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KSSS: keep strategy simple stupid

KISS, keep it simple, stupidI wrote about slow strategy recently. Slow strategy is part of moving beyond conventional planning approaches. It occurred to me in 2005 that we needed to move beyond strategic planning through the use of foresight tools and methods - this after several years as director of university planning units developing and implementing conventional planning frameworks! I've written about this since here, here, here,  here and here.

Today, I  am convinced that not only is conventional strategic planning obsolete but in our quest to come up with alternatives that integrate foresight, we are at risk of over-complicating things.

popper_foresight_diamond2We can forget the KISS principle in strategy - I'm calling it Keep Strategy Simple Stupid.

There are a multitude of foresight tools and methods to use in an organisational foresight process - see the Foresight Diamond shown here (from Popper 2008). Have a look at this presentation by Michael Keenan (Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, 2007) to get an idea of the complexity involved in choosing the right combination of tools. He suggests using foresight principles or foresight stages to guide the selection of methods (I use stages).

I suspect though, that whatever approach is chosen, less in more when it comes to selecting those tools and methods. And we need to remember that we use foresight tools and methods as a means to an end.

My experience is that people who are in the middle of using foresight tools are in the room because they want to think in new ways because conventional strategic approaches aren't working any more. They recognise the paradox of the future. They are generally very smart people who for the most part, are ready to open their minds to the possible. But they have very little time away from the urgency of today and that's just the reality that all foresight practitioners work with at the moment. Developing a process that will achieve the desired outcomes with the most efficient use of participants' time is critical.

For me, that means a process that easy to 'get into' (that is, not overly complicated) and that is underpinned by good, deep and meaningful conversations. So while the choice of methods may involve navigating through complexity, the resulting process must appear to be simple and easy to 'get into' for participants. This doesn't mean the thinking will be easy or not deal with complexity - whether or not participants' brains hurt at the end of the day is a key success measure for me!

Keeping Foresight Infused Strategy Simple

Most foresight processes involve a pathway that involves seeing, thinking and doing. Different practitioners and theorists will call the steps in this pathway different things even though each step will have essentially the same focus. Here are a few examples.

Author Name Process Steps
Peter Bishop and Andy Hines Thinking about the future: guidelines for strategic foresight Framing Scanning Forecasting Visioning Planning Acting
Avril Horton (1999) A successful foresight process Inputs (collection, collation and summarising) Foresight (translation and interpretation) Outputs and Action (assimilation and commitment)
Michael Keenan (2007) Five mental acts (stages) for Foresight Understanding Synthesising and models of the future Analysis and selection Transformation Action
Wendy Schultz (2006) Key activities of integrated foresight Identify and Monitor change Assess and Critique Impacts Imagine Alternative Outcomes Envision Preferred Futures Plan and Implement Change
Joseph Voros (2003) Generic Foresight Process Input Analysis Interpretation Prospection Strategy (decisions) Action

At it most basic what we are asking people to do when we ask them to think in new ways about the future is to:

(i) see what's happening  - find the change that matters to their organisation,

(ii) think deeply with a systems and future focus about the implications of that change and identify possible strategic responses or actions, and

(iii) then decide on what to do today. No matter what terms are used and how many discussions are held about the right terms to use, foresight is about developing a view of the future relevant to your organisation's context to inform decision making today.

The KSSS Approach

Ultimately we are looking for ways out of the stagnation of the strategic planning status quo to find pathways to the future that work for people in organisations in context. Using foresight tools and methods will help those pathways to emerge from the uncertainty and complexity that characterises the future. Here's what I suggest.

  • To see the change that matters: use environmental (horizon) scanning with STEEP or VERGE or similar framework to analyse what you are finding.
  • To think deeply with a systems and future focus about the implications of that change and identify possible strategic responses or possible actions: scenario learning (planning) to generate a range of alternative, plausible futures for your organisation. Scenario learning is a mainstream strategy tool now but that doesn't make it a good one - unless it has foresight tools at its core. Often the scenario development process is reduced to a process taken from a book that focuses on completing the process and writing cute stories to publish in a glossy report at the expense of spending time on deepening the thinking that goes into the scenario development. In scenario learning done well, possible  responses emerge from analysis of the organisation's strategic issues across all scenarios and a backcasting process that connects the future with today. Which of these responses do we need to pay attention to today?
  • To decide on what to do today: once decisions about action have been made, write a strategy document that details not a range of objectives, goals, actions and KPIs but a vision of your organisation's preferred future and the broad areas where your organisation needs to focus - right now. This is really a statement of strategic intent that is broad and long term in nature.

