Why Futures Ready?
Beyond Strategic Planning
In a world that is changing rapidly often in ways not seen before, our trusted methods of making sense of the world are no longer working. Applying old thinking to an emergent world no longer works. Old thinking = conventional wisdom about the past and present. Emergence needs new thinking, futures thinking.
Holistic ways of deepening our collective understanding of the global and national systems in which organisations operate are fundamental to finding successful ways to navigate into the future, as individuals, organisations and societies.
The starting point is to re-define and re-badge planning as preparing for the future. Our strategic focus is no longer what we know about the past and the present, but what we don't know about emerging change. It's about seeking to understand complexity and uncertainty, not assuming the future can be predicted with any degree of accuracy.
The is new thinking about the future - futures thinking. It's using foresight approaches to enable thinking in multiples and possibilities, seeking many answers not a linear pathway, the single future that gambles on how the world and the people within it will evolve. Being futures ready is about seeking not the right answer but to avoid getting the future wrong.
The plan is not the purpose of strategy development. Building the capacity to be futures ready is the primary goal of creating strategy today.
Putting people back into strategy
The term 'futures ready' isn't part of the language of strategy today though - we are more familiar with data, vision, mission, goals, measures and reporting - and this does little more than lock us into what we know. Becoming futures ready invites us to pay attention to what we don't know.
There's nothing inherently wrong with today's strategy language except that it describes a process that focuses on the plan as the outcome and forgets about people - who, after all, are the ones who will have to make the strategy 'real', who will implement the plan. Conventional strategy development keeps us trapped in the present, in a strategy box.
Today strategy is usually also seen as a process open only to senior managers who my some magic, are suddenly endowed with the ability to think strategically and create a plan when they rise to this rank in organisations. The reality is that everyone can think strategically if given the opportunity and the information. Conversations about the future with people across the organisation are at the core of strategy development now. Putting people back into strategy development reconnects process and people, No longer do senior managers quarantine information and thinking, the plan is an output not the goal and the people who together make the organisation 'real' every day help co-create the future.
Find out more here, read my book or a book chapter about why conventional strategic planning is past its use by date and why we need both people and process to be futures ready.
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, now my starting point is with people and designing conversations about the future to help them engage with the future, to let their futures agency emerge and to co-create their organisation's future.
I 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 though, 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 an essential part of the story. What does this mean? Read on.
Thinking in New Ways About the Future
I did a survey of my network in 2014 and asked people to tell me what their biggest strategic challenge was. The top challenge? Challenging assumptions about how the future might evolve, followed by implementing a strategic plan and thinking long term. This was one of the things that confirmed for me that plans on their own were pointless unless people were open to the future being described in them.'
Right now, the primary way an organisation thinks about the future is by doing strategic planning. In this process, little time is usually set aside to bring people together to collaboratively think strategically, and when strategic thinking happens, it's quarantined to senior management who may or may not be open to the future. More often than than not, they are invested in maintaining the existing system, even if they don't realise it.
Organisations develop strategy to ensure their strategic fit with the external environment so they can remain socially relevant and sustainable in a changing environment. This social relevance is what ensures an organisation has a future. Lose relevance and organisations go the way of Blockbuster, Borders, Kodak, Nokia and others that couldn't escape the cognitive constraints of the present. Their senior managers were invested in the existing system or believed their relevance would not diminish in the future. It did. Being futures ready is what ensures social relevance.
Strategic planning has passed its use by date, yet most organisations are trapped in the tyranny of this process, seeing no other way to prepare for the future. They apply old thinking to new problems. They ask old questions that no longer matter. They develop old strategy for a new and challenging environment.
Preparing for the future is no longer about strategy packaged in a neat box, created by senior managers who expect everyone in the organisation to implement it without question. It's about working with people to anticipate possible futures to co-create pathways to the future for your organisation. It's about putting people back at the centre of strategic processes and that is not only about strategy - it's about how organisations operate every day as their processes, leadership, relationships and culture intersect, as conversations happen.
Futures ready is both a state of mind, embedded in organisational culture, and the outcome of a strategic process. Right now, the process is dominant - we call it strategic planning. 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 and how the actions that emerge from it are framed and implemented. Since only people think, I now put them at the centre of my work.
Thinking about the future happens in our heads. For that thinking to be futures oriented, it has to be shared in conversations about the future, a collaboration to co-create a shared organisational future. It's the conversations and not the plan that create that future.
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. 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 strategy.