Putting Foresight in its Place

Foresight can be an enormously powerful vehicle for shaping strategy and nurturing innovative thinking if used properly. The problem is that it is rarely ever used.

Strategic foresight combines trend research and design together to help envision possible futures and help guide our strategy in the process.

It’s an attractive proposition. Here’s what it looks like in practice:

  1. Select a set of domains you’re interested in and begin to gather data on those areas that are likely to influence that domain directly or indirectly. I like the simple STEEP-V framework to serve as a guide, but many others can help frame the contexts of influence.
  2. Research what’s happening, extrapolate trends, create scenarios, and test those assumptions and models.
  3. Build a strategy that is aligned with what you learn and generate plans that account for their implementation, evaluation and overall use.
  4. Once you put those plans in place, keep evaluating the models of what you anticipated might happen with what actually happens and adjust things accordingly.

Keep repeating this until the models no longer serve or can be relied upon.

Applied Foresight

In speaking with colleagues and from my own professional observations and experiences, most foresight work is centred on steps 1 and 2; little is done with step 3, and almost nothing is done with step 4. A look at the literature on design, strategy and strategic foresight will find very few models that have been rigorously tested once established, applied, and developed over time. Lots of theory and creating things with very little integrated into practice.

It is the case of the finger pointing to the moon being confused with the moon itself.

The models aren’t reality. Without testing and integration into strategy, foresight serves little purpose. It can help people learn new things and certainly gets them excited. Without testing, evaluation, and strategic integration, foresight is nothing more than an exercise. My experience is that too often; there isn’t accounting for ways to design foresight into strategy. It is not part of the process but apart from the process, and that is a source of its failure.

Until we start seeing real applications and case studies where foresight has been integrated into a design process, be skeptical of the claims of its value. Start designing processes and strategy — the strategic part of the term strategic foresight — and this will change.

Service Design for Strategic Foresight

We can apply the same kind of service design thinking to foresight that we can with almost any human service.

Service design looks at the people involved, their needs, and the systems that are in place or needed to bring about the value in what the product — in this case Strategic Foresight — can offer.

If there is no use case for Strategic Foresight or a plan for how it is to be used, there is little purpose beyond some academic exercise for engaging in strategic foresight. Just as we would with any service design problem, figure out what is needed and how. The Design Helix (below) can serve a valuable guide.

Other service design models and principles can also be considered, like those below from the Interaction Design Network.

Services should be designed based on a genuine comprehension of the purpose of the service, the demand for the service and the ability of the service provider to deliver that service.

Services should be designed based on customer needs rather than the internal needs of the business.

Services should be designed to deliver a unified and efficient system rather than component-by-component which can lead to poor overall service performance.

Services should be designed based on creating value for users and customers and to be as efficient as possible.

Services should be designed on the understanding that special events (those that cause variation in general processes) will be treated as common events (and processes designed to accommodate them)

Services should always be designed with input from the users of the service

Services can and should be prototyped before being developed in full

Services must be designed in conjunction with a clear business case and model

Services should be developed as a minimum viable service (MVS) and then deployed. They can then be iterated and improved to add additional value based on user/customer feedback.

Services should be designed and delivered in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders (both external and internal)

Whatever you choose, be strategic and design with with your strategic foresight work otherwise, you’ll be regretting it in hindsight.

If you are looking to both do strategic foresight and reap its benefits by integrating it into your organization’s DNA and strategy and want help, reach out and let’s grab a coffee.

Image Credit: Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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