6 Tips on Futures Thinking and Strategic Foresight

By Molly Davis Lind

How do you strategize, innovate and plan in a rapidly changing world? The field of strategic foresight has emerged over the last fifty years to cope with this pressing question. Once the purview of elite decision-makers, this field is being “democratized” and opening up to more people than ever.

Contrary to conventional thinking, good foresight is less about prediction and more about learning skills to anticipate and adapt to multiple scenarios. While we don’t know what future emerge, the one thing we can control is our own thinking and how we respond to change. Most importantly, good foresight is about shaping the future we want to see.

To learn more about the basics of foresight, we sat down with Nicole-Anne Boyer, strategist, futures thinker and founder of Adaptive Edge, a scenario planning and strategic transformation consultancy that helps business leaders navigate future uncertainties. Nicole recently presented at MetaTalk on the basics of futures thinking.

What is the difference between strategic foresight and futurism?
NB: A futurist is paid to predict the future, to have a point of view. They are often provocateurs and have an agenda. Though entertaining and informative, futurists are rarely transformational because their content is usually out of context and hard to make relevant. By contrast, strategic foresight is about using the future lens as a way to transform or change things — whether it’s your life, organization, or making your community a better place. It tends to be a group activity and a holistic process that integrates information from the “head” (analytical insights), “heart” (our motivations) and “gut” (our intuitions and conventions). As research has shown, we don’t act in the face of uncertainty unless all of these things are aligned. In my view, most strategic foresight focuses too much on the analytical insights exclusively and often falls short because of that. Next generation foresight, which I’m championing, is far more experiential, participatory, and holistic — and more reflective of how people adapt and change in practice.

Some of the best-known companies get into trouble by not paying attention to the future. Can you give me an example of a brand that has leveraged strategic foresight successfully?
NB: Almost all successful brands leverage strategic foresight implicitly or explicitly. Healthy brands are future facing – they have a promise about the future. Steelcase grappled with their insight into the future before realizing they needed to develop different solutions that are sustainable ergonomically and in terms of the environment. Autodesk is another example; their San Francisco office has a Disneyland of futurism that gives people the experience of how they are seeing the future, and conveys that they are on the cutting edge of it.

Many brands have failed because they haven’t adapted to how the world is changing. Look at Kodak. They were stuck in a pre-digital world and they couldn’t get out of it. The city of Detroit is another example. For decades, it was clear that America’s stronghold on the automobile market was eroding, but the community struggled to adapt to this new reality because they couldn’t collectively talk about alternative possibilities. They were stuck in an outdated view of the world.

What are the best questions brands, or even people, should ask themselves to help prepare for the future?
NB: Asking good questions in general is a key skill. People who “know” the future set themselves up for being blind-sided. Staying in an open, inquiry mode and asking questions is much more creative and adaptive stance to be in. But asking the right questions is hard. Good strategic questions are open and not leading; they should have no clear answer otherwise they wouldn’t be strategic; they can be provocative but also neutral enough to include multiple perspectives. For more, this is a good primer on questions.

One key foresight question to ask: What are some outdated assumptions that I am carrying around with me that are no longer serving me well? While individual reflection helps, the fastest way to do this is to disrupt yourself by dialoging with different people – especially those you don’t agree with – and immersing yourself into different contexts, much like you would if traveling to a different culture. Apply this same kind of mindset to your professional life. Visit places and people you can learn from, especially folks at the fringe, because many future changes come from innovations at the periphery, from outside conventional thinking and practice. Instead of rejecting these views, ask yourself: what can I learn that is useful? What might this view or activity be telling me about the emerging future? Sometimes this insight will help you see disruptive innovations ahead of the curve. The great example is text messaging. At first, this was completely dismissed by telecom executives as a “pointless activity” because the early adopters were some weird kids with spiky colored hair in Tokyo. “It’s never going to go anywhere” one executive said to me. He couldn’t learn from the fringe, he couldn’t get beyond his own assumptions about how his industry would transform.

Other good questions are “What if” questions. Start by asking what is the “expected future” or conventional wisdom facing your industry or organization (or your own life). Then ask: how could this be different or wrong? What if x or y happened? To be useful, these must be plausible, i.e. they could happen. While they need to be believable, don’t rely on probability thinking which is just extrapolations of the past. The past is famously a bad predictor of the future. The most important future developments are novel, things that never happened before — like the Internet. This is why good foresight also needs to be very creative. In fact, of all the work I’ve done over the years, what I see missing the most is the ability to imagine new possibilities. This is so critical because we’re at a disruptive moment in time when so many things require a fundamental reimaging so we can live in a more vibrant, sustainable future. We need to reimagine how we work, live and play. We need to reimagine our business models, metrics for success, and mindsets around conflict and collaboration.

The good news is that we human beings have this unique ability to create new realities, to shape our destiny. No other species has this gift. And we often forget we have this capability because many people feel disempowered by the stuck status quo, or paralyzed by the rapid pace of change. But I believe it’s our responsibility to not engage in this kind of fatalism, and to use our foresight gifts more creatively and wisely. I believe we make the future path by walking on it today, through our small actions bigger actions can emerge. This is what Gandhi meant be “being the change.” In short, given what’s at stake, I think we should all think of ourselves as futurists!

6 Tips for Better Foresight

1. Embrace a Longer View
Think farther ahead (and behind into the past) than you think is practical. This will help provide a clearer perspective on the confusing present. Paradoxically, the longer view is more likely to reflect the real pace of change. Otherwise, most futures thinking is really a description of the present, or near future, and therefore not as strategic.

2. Challenge Assumptions
The biggest barriers to good foresight are old beliefs and outdated thinking about how the world works. Get out of your comfort zone: be rigorous about listening to different views inside and outside your industry. Consume different media from near and far. Observe like an anthropologist and explore how people are actually behaving in the real world.

3. Prepare for Multiple Futures
Given how difficult it is to predict the future, prepare for multiple plausible futures, not just one single point forecast. To quote Kevin Kelly: “It’s better to be imprecisely right, than precisely wrong.” Look for robust options that work regardless of what future emerges.

4. Experience the Future
Seeds of the future are already here – they exist in innovative people, places, and projects all over the world, and are often missed by mainstream media and academia. By seeing very different realities in the field, this can accelerate new thinking and change far faster than most trend analyses. If field trips are not possible, make futures thinking more experiential through gaming or engaging artists or actors to dramatize different futures.

5. Prototype the Future
The best way to prepare for the future is to co-create it in collaboration with others who have the capabilities and commitment to make it happen. Nothing is more charismatic and energizing than a provocative prototype or pilot project that shows people new possibilities.

6. Make it Personal
The future isn’t an abstraction or “out there”. It’s where you are going to spend the rest of your life. Connect these external futures with your own personal story. What is the future you want to live into? What is your role and contribution to this new future, and how does this story connect with your past? As research shows, this personalization is the difference that makes the difference between a person who can proactively shape the future and a person who feels passive or paralyzed by it. And it’s just a more fun place to be!

Interview by Molly Davis Lind, MetaDesign Senior Communication Strategist.

About Molly Davis Lind

Just be.

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