Our limited energy is best spent on ensuring there is sufficient time for meaningful strategic conversations among a wide range of people in an organisation to explore the complexity of the future and customise the tools to suit the organisation. I'm arguing here that thinking needs to be the focus of the choice of tools for a foresight infused strategy project not the tools themselves. Let's KSSS: Keep Strategy Simple Stupid.


Andy Hines and Peter Bishop (eds) (2007), Thinking about the future, guidelines for strategic foresight, Social Technologies.

Averil Horton, (1999),"A simple guide to successful foresight", foresight, Vol. 1 Iss 1 pp. 5 - 9.

Michael Keenan (2007) Combining Foresight Methods for Impact, NISTEP 3rd International Conference on Foresight, Tokyo. Accessed at

Wendy L. Schultz (2006) "The cultural contradictions of managing change: using horizon scanning in an evidence?based policy context", foresight, 8 (4), pp 3 - 12.

Joseph Voros, (2003) "A generic foresight process framework", foresight, Vol. 5 Iss: 3, pp.10 - 21.



The Paradox of the Future 2

The last post The Paradox of the Future 1 outlined the nature of paradoxes and the need to craft futures ready strategy to address the tensions that arise from them. This post provides a framework that allows paradoxes to be explored and reconciled for now. A reminder of the definition of a paradox I'm using:

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).

Dealing with paradoxes requires generative thinking that supports rethinking of current approaches to take advantage of emerging opportunities or develop responses to challenges. It's about thinking in new ways about the future and the impact of what's changing. How do we develop the capacity for generative thinking and strategic foresight?u

 Five Levels

I've adapted Richard Slaughter's five levels for the development of social foresight for the organisational setting. Richard writes about social foresight in this way:

"All normal human beings have the innate ability to think (and act) forward. Without this capacity people would be unable to function in daily life. Some organisations use limited forms of foresight as part of strategy and planning. But societies as a whole tend to be powerfully guided by past perceptions of problems and, overall, lack any developed foresight capacity. Hence we have a contradictory situation:

  • humans have and use foresight
  • some organisations use limited forms of foresight
  • society as a whole largely lacks this capacity, therefore
  • it travels blindly into what appears to be an 'unknown' future."

His framework for the development of social foresight has five levels:

  • Level 1: Human capacities and perceptions - foresight is an innate human capacity but it is used in unreflective ways in daily life
  • Level 2: Recognising their foresight capacity enables foresight approaches to be applied - foresight concepts and ideas become influential in the organisation
  • Level 3: Using foresight tools and methodologies increases analytical power - organisations provide training and resources to use foresight approaches in strategy development
  • Level 4: Foresight  approaches are routinely used in the organisation
  • Level 5: Social Foresight  where long term thinking is the norm - for organisations, this level is where consideration of the future underpins decision making

I have adapted and renamed these five levels by combining levels 2 and 3 as shown in this diagram:

St Foresight

Individual Foresight Capacity

It all starts with the individual and their values and beliefs about the future and how things are done today. You can only craft futures ready strategy if each person transforms the way they think about the future. can't transform another individual's ways of thinking. This is why change management programs fail - the change management program is put in place with new structures and roles, but the way the organisation works doesn't change because the beliefs, values and mindsets of individuals have not been tapped.

If people don't recognise the value of the future today and if the organisation doesn't value the future in its decision making, it will be difficult to implement the remaining stages with any integrity. Recognising and surfacing and using individual foresight capacity is the pre-requisite, but this doesn't happen overnight. It comes from being given the opportunity to learn about foresight, what approaches can be used, what it means for organisations and why we should care about it.

Individuals in Action

Individuals in action in organisations integrate the foresight conversations and learning and using foresight tools and methodologies - these need to happen at the same time. Providing spaces for conversations about how to use the future without knowing about foresight approaches will generate little more than interesting conversations. Knowing about and being trained to use foresight tools as well as having the opportunity to talk about the future and how it can be used in the organisation allows the next step to be taken. The Generic Foresight Process is my preferred way of facilitating this step.

Critical Mass of Foresight Aware Staff

This is the step where there is a critical mass of foresight aware staff who "get foresight" and are given permission to integrate foresight into existing strategy approaches. This is the design phase, where foresight is contextualised for the particular organisation to ensure that its use makes sense and generates useful and relevant outcomes. This is the stage where the use of foresight approaches become routine in strategy development.

Strategic Foresight Capacity

Once strategic foresight approaches have been integrated in strategy development, once those ways of thinking long term can't be deleted from the strategy process when a new CEO arrives, when people accept that using strategic foresight is "just the way we do things around here" is when there is an organisational strategic foresight capacity. It's at this stage that futures ready strategy is being developed.

