The ability to develop foresight is a cornerstone for forward thinking individuals and change agents. I can say that on the personal level in my own life, when I did not have a clearly defined goal or vision of what I wanted or where I was going, I floundered. My ability to “see” potential opportunities or pitfalls was clouded, and I fell into a rut or holding pattern in life. Then, when those wild cards and “black swan events” did occur, I was completely blindsided and unprepared to handle them. I think this applies at the individual as well as the organizational level.
So what exactly is foresight? Here are a few definitions from the wikipedia page on Foresight (Futures Studies):
– critical thinking concerning long term development
– debate and effort to create wider participatory democracy
– shaping the future, especially by influencing public policy
These components can also be restated as follows:
– futures (forecasting, forward thinking, perspectives)
– planning (strategic analysis, priority setting
– networking (participatory, dialogic) tools and orientations
Essentially, foresight the ability to see “the long view;” to look at information from the past and present, extract the patterns and lessons, and use them to inform decision-making in order to impact the direction things go into the future. There are a range of tools for foresight, the most common being: environmental scanning, trend analysis, brainstorming, modeling, gaming, visioning, and scenario development. Scanning was already covered earlier in this series, so here is a brief overview of the others.
In order to have an idea of what the future may hold, it helps to be aware of the current driving forces underway. Though there are several ways to categorize overarching trends, a useful reminder is the acronym “STEEP” – Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political. These categories can then be broken down into subcategories. (i.e. “Social” could be viewed at the levels of culture, organization, and personal). Once the trend is identified, we can look at both their causes and impacts. Also, since events and ideas do not exist in isolation, it is useful to think about the implications of trends across several or all of these areas. For instance, a rise in life expectancy might be caused by rising living standards, better medical treatments, and healthier environments. The corresponding impacts of this trend may be that a longer portion of a person’s life is spent in retirement, and so there will be an increasing demand in goods and services for the elderly, and perhaps a bigger financial strain on families to care for aging parents or grandparents.
This is a favorite of mine, and I spend a portion of every day thinking of new ways to think about things. One of the features of building intelligence, some would say, is about being able to expand your context, see things through multiple lenses, and switch perspectives quickly and with fluidity. Being able to wear these different “hats” when thinking about problems is helpful for me to generate new ideas. Mapping out ideas and people also helps me to see “the big picture,” and think of new ways of combining information or aligning people. For instance, mindmapping software like Mindmeister or Compendium are useful online tools for creating a visual aid in problem solving. (paper or a whiteboard also work).
To show a personal example, I started putting together a map of my twitter connections a while back so that I could be more effective at network weaving. It made it easier for me to build bridges between people, and get exposed to interesting ideas that I could integrate and build upon. Map here. The next major map we’re working on is a visual description of the components of the platform/environment that are necessary so Junto can exist and evolve.
Designers and architects are familiar with the use of physical models to help people visualize future structures or products. As thinkers and philosophers envisioning our cooperative, technological future, we also create mental models to represent what this “thing” that we’re all talking about might look like. Call it fantasizing, engaging in a thought experiment, or running a simulation, we are able to think about potentials once we have constructed a model within which we can apply our theories.
Called serious games or serious play when used in this way, gaming is a powerful way to simulate potential realities. The military uses them for training, and there are many projects going on to encourage people to take action and change the world, like Urgent Evoke. Players are able to role-play and simulate how they would respond in situations, interact with others, and create positive solutions in a group environment. The idea is to create cohesion and acceptable decisions that best serve the community. And then actually make it happen.
From what I’ve experienced, clarifying a vision is one of the most powerful mechanisms for engaging an organization or community and getting them excited to unite. Each of the posts on this blog in some way is clarifying my own vision for the future, both my personal future and a greater future I would like to see for humanity. Creating a clear vision is a precursor to goal setting and planning, and as I see it, a key to mobilizing people. There is a nice guideline in the book Futuring that breaks down the process of “Preferred Futuring” into these eight tasks:
1. Review the organization’s common history to create a shared appreciation.
2. Identify what’s working and what’s not. Brainstorm and list “prouds” and “sorries.”
3. Identify underlying values and beliefs, and discuss which ones to keep and which to abandon.
4. Identify relevant events, developments, and trends that may have an impact on moving to a preferred future.
5. Create a preferred future vision that is clear, detailed, and commonly understood. All participants, or at least a critical mass, should feel a sense of investment or ownership in the vision.
6. Translate future visions into action goals.
7. Plan for action: Build in specific planned steps with accountabilities identified.
8. Create a structure for implementing the plan, with midcourse corrections, celebrations, and publicizing of successes.
And of course, it’s not about creating MY vision, but about creating a SHARED vision. So many of us are talking about creating a better future. But what does it look like? Have we defined it? Have we described it? Who are we within it? What does society look like? What does currency look like? What does interaction look like? I see so many people working on aspects of it, but how do we link these ideas together to create a clearer picture of this shared vision?
If we can see it, we can build it.
This is where the power of the narrative comes in. Throughout human history, we are defined by the stories we tell each other and ourselves. We create meaning and understanding by the way we remember our stories, like personal cargo that we carry in our minds. When thinking about the future, whether it’s the future of society, the organization, or the self, developing a series of scenarios allows you to objectively deal with uncertainty and imagine plausible costs and benefits to various actions and their consequences. It is often suggested to create at least three scenarios when considering future events or situations involving decision-making, by identifying futures that are possible, probable, and preferable. Again from the Futuring book, here five sample scenarios are suggested:
1. A Surprise-Free Scenario: Things will continue much as they are now. They won’t become substantially better or worse.
2. An Optimistic Scenario: Things will go considerably better than in the recent past.
3. A Pessimistic Scenario: Something will go considerably worse than in the past.
4. A Disaster Scenario: Things will go terribly wrong, and our situation will be far worse than anything we have previously experienced.
5. A Transformation Scenario: Something spectacularly marvelous happens – something we never dared to expect.
So once the story has been written that describes what each of these scenarios looks like, the conversation can begin. What is the likelihood of each of these? What is the desirability? What are the correlating values of the people? What actions can be taken today to steer the ship and influence the events that will create or avoid these various scenarios?
Other elements of scenario development include forecasting and backcasting. While forecasting starts in the present and projects forward into the future, backcasting starts with a future goal or event and works it’s way back to the present. In this method, the sequence of events or steps that led to that goal are imagined and defined, so that a roadmap to that desirable future is created.
Become a Fearless Futurist
So this is a brief overview of foresight and “futures thinking.” There are many many resources to learn more about these thinking tools, and I hope your interest is piqued and you keep exploring!
Here’s a few places to start:
image designed by gavin keech