Where 'Futures Ready' Came From
I started using 'futures ready' when I was working with organisations to to help them to infuse their strategy processes with foresight. I was focused on process then and wrote and talked about futures ready strategy. Now my focus is on futures ready organisations.
I have realised that strategy is an important but not the only part of the story about how organisations become futures ready. Great strategy doesn't necessarily mean an organisation is prepared for the future, and the increasing number of examples about strategic implementation failing is an indicator of this. People who work together to make their organisations futures ready are also an essential part of the story. This section of the site explores how my idea of futures ready emerged and how I use it today.
the strategy box
In a world that is changing rapidly and often in ways not seen before, our trusted methods of making sense of the world are no longer working. We cannot know the shape of the future that is emerging with any certainty and applying old thinking to this emergent world no longer works. Old thinking = conventional wisdom about the past and present, and that almost inevitably ensures an organisation will be surprised by the future.
Yet people in organisations continue to ask old questions that no longer matter. They develop old strategy for a new and challenging environment and wonder why it fails when it meets the future. And using strategic planning to develop that strategy is past its use by date.
Assuming strategic planning will ensure our organisations are futures ready is now akin to crossing our fingers and hoping we are right. ‘Futures ready’ isn’t part of the strategic planning language today though which is not surprising since the process focuses on action today not preparing for the future. Conventional strategic planning keeps us trapped in the present, in a strategy box.
What holds that strategy box together is an unchallenged belief that thinking about the future and preparing for the future, sometimes called strategic thinking, is something only senior managers can do.
It’s as if we believe that when people achieve senior roles, some magic suddenly happens that endows them with the ability to practice the secret art of strategic thinking and to create a plan that will make the organisation futures ready.
The reality is that often our leaders are invested in maintaining the existing system, even if they don't realise it, with minds so closed to the emerging future that they can't let in new information if it challenges that existing system.
It's time to escape the strategy box. Finding holistic, systemic ways of deepening our collective understanding of the shifting and emerging global and national systems in which organisations operate is fundamental if we are to find successful ways to navigate into the future, and to be futures ready as individuals, organisations and societies.
Becoming Futures Ready
To move beyond the belief that strategic planning still works in a rapidly changing world and that senior managers have magic powers, we first need to challenge the assumption that strategic planning helps prepare us for the future. All it does is create a set of actions to do today that, as is often said, are out of date as soon as the plan is printed.
Becoming futures ready depends not on a good plan, but on the depth and quality of the thinking about the future that informs the plan. That magical power we think senior managers have is really an unquestioned assumption we hold about who has permission to think about the future. Flip the assumption and everyone in an organisation can think strategically if given the opportunity, information, permission and time. Because strategy without people at its core is strategy without a future.
When organisations are serious about becoming futures ready, their focus shifts from creating a plan to building collaborative and organisation wide strategic thinking processes. This move to becoming futures ready, however, means there are several basic premises to accept first.
- Becoming futures ready means paying attention not only to what we know about the past and the present, but also to emergent change, seeking to understand its complexity and uncertainty, and never, ever assuming the future can be predicted with any degree of accuracy.
- People create their organisation's future by what they think and do everyday, not by using a strategic planning process.
- Assumptions and biases about the future held by all of us influence our views about the future and our responses to plans and change.
- Bringing people together to surface and challenge those assumptions and biases so a shared future can be developed is critical, because a future co-created is more likely to be owned and worked for by the people who helped create it.
- Being futures ready is about how organisations operate every day as their processes, leadership, relationships and culture intersect, as conversations happen, as people come together to think, share and create together, to get things done.
Becoming futures ready means we escape the strategy box where strategic thinking has long been quarantined. It means strategic thinking becomes futures thinking, tapping into our innate foresight capacities to think about and use the future to inform our decisions and actions today.
- It's using foresight approaches to enable thinking in multiples and possibilities, seeking many answers not a linear pathway or the single future that gambles on how the world and its people will evolve.
- It’s about thinking about multiple futures to identify as wide a range of strategic options as possible, while mitigating challenges.
- It’s about grabbing hold of uncertainty and complexity because that’s what allows proactive responses to change to develop.
- It’s most definitely not about trying to explain uncertainty away with data and predictions and hoping that the single linear future in your plan will come true, leaving you with reaction and crisis management as your only choice.
Being futures ready is not about seeking the right answer but to avoid getting the future wrong.
Making Futures Ready Real
I often watched people in my workshops having conversations about the future, and was always struck when I had a hard time getting them to stop talking. Over time, I began to understand that they didn't want to stop talking because their conversations were about the future, not about more of today's challenges. I had to get them to stop though because there was a process waiting to be finished and that was my job, not letting them talk about the future for hours!
Reflecting on those workshops, I began to understand that the process wasn't the main game anymore. While that process had always included strategic thinking, the value from the workshops was not exposure to the process but being able to have time to have conversations about the future.
That convinced me that I had to change what I did with Thinking Futures from a focus on the process to helping people build their futures mindset. To recognise their individual futures agency in order for collective futures agency to emerge. To make strategic thinking, re-framed as futures thinking, the focus of my work.
My challenge then was to work out a way to bring people together to think strategically as a group, and my conversations about the future framework was born. It’s these conversations that hold the genesis of the future, not the plan.
Conversations about the future democratise strategic thinking and make it an essential individual and collective strategic capacity. No longer can senior managers quarantine information and thinking and no longer is the plan is the goal of strategy. Instead people think collaboratively, co-create shared futures, identify strategic options and proactive responses to change. They build capacity to be prepared for the future, not reacting to it.
Where to Start?
Having conversations about the future isn't about having a chat about the future over a cup of tea. They are facilitated, collaborative, deep and challenging thinking that seeks diversity of perspectives, draws on organisational culture for context, interrogates the social environment to know what's changing and maps how the way an organisation operates to keep it open to the future and the new. It challenges what we accept as real about the future to make it problematic, to re-frame it so new ways of facing the future can emerge.
My way of doing this is to craft an integral futures frame that takes a holistic view of an organisation, within which we apply a foresight lens to develop mindsets that are open to the future, not trapped in today's assumptions. This all comes together as we have conversations about the future to create futures ready organisations.