Using Strategic Foresight

Abstract: Busines strategy for the futureNone of this can be learned from a book in any meaningful way. Of course the principles, the range of tools and approaches can be read and understood but application is another matter. There's no one size fits all. Context matters when it comes to using strategic foresight.

Selecting methods to use is critical to ensure the process matches your organisation's foresight maturity. How those methods are executed matters if you want useful and meaningful outcomes rather than comments like 'well that was interesting, now back to the work waiting on my desk'. Poorly executed foresight methods and superficial outcomes are two of the  major reasons foresight exercises fail.

Customisation of the five steps involved in using strategic foresight makes it possible to deal with the paradox of the future in ways that make sense for your organisation right now. A continuing commitment of time, resources and energy is required to do this well. Given the space we find ourselves in where our organisational hierarchies and processes are becoming too slow for a world that is moving awfully quickly, do we have any choice?



The Paradox of the Future 1

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.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][fusion_alert type="notice" animation_type="0" animation_direction="down" animation_speed="0.1"]Contact Maree today to find out more about the how to address the paradox of the future.[/fusion_alert]

*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]



Change and Moving Beyond the Status-Quo

One Stands Holding Change, Others CrushedI wrote a response to another comment by Stephen McGrail today about what do you do to help people move beyond the status-quo in their thinking to embrace change. It set me thinking about change and strategy and why it's so hard to implement strategy that results in real change rather than perpetuating the gap between planning and doing. The conversation I had with Stephen was around why people resist change or prefer to not change, remaining in the status-quo.

I've done a bit of reading on why people resist or don't like change, so thought I'd share my a few references here. These relate to strategy and after all dealing with change in organisations is about creating strategy that can respond to and take advantage of that change.

What's common? Pay attention to people not plans, involve people in the process and make time to think about change on a continuing basis.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ten Reasons People Resist Change, HBR Blog Network, September 2012.

This article is what it says it is - ten reasons (excuses) people use to resist change. To be fair, not all of them are excuses and reasons for resisting change will vary depending on the individual and the context - which is why there's no checklist by helping people move their thinking beyond the status-quo.

Michael Birshan and Jayanti Kar, Becoming More Strategic: Three Tips for Any Executive, McKinsey&Company, July 2012.

Three ways of becoming more strategic are mentioned and it is the third that relates to helping people change their thinking: Develop communications that can break through. This is about working out how to 'make strategic insights cut through the day-to-day morass of information that any executive receives' (page 3). Communicating the rationale for change and doing it well is critical for thinking beyond the status-quo.

Kathleen Davis, Disrupt Your Thinking, Transform Your Business, Entrepeneur, June 2013

This is a short article with the key message for me being 'leaders must give their employees permission to stop focusing only on what needs to be accomplished by the end of the day or week. They must 'force strategic introspection on a regular basis...the goal is to consistently carve out unstructured creative time.' This means giving people permission to explore the nature of change and what it means for them, their work and their organisation and institutionalise time for strategic thinking.

Jeanne Liedtka, Beyond Business Strategy: Strategy as Experienced, Rotman Magazine, Winter 2011

I really like this paper. Its key point: 'knowing [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][about the strategy] is not enough....feeling strategy must accompany knowing it. What does it mean to feel strategy - to experience it in an emotional as well as a cognitive way? One thing is certain: it will require a fundamental change to our basic conception of what strategy is all about.' Liedtka makes the point that reading about a strategy, a change, does not make it real to people in an organisation with the critical factor for managers being to avoid having the strategy ignored. She suggests that something has to disrupt our habitual thinking or schemas - interesting is more important than true in this context. There needs to be a shift from goals to desires - because 'desire is the true driver of behavioural change'.

So strategy as we commonly understand it relies on communicating plans and mission statements, strategy as experienced, 'relies more heavily on dialogue-based strategic conversation as it foundation, with significant use of stories and metaphors, developed iteratively in an experimental approach'. This needs (i) participation in the conversation, (ii) acknowledge role of concrete, (iii) promote experimentation and (iv) move beyond outcome metrics. Highly recommended.




Agility and being futures ready

One Stands Holding Change, Others CrushedThe Agility Factor, an article on the strategy+business website is a good one, and worth reading. Why? It puts into business langauge the concepts that strategic foresight pracitioners like me have been saying with different words for some years now.  I've written about the need for agility before, where I said that it's easy to write about, and really hard to do. This article articulates very clearly how you do it.

