Big shakeups happen in work, life, and the economy regularly. Navigating these waves of change well requires forethought and foresight.
How do we prepare ourselves to meet the future in a way that accounts for all the changes that are underway without us giving up our agency and purpose? Strategic foresight is an approach that can help you see what might come and plan for it while building in resilience and identifying opportunities.
This article is meant to provide a brief orientation to strategic foresight and how it can contribute to building more resilient, adaptive organizations.
Preparing for change, anticipating it’s effects, and designing our organizations to meet change when it comes is a hallmark feature of resilience. This is what strategic foresight is all about. Strategic foresight is a disciplined, data-driven approach to exploring trends and incorporating creative design to envision possible futures and strategies that might fit these possibilities.
To borrow from a sailing metaphor, resilience is about generating the psychological (and material) resources to weather storms and ride the waves rather than get capsized or swept out to sea.
We can’t control many of the social, environmental, technological, or cultural changes that influence our work, but we can design our organizations to be better prepared and that begins by anticipating where things are going in the first place.
Strategic foresight is useful in domains that feature great complexity; situations with multiple scales of parallel activity and dynamism. Foresight approaches allow for an understanding of various forces, activities, and system structures that are in play that can influence not just your area of interest (e.g., healthcare), but those around it.
By compiling research using present and historical data, observation, and a engaging in a variety of future-thinking exercises like scenario planning, horizon scanning, or visioning exercises it is possible to imagine how the future might play out based on a set of data-supported assumptions. These approaches have been used in food systems research (PDF), peace-building, and conservation work.
The future is always in motion, however by anticipating what might come ahead of what actually comes we are more prepared to deal with it when that future becomes the present.
In seeing what might happen and doing so using tools and data that increase our confidence about this uncertain future, we will be less disrupted by what eventually shows up. This is where strategic foresight comes in.
Designing for the present
The ‘strategic’ part of foresight work is tied to developing those plans to meet the future or even shape it. It is here that the action and real benefits to futures thinking come to fruition, yet it might be where the ‘strategic’ part of foresight often falls flat.
This has much to do with building in resilience and capacity to change, not simply a plan for change. This means designing for the present, not the future. It is here that much strategy fails when taking foresight into account: the strategic vision focuses on what could be rather than what is and thus creates a mis-match between the needs and capacities and the directions taken.
This is a problem of better services and systems design.
Service and systems design
Service design is about aligning the desire, capacity and needs of a service user with that of the service provider to facilitate some form of goal. A service might be everything from an oil change for a car, renewing a passport, ordering a coffee, or the journey involved in having in-patient surgery at a hospital.
Service design focuses on finding the right balance of efficiency, effectiveness, (positive) experience, and engagement with the products, people, brand (identity), and spaces that comprise what is being served.
System design is looking at the larger physical, social, environmental, and infrastructure elements that influence a service, experience, or situation. Systems design seeks to create alignment between these various structural factors and how the interconnections that they facilitate and shape influence specific activities.
Designing for the present requires attention to both of these.
Applying strategic foresight
How do we bring these ideas of service and system design together with foresight?
It’s important to emphasize that good strategic foresight is tailored to the needs of an organization. It consider that organization’s work (what it does), its mission and vision, the industry it is a part of, and the wider ecosystem in which it is situated. It is from this position that foresight considered the trends and patterns of activity that might influence the organization.
This is not unlike what happens in sailing where the captain navigates the horizon and pays attention to a variety of factors like currents, wind direction and speed, and others to shape and modify the direction based on anticipation of what is coming and ideas about how to get there.
Some futures work look at general trends and patterns as often seen in reports or presentations on “the future of [insert something here]”. While potentially useful in general terms, this kind of futures work is not strategic foresight.
Before any strategic foresight can be applied the simple (but not always easy to answer) question to ask is: What is going on? This question looks at the bigger picture and considers particular activities. One framework that is commonly used to frame these activities is STEEP (sometimes extended to include STEEP-V, or PEST, PESTLE among others).
