really the matter, the matter is the process, the exchange @chvdHaegen
  • All of the big questions filter down with implications for even the smallest questions @jbmahaffie
  • Futurists often want to save the world and humankind, thus big questions @jbmahaffie
  • The future we all work together to build for overselves @JDEbberly
  • Individual flourishing for all means collective flourishing, no? @ChvdHaegen
  • Big questions (and potential answers) provide a direction. No one asks a child what classes they want to take when they grow up @phi162
  • Not asking the big question is like walking through a forest, just trying to avoid the trees @fredmcclimans
  • It is the exchange and the other questions it spawns @SMSJOE

 

Question 2: What are the areas where big questions need to be asked urgently?

  • All sorts of version of 'what is the future of humankind?' since that's deep down what people are wondering @jbmahaffie
  • Communication - how will we talk and connect? with whom etc @urbanverse
  • Education for what - for participation in industrial era work or for living in the future @aussiefuturist
  • Asking how we should change/modify our behavior @CASUDI
  • Those areas that affect our basic needs: safety & security. That broad - could be economy, could be environment, could be... @dbevarly
  • One big area is developing safety into nanotechnology @JBEbberly
  • First principles, i.e. what is essential? Ensuring resources still available regardless of supply disruption @sLange_Windsor
  • Big questions needed in climate change, income equity, and the 'global' governance of complex systems (disruptive tech, etc) @justinpickard
  • Future areas of need: human rights (see current unrest), hunger, health, education & environment @CathyWebSavvyPR
  • How about the impact of religious fundamentalism of all types on society? I c mostly negatives, can there be pos outcomes? @jimmath
  • The environment: Water, deforestation, species extinction etc.
  • Also: how big, chaotic, complex & interdependent entities can fail safely with the minimum of damage @justinpickard
  • Big questions in future resilience...society, technology, climate, food
  • I agree with policy/resource issues offered up. Would add democracy and entrepreneurism. Anyone teaching/instilling? @TonyatCollins
  • Availability of gas is important to developing the future - until we fully implement alternative fuels @JDEbberly
  • What will the future economy consist of? People need jobs to buy, but automation makes products w/ less people. Conundrum @phi162
  • Post scarcity 'economics', synthetic biology, 3D printing. They're going to cause a 'bucketload' of disruption and realignment @justinpickard
  • Big questions in future resilience...society, technology, climate, food @fairsnape
  • Biggest big question is 'how do we ask big questions and derive succinct answers" @fredmcclimans

 

Question 3: How can we, or should we, ensure asking big questions is the primary driver of strategy development?

  • We have 2 b able 2 show gr7 results frm asking the big Qs to get ppl willing 2 keep asking them virtuous cycle @jimmath
  • Are big questions being asked at Board level? who is driving change, strategy? @fairsnape
  • I believe you can/should sometimes ask tiny little questions, then open thinking up to biggest q's. Future of kittens! @jbmahaffie
  • How to ensure bigQ is primary driver of strategy dev? Commoditize - build incentives into economies @urbanverse
  • Should it be? Canned future shock and seemingly unsurmountable challenges aren't the best way to get people on-side right? @justinpickard
  • Big q to strategy - its the most logical way. Big questions are like clouds - they hover in the background sometimes @urbanverse
  • Moving to big qs must stretch strategic thinking byond the next qtr or year @jbmahaffie
  • Do big questions always move us to long term thinking? @urbanverse
  • Big q's and long term thinking, maybe its the L-T thinking that moves us to big q's @urbanverse
  • asking big Q should move us out of today at very least which moves us in direction of long term@jbmahaffie
  • sometimes big Qs move us backward as much as forward @urbanverse

 

Question 4: What's the biggest challenge to asking big questions?

  • what constitutes a big question inside a company is quite different to a big question outside? @aussiefuturist
  • Institutional intertia & risk-avoidance, but also a sense that if the Q is 'too' big, you can't do anything useful w/it @justinpickard
  • Maybe...if you could make action plans from them, yes? RT@ChvdHaegen: big questions bring a cloud of answers, and action @urbanverse
  • ORGS maybe, GOVT never, small CO v possible and individuals = YES (cynical YES) @CASUDI
  • biggest obstacle 2 getting the big questions asked in orgs, govt, by ppl in general = ostrich syndrome. ppl don't always want As @jimmath
  • Big questions seem overwhelming. People like answers and those questions don't always have them @phi162
  • ppl are overwhelmed by bigq's and don't know how to move forward @davidmcgraw
  • so perhaps real question is what might make companies interested in the long term @JDEbberly
  • Challenges to big Ws being asked en masse - incentives for short-term projects that satisfy long-term reqs @sLange_Windsor
  • Future and big Q = uncertainty and answers = certainty: need to be more comfortable with uncertainty @mareeconway
  • how to get people to accept the inevitability of uncertainty? @aussiefuturist
  • Are the big Qs necessary, but not sufficient, to drive good foresight efforts @jbmahaffie
  • It seems like only a small %age of ppl care if things get better & r willing to act. is there enuf 4 critical mass? @jimmath
  • Biggest challenges to all is creating the "appropriate" forums that allow exchange of ideas/answers/curation @fredmcclimans
  • A big challenge to getting people, orgs thinking about the future is that most people have only vague grasp of the present @geofutures
  • Perhaps big question are waht we can rarely agree on? @phi162 and RT I think it is the answers to, ppl struggle with @urbanverse
  • Are small unanswered quetiosn obstacles to reach big questions @ChvdHaegen
  • Companies interested in long term when they have answers to big questions already @urbanverse

