The next #1 organisational capability
In our fast-changing world, it is vital that companies practise foresight in order to adapt – or risk becoming irrelevant.
practising foresight is not new. It is a natural ability, programmed into our being. Even the cavemen used leading indicators – they interpreted increased ant activity as an indicator of adverse weather conditions on the way. Foresight in an organisation happens when efforts are made to spot discontinuous change as early as possible and to imagine the possible consequences of that change.
Some people confuse practising foresight with making forecasts. Forecasting is a really good technique to apply when thinking about the shortterm future. However, foresight is much more than trying to make accurate forecasts. Forecasting tools and techniques make up an important, but small, part of a good foresight toolkit.
For many years, the future was seen as a straight line, hence forecasts and projections. Increased turbulence and shorter life cycles of new technologies are shifting our ideas of possible futures and how to design and develop products and services in an increasingly complex environment. Going forward, even deeper insight and better understanding of the forces that are shaping the future are necessary to stay relevant.
Foresight practitioners see the future as a set of plausible outcomes rather than as one pre-defined future that can be discovered; they also believe that people can influence the future that ensues.
Foresight activities, by their very nature, will highlight uncertainties, introduce fuzziness and deliver no right/wrong answers; the benefit comes from the learning that emerges from the process rather than from offering a clearcut solution.
The writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler, famously said: “In dealing with the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right.”
The ability to deal with the ambiguity inherent in foresight activities requires special competencies from organisational leaders. Such leaders cannot afford to be contextually blind; they need to have an inherent desire to know more about the future contexts in which their organisation will operate, to think on multiple levels of comprehension, initiate conversations, create a culture of uninhibited thinking, have an open mind and be myth-makers and storytellers of note.
Entrenching foresight in an organisation requires a dedicated effort and commitment from leaders and followers on all levels. Foresight should be a characteristic of how the people in an organisation work together rather than a set of activities, tools and techniques.
The best fuel for foresight is curiosity and imagination. Therefore, organisations should be a safe environment that allows open and uninhibited curiosity.
The aim of fostering foresight in an organisation is to develop an informed view of the multiple futures it could be facing so that the organisation can learn from the future before it arrives and be prepared for action when it does.
A FOUR-PART PROCESS IS SUGGESTED:
1. PRACTISE PROFOUND HINDSIGHT: We should create a rich past and a meaningful present by analysing what has happened in as much detail as possible. Also, we have to ensure that we are learning from it. Technological advances are making analytics tools better, cheaper and easier to use, with vendors offering an array of modelling tools and applications providing insight into what happened in the past and is happening in the present. Combined with visualisations it becomes a meaningful way to learn from what happened and to inform approaches of which events to avoid or seek in future.
2. CREATE AN IN-HOUSE INTELLIGENCE SYSTEM: Organisations should develop an early warning system from a compilation of leading indicators based on their current strategy. The required competence to practise foresight probably exists within the organisation already. Every person knows their area of responsibility best and should be empowered to contribute views of possible futures on an ongoing basis.
3. CONTRACT EXTERNAL PEOPLE AND ORGANISATIONS TO SUPPLY INFORMATION: High-performing organisations ensure that they obtain
information from multiple sources in order to recognise trends and keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in their environment. Most of the famous disruptions of the past came from developments outside of the incumbents’ industry.
4. ENTRENCH FUTURE CONSCIOUSNESS INTO ORGANISATIONAL SYSTEMS: Organisational leaders should strive to embed strategic listening into all systems so that they can do something with the data produced through strategic listening and intelligence systems. A formal data management system should be created, not just to capture and store data, but to access and use it for sense-making, knowledge-creating and decision-making.
People in the organisation should be interconnected in a way that fosters good communication across silos. At one organisation the following question is asked at every meeting: “What did we learn about the future today?”
People in the organisation should regularly be told a story about the future. Each story about a plausible future should have its audience immersed into an experience of what that future could be like. The audience should experience how that future could play out if we base our activities on a particular set of assumptions or give priority to certain actors. The story should be told in such a way that they can relate to it and engage with it. If we tell the stories well, it would highlight possibilities, opportunities, threats and obstacles that could emerge based on the decisions we take today, thereby allowing decision-makers the opportunity to consider their options and challenges in each case.
For this purpose, technology is our friend. Advances in graphics, presentation software, videography and social media enable us to tell stories in a much more vivid way than before.
Stories about plausible futures serve as a mental rehearsal, preparing people to recognise the indicators of change if and when these emerge. Decision-makers will be able to pre-empt potential outcomes as the future is unfolding based on their “memories” of that future from the stories told before. This puts them in a position to react faster, be unsurprised by the change, make better decisions and adapt to a new normal more quickly.
Doris Viljoen Senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR)