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PRACTISING STRAGETIC FORESIGHT IN AN ERA OF HYPER-CHANGE

If you are reading this article, you have seen a lot of change in your lifetime - much more change than your parents or your grandparents experienced in their lives. And guess what? More change is ahead. In fact, forecast-ers tell us that the rate of change is increasing exponentially 1.


Not surprisingly, driving much of this change is the explosive advancement of communication technology and the internet. Almost anyone, anywhere, can now access and exchange mind-boggling volumes of global information 24/7, 365. As more devices come online, this Internet of Things 2 is projected to generate 40% of all data without direct human involvement.

While this new world of information access and connectivity is amazing and exciting, many of us feel overwhelmed trying to keep up. “Organizations are not very good at changing,” says John Kotter (an authority in change management) in a recent issue of Forbes. “As things speed up, you can’t still do things the way you’ve done in the past, and grab opportunities and avoid hazards that come at you.”

Enter the Change Experts

So, who better to query about how   to effectively deal with change than futurists? Many of the world’s most successful companies engage futurists or foresight professionals on staff or as consultants to assist them in navigating, anticipating and leveraging change. They may be called in by an advanced R&D group, an innovation team or market researchers.

As a recent graduate of the Master’s program in Foresight at the University of Houston, I have discovered that practicing futurists are a diverse group of consultants with varying levels of education, skill sets and experience. For the purposes of this article, I am using guidelines for defining who they are and what they do as espoused by the Association of Professional Futurists. 3

Today’s foresight professionals resist making predictions about the future. They admit that no one can know exactly what will happen. Instead, they help individuals and organizations identify and prepare for multiple perspectives of possible, probable and alternative, or wild-card, futures. And the approach they use is systematic and scientific, unique in some respects and familiar in others.

“Most forecasters report just the expected future,” says Peter C. Bishop, Ph.D., president of Strategic Foresight and Development and retired director of the graduate program in Foresight at the University of Houston. “Yet, when something else happens, something unexpected, we are often surprised. Futurists go beyond the expected future and report the most plausible alternative futures, as well.”

What is Foresight?

Bishop defines foresight as the study of long-term change in society and in the organizations and individuals that make it up. Futurists research (or scan) multiple dimensions, looking for weak signals 4 (hints) of emerging concepts, shifts and innovation in five general areas: societal, technological, economic, environmental and political. They also use statistical trends, goals and plans of influential people and institutions, along with images and expectations that people have of the future.

“Compared with a typical business approach to the issues of inevitable change, forecasting and planning, futurists go broader, deeper and further, says Richard Yonck, foresight analyst and consultant with Intelligent Future,   LLC.

  • Broader, in that more issues and factors are considered when exploring potential future developments and challenges.
  • Deeper, into underlying concepts and presuppositions that too often go unchallenged.
  • Further, into time frames. The business world thinks in quarterly terms. A three- to five-year plan rarely explores the vast changes that our world will go through in 10, 20, 30   or more years and the implications they may bring.

In order to explore the broad territory of “what ifs” together with their clients, futurists will often create a systems map. This diagram summarizes the major actors, interrelationships and driving forces that may eventually impact the organization. Each element and its connections are then projected forward to reveal the possible futures and how they may unfold over time.

This below example is about a systems map of the economics of healthcare. This map was developed to consider the possible futures that might result from changes in healthcare pricing.

Foresight professionals also look for deep historical patterns rather than factoids and fads. In order to lead clients   in thinking deeper and further, futurists must first persuade them to challenge their assumptions about the current   era.

Good futurists are also good historians. What’s the old adage? “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it!” The past is a great place to explore wild-card events that surprise us and dramatically change the course of history. Examples are the invention of the printing press, WWII, the oil embargo of the 1970s, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, etc.

Knowing history is one thing; expecting the future to be like the past, how- ever, is a recipe for disaster. “We should think of the future as plausible scenarios. Not as a single, predetermined future that looks a lot like the present,” warns Bishop. “History is the story of interesting and dangerous twists and turns, of events that created whole new worlds for past generations. The future is likely to look more like this.”

Seeing the Future with New Eyes Changes Everything

Futurists see our role in the future as proactive. “The future is more than anticipating what the world will do,” says Bishop. “We are players in our own stories; we shape our own future, to some extent. The future is a combination of what the world does, how it offers opportunities and constraints, and what we do, how we can use our actions, the actions of others and the forces of the world. The forces thundering toward us are not definitive. We have power, too.”

Bishop reminds us, “If the last few decades have taught us anything, it is that we cannot simply wait for the future to happen before we respond to it. The attacks, the collapses and the technologies that have so amazed us may not have been predictable per se, but they could have been the serious subject of scenarios had we had more.”5

Building Foresight into Your Practice

When working with a client, try introducing the concept of foresight into a discussion or offer to moderate a foresight session, if you believe it could make a difference.

As a consultant, you have the opportunity to introduce new ideas and perspectives. Help your clients think beyond “what has always been,” so they can see “what now can be.” Remind them that they have power to influence the course of events as they unfold.

  • As you and the group identify potential threats, do not dwell there. See the glass as half full. Use what you find to move into identifying new opportunities.
  • Explore the gamut of “what ifs” from this context. What if one of our manufacturing facilities shuts down due to a geopolitical uprising? What if our top competitor develops a new product with great new features at a much lower cost? How might 3D printing impact our company in 5, 10, 20 years? How can we leverage big data? Is our information technology system protecting our data from hackers? Capture these questions to review and evaluate later.
  • From the “what ifs” discussion, have the group choose up to five possible future scenarios — two worst case, one neutral and two best case. Then, flesh out the scenarios into a brief day- in-the-life narrative for the company. Since they all could plausibly occur, they are all the future The real future today is not one true future hiding among a bunch of imposters. The future is many, not one.
  • Do not feel pressured to produce a report or plan after your foresight discussion. One goal of a strategic fore- sight exercise is that during the process of exploring the future, participants become engaged and aware of how to see the future for themselves. The objective is often not to come up with a single answer, but to change the way people think about what   could happen and how to influence what should happen.

A discussion like this about the future and how an organization may be impacted by significant events or developments can soften resistance to change. The more possibilities considered and explored, the fewer surprises encountered. Taking a deeper, broader, longer view also can differentiate you as a market researcher. Ultimately, learning to think more constructively about the future teaches us all to be prepared for what- ever lies ahead. After all, the future belongs to all of us, not just futurists.

 

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By Pamela McConathy Schied

Foresight Communications Group • Houston, Tx

pam@thinkforesight.com

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References

  1. Can you handle an exponential rate of change? John Kotter, Forbes, July 2011.
  2. Connecting with Our Connected World. Richard Yonck, The Futurist, Nov. – Dec. 2013; Richard Yonck (personal communication) January 18, 2014
  3. http://profuturists.com.
  4. For an example of how organizations, such as Royal Dutch Shell, identify weak signals and use scenarios to plan for the future, see The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. 1991, Doubleday.
  5. Bishop recently founded Teach the Future (http://www.teachthefuture.org), a non-profit collaborative community of individuals and partnering groups dedicated to teaching children of all ages about the future as we teach them about the past.

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