 

5. What's Your Big Question?

  • Another big question, when life expectancy 140. Personal implications and natural resources too @TonyatCollins
  • What's the utopia that we all can share? @chvdHaegen
  • So how do we deal with, change our behavior to combat or align ourselves w the WATSONs @loisgeller
  • How are we going to build relationships when the more devices we have, the more isolated we seem to be @loisgeller
  • Do you think that the 'gross happiness index' in Bhutan is a big question or a big answer in changing the future? @krash63
  • If we are going to ask big questions, we should start with the really gib ones like what brings meaning to life @kristinalford
  • On post-growth, Sadar asks r we in postnormal times? @drjaygary
  • We've adapted to the speed of fax, email, IM - so what do we need to adapt to next?
  • Where does the future come from? Who is in a position to choose & drive it, and with what goals @geofutures
  • Svante Arrhenius warned of the dangers of fossil fuels to earths climate in 1896. We are still debating the merits of his questions @davidmcgraw
  • Will we really see a technological singularity @JDEbberly
  • 50 yrs from 2day, will the world b better or worse than it is today? & by who's standards? @jimmath
  • How does one define quality of life? and how do we say what's better for future generations? @urbanverse
  • How 2 anticipate sysfails at level of individual, ie each person is their own 'survival kit'?
  • The big question today is, how to think about finding the right, ultimate question? @chvdHaegen
  • Taught a calss at the local university yesterday. Students asked where the job opportunities will be in the future @loisgeller
  • How can we be smart enough to anticipate change, and change our behavour (patterns) accordingly @CASUDI
  • How do we avoid irreconciliable divisions/clevages in humanity - generational, political, reality-based etc. Us vs them @justinpickard
  • What is the future? Humans/technology: a turning point in history @robinbrittain
  • What's the process for formulating the questiosn that will guide us towards a better world for all @ChvdHaegen
  • Our needs (Maslow) are static. What's the process for formulating the questions that will guide us towards a better world for all? @phi162

And some general comments

  • The most important thing is...They have brownies in the future! @RealTerminator
  • About questions and answers: I believe if we have one very big question, the ultimate question, we will have a cloud of answers @ChvdHaegen
  • And the clouds of answers will be millions of people going through life with purpose and serenity @ChvdHaegen
  • Do big questions produce fewer big answers actually? @urbanverse
  • Staying competitive in the future global marketplace can only be achived through continuous self education @mARkeTingOtakus
  • Independent and effective learning and critical thinking should play a key role in the future @mARkeTingOtakus

What's your big question about the future?

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Doing Environmental Scanning Part 5: Analysing Your Scanning Output

This is part 5 in the Doing Environmental Scanning series. We've identified the strategic questions, set up a team, started scanning and have been recording hits and seeing patterns among them. At this stage, you have started to identify trends and you can see some interdependencies among those trends. What does it all mean? When you ask that question, it's time to move to analysis.

Environmental scanning provides input into the strategic thinking stage of strategy development. The aim of this stage is to expand your perceptions of the strategic options available to your organisation by broadening the range and depth of information you consider as you develop those options. It's at this stage where strategic analysis of your scanning hits takes place.

Strategic analysis is about the future, not today. This is a space which is long term and big picture rather than operational. It's about breaking down what you have found in your scanning into manageable ‘chunks’ to determine what is relevant for you, and the areas in which you might need to do more research to inform your strategic thinking.

This space is about possibilities, about what might happen in the future as the result of the evolution of the trends you have identified, not about what is here and present today. If you approach strategy with the mindset that the future is a linear extrapolation of today, then you are likely to have a 'this is rubbish' response to analysing scanning output.  You will be looking for confirming trends that confirm your view of the world today, rather than 'disconfirming' trends that will open up possibilities not seen or previously ignored.

So, approach the analysis stage with an open mind.

How do you analyse your scanning output?

  • Confirm relevant trends emerging from your scanning – this is about determining the importance of what you are finding for your strategic question.  Not everything you find will be relevant for that question, or for your current strategy cycle. Keep an eye on the trends you regard as less relevant, however, as they could start to increase or wane in strength over time.
  • Explore how the relevant trends might evolve over time, and resulting possible impacts of those trends on your organisation into the future.
  • Identify the strategic issues you need to address or explore further to be able to respond to challenges that might emerge.

There are many tools you can use in this stage of the strategy process. You can assess trend relevance using the Trend Relevance Assessment worksheet. The Futures Wheel is a simple tool that helps you identify the implications of a trend continuing to develop over time and how it connects to other trends. Scenario planning or scenario thinking is a tool that allows you to explore risk and opportunity in a range of plausible future contexts and to identify strategic options for today. Systems maps connect trends and drivers of change, so you can see  cause/effect and influence attributes, and see clearly that no trend exists in isolation. Causal Layered Analysis helps to address any deeply held organisational assumptions about the future that may be constraining change.

This stage of the scanning process is often the most difficult, because it involves challenging our deeply held assumptions about how the future will evolve. It also involves recognising that there are no future facts, and that trends have multiple possible outcomes. This is the stage of the strategy process where the complexity and uncertainty of what's possible becomes apparent. It's the stage where you have to move beyond business-as-usual thinking to be able to identify strategic options that will help you develop sustainable strategy for your organisation.

Part 6 of the series is about reporting your scanning outcomes.

Download scanning resources at:  http://thinkingfutures.net/services/scanning/

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