Step 1: What’s going on?
These frameworks all seek to look at the forces that might influence an organization and industry. STEEP stands for:
- Social (and cultural)
- Ecological (sometimes called Environmental)
These trends and activities are analyzed to present an assessment of the overall context in which an organization operates and what might influence it as it moves into the near, middle, and long-term future.
Step 2: Research
Foresight brings together research on trends from a variety of sources using multiple methods and perspectives. A design-oriented approach to research is what can distinguish foresight from other forms of research in that it focuses on a product or service context and seeks to understand these trends through the perspective of different users. (It should be mentioned that not all foresight researchers adopt this approach).
Foresight researchers will do desk-based review of existing reports, may undertake secondary analysis of existing data, and collect primary data to help round out the gaps in what is known. This serves as the foundation for the work to come by building a profile of the landscape that an organization is working within.
Step 3: Exploring the futures
The next step is one of the unique value propositions of a foresight approach and that is using a variety of creative techniques drawn from design and forecasting research to envision possible futures for an organization based on the initial research and the trend analysis that comes from it.
There are many techniques and combined methods that can inform the construction of these futures including those mentioned above. All of them lead to various scenarios that could play out and that can shape a variety of possible outcomes that may be positive, negative, or neutral on aspects of interest for the organization.
Visualizing these possible futures are one of the ways that we make these imaginations feel real and enable us to better design strategies to meet, create, or avoid those futures as much as possible. Storytelling (e.g., creating evidence-informed fictional narratives), sketching and modeling, physical model building, and system designs can all help make these possible futures real.
Architects know this very well by building out physical scale models of future developments to help people envision things like proportion, aesthetics, relationships between objects, and provide something that feels real even if it is only based on a plan. Architects know that the value in this modeling goes far beyond seeing into future possibilities by connecting the maker to the final product.
This ‘final’ product is where strategy comes in.
Step 4: Strategy
The strategic part of foresight is development of plans of action that can guide the organization to where it needs to go. Resilience is fostered within an organization by design through aligning a strategy with the way the future actually plays out relative to the way we anticipated it would.
Strategy has many myths association with it. A strategy is more than just a wish or an intent, it has defined components to it:
1. It has an intended purpose;
2. There is a plan;
3. There is a sequence of actions (interdependent events);
4. It leads toward a distinct, measurable goal
It also includes a means to assess progress or activity related to the application of strategy toward addressing that goal. This is where evaluation comes in.
Step 5: Foresight Evaluation
Perhaps the biggest point of weakness within the realm of strategic foresight is evaluation. Evaluation is too often considered an end-product that looks at what happened afterward (i.e., outcome or impact assessment) rather than as a critical part of developing the feedback that is critical for adaptation and resilience development in complex systems.
Within the specific realm of foresight, evaluation might include scanning the environment for weak signals — those micro-trends that are surfacing within a system that may provide indication of something larger coming. It could include the same type of future-backward assessment found in a foresight technique of the same name that looks to link a future vision to present action.
In the case of strategic foresight, evaluation is applied as part of the strategy component and can serve as a powerful means to calibrate and validate the strategic assumptions and direction proposed.
The waves we are about to ride
Reslience is built by design. By building frameworks to assess the waves we are about to ride into we are better positioned to adapt, respond, and re-calibrate ourselves once the waves come. Great surfers visualize the waves before they get into them. By anticipating what might come they are less thrown by changes — which is what surf is all about — when they arrive.
The same mindset is what encompasses those who truly adopt a foresight approach to their work and use it to advance their understanding of a particular issue.
It’s been said that the best way to shape the future is to create it. When you can’t create it, it’s best to be a strong sailor or surfer and learn to ride the waves of change to make the most of what comes and maybe even take advantage of it all.
Sail and surf on, my friends.
For more information about strategic foresight and taking this design-driven, evaluation-informed approach, feel free to drop me a line at Cense and we can help you out. (click the link).