The authors - Thomas Williams, Christopher G. Worley, and Eduward E. Lawler III - first explain what agility is: an unusual ability to successfully respond to and learn from external events, to innovate technically and organizationally, and to plan and execute new courses of action (page 2)

This relates to what I call futures ready strategy: flexible strategy that positions your organisation to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges and uncertainties of the future. If an organisation is agile, it has futures ready strategy, built on a strong foresight capacity.

The authors identify four routines that underpin agility:

strategizing dynamically - shared purpose, change-friendly intentity and a robust strategic intent,

perceiving environmental change - crowdsourced intelligence to sense change, communication of changes identified, and interpretation of that change for potential impact on the organisation,

testing responses - trying out new ideas on a small scale, continuous learning and improvement, which requires organisational 'slack' - people, money and time that doesn't go directly to the bottom line, but allow the agile organization to rapidly deploy resources against opportunities that may or may not pay off, without jeopardizing day-to-day operations (page 5), managing risk and learning from results, and

implementing change - internal change management capacity - management and organizational autonomy, embedded change capability and performance management.

Some comments on these and their connection with foresight approaches follow.

Operationally, the elements of strategizing dynamically provide us with the new structure for the conventional stategic plan. Instead of the over-used and now meaningless vision, mission and goals, we now have purpose, identity and intent. These are, I think, more immediately relevant than the older terms which have outlived their usefulness, and together provide a new framework for strategy development. This is my interpretation of what is defined in the article (page 4), and helps to move us beyond traditional strategic planning approaches in which so many organisations find themselves stuck today.

From a foresight perspective, the purpose question is 'what do we do?' or what Hardin Tibbs calls, our enduring and guiding social purpose. In my view, purpose can only be defined by thinking beyond today so that it is indeed enduring. Today's purpose will not be sustainable when it comes into contact with the future unless the process for defining it takes the future into account. It informs decisions about identity - who do we have to be to achieve our purpose and intent - what we will do today to achieve our purpose.

Perceiving environmental change is what foresight practitioners call environmental or horizong scanning. It's the core capability for organisations who want to strategise dynamically - thinking in deep ways about the potential impact of the change they are seeing. If you don't have good intelligence about change in the external environment, and if you don't monitor it over time, you will not see change coming, and you won't be able to respond proactively. My webinars and  Strategic Futures Guide on Environmental Scanning: what it is and how to do it show you how to perceive and use environmental scanning in your strategy processes.

130311b.complacentTesting responses sounds a lot like design thinking, and the key point is the need for organisational slack - to be truly responsive in a strategic sense, you need a group of people whose job it is to monitor change, communicate what they are finding, set up processes for thinking about that change, and help the organisation change. That is, of course, the organisational foresight unit. I used to manage one of these at one university I worked at, but it fell victim to the types of beliefs and attittudes as shown in the cartoon here, not to mention being too busy to think about the future!

One of the most common things I hear from senior managers today is that they cannot think strategically because they can't escape the operational work. A foresight unit  supports busy managers by setting up the framework for strategy development that gives them the information they need when they need it, in the form they need it to make strategic decisions.

Implementing change is underpinned by authentic empowerment and clear alignment across the organisation with identity and intent. The authors recognise that this is easier said than done, and specify the need for an embedded change capacity - the pragmatic ability to change collective habits, practices, and perspectives is embedded in line operations, not isolated in staff groups (page 4). This is about making everyone responsible for change in their patch, and avoiding those cumbersome and often pointless large project offices that spring up when there is major organisational change afoot. For me, this is at its most basic, about changing the way you think and letting go of the old behaviours that just won't work any more - this is the hardest part of moving an organisation to being truly agile, and in my experience, it's that part of the process that gets the least attention, because it is also the hardest task. As the authors say:

Managing agile organizations means being willing to give up the activities that make you successful today but that would be appropriate tomorrow - over and over again (page 8).

Not many organisations have worked that out yet. Universities face significant change today (albeit as they have always done throughout their history), yet most responses we see today are about fitting that change into existing frameworks. This is not to say that no universty is exploring in a deep way those alternative frameworks that will allow them to change collective habits, practices and perspectives that are not longer appropriate. Rather, the majority response is still to put in place short-term fixes and doing whatever they could do return to their old ways of operating (page 1). As a result, they miss important inflection points in the market (page 8), when action could have been taken to respond to change proactively instead of waiting for it to hit them in the face.

For me then, an agile organisation has futures ready strategy that is developed through the use of strategic foresight approaches and tools. What does agile mean for you? Look forward to hearing your ideas here or on twitter @mareeconway.