[This is part 4 in a 12 part series. The topics covered so far are Pattern Recognition, Environmental Scanning, and Network Weaving.]
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:
Foresight Education and Research Network
Acceleration Studies Foundation
World Future Society
World Future Studies Federation
image designed by gavin keech
Michael P. Gusek said:
A very thorough review, Venessa. One sentence jumped out at me:
“If we can see it, we can build it.”
I agree that the above techniques are valuable in reducing risks associated with the future, but what if we can’t see it? What if it is beyond the capabilities of collective human minds to comprehend the depth and opacity of the problem? Are we willing to understand that there are no absolutes and that there is going to be error? Can we let go enough?
My view is that this system is penetrable to a point and we can try to account for everything, but in the end we are helpless against the qualities of the universe that will forever stay beyond our comprehension. Things like fallibility, inscrutability, and opacity will always prove to deflect analysis.
Venessa Miemis said:
Well, no, we can’t see the future – it doesn’t exist yet, it’s not set in stone. (ok, unless we’re talking quantum mechanics, in which case it is actually coexisting, but i’m not sure how deep you wanna go here).
We create the future in our minds, and then do things NOW that will push us in the right direction. If we can get enough collective minds around a vision for a better future, and change our behaviors now, we’ll survive as a species.
And though I do care about humanity as a whole, I don’t believe that an individual is going to single-handedly change the system because they’ve envisioned an ideal scenario. I think each individual has to see that thing for themselves, whatever it looks like to them, and then be the person who would thrive in that world. I envision a cooperative interconnected future, and so I try to live with integrity, be open hearted, share, build community and be part of community, learn how to grow food and make stuff and build stuff, and lead from love. That’s just my personal manifesto and life philosophy.
i’ve been thinking about the idea of “universal values”….. is there some framework that every human on the planet could agree upon, despite religion or politics or culture or anything else? is there a way to create a foundation for some kind of unified vision? i keep distilling it down, and i’ve come up with 2:
sustainability and thrivability
i would think that every sane human could agree that they want what these 2 concepts represent. sustainability – our basic needs met in a way that is in alignment with our environment and non-exploitative or exhaustible. thrivability – the ability to Be, to emerge, to grow, to experience, to love, to explore our greatest potentials. do you think humans could agree that these are things we all want for ourselves?
and yes, there’s opacity…. many of the things we care deeply about cannot be measured, analyzed, or even seen. that’s the magic of the universe. you can chase after it and try to quantify it and name it, but it always seems to slip away then, doesn’t it?
Michael P. Gusek said:
Thanks for the reply, Venessa.
My meager opinion: If you take the concepts you describe in your reply to me and work them into your lesson plan at Duke, you will have a much fuller conceptual framework around foresight.
“I don’t believe that an individual is going to single-handedly change the system because they’ve envisioned an ideal scenario.”
No one can do this alone. We are in agreement.
Sustainability and Thrivability: Do you think humans could agree that these are things we all want for ourselves?
One thing about holistic distributed intelligence is that in order for it to work, diversity must be present. This diversity is a diversity of thought. If everyone agrees, what do we have? Stasis? Stagnation? Something else?
Venessa Miemis said:
i think humans could agree on those two concepts. what it means for them, contextually, is where the diversity comes in. sustainability means i know how to get my basic needs met without wreaking havoc on the environment. thrivability means i am allowed to follow my passion in life and to interact with other humans in a way that produces the most joy possible at that moment in those particular circumstances. ideally, this is done just by being my authentic self.
not everyone is supposed to agree on everything. that would be drones. what we’re looking for is intelligence. multiple pathways. complexity.
Fantastic post, Vanessa! I’m hoping to transition into the field eventually myself. If possible, can you put up a list of books you recommend? FERN has a great list but based on your pic above, I’d be interested in your recommendations too!
Venessa Miemis said:
the books in the pic are the few that i own. i also enjoy sci-fi to think about possibilities. here’s a post from futurist jamais cascio in his fast company column w a few he recommends – http://www.fastcompany.com/1617780/futures-thinking-a-bibliography
Great post Venessa,
I’ve been working on some aspects you’ve mentioned, like visioning and brainstorming. I found this piece very useful and agree it’s an essential skill for the simple reason that we’re in a massive structural shift (that’s probably slow enough so we won’t notice how big it is, but fast enough so that some of us will feel it). If we aren’t able to analyze how trends are shifting and then gathering this information to develop a new vision or possible scenarios we won’t be able to thrive through time and make our projects, organizations, families, etc. keep up with the change that is happening.
I will start practicing the foreseeing process more as I believe a new vision on lot’s of fields is forming and we need start taking the time to think about them. In my field, business, I’ve seen many changes that are structural and get a short term solution so i’m trying to develop a vision of how i see businesses and organizations working in the future and what fundamentals will change. This wouldn’t be possible without the processes you have outlined on your post.
Thanks for clarifying my path towards learning this essential skill.
Venessa Miemis said:
thanks jorge. creating a vision/scenario is very powerful. if you’re thinking about the future of the organization, think about how people would be behaving and interacting in this future world. imagine if the way we are all interacting on twitter and on blogs, having these conversations and sharing information, was the standard. what if every single person in the organization utilized these tools, with intention and meaning, purposefully? what kind of a learning organization would that be? how flexible and agile and adaptive would they be? how would roles be defined, and strengths and skills identified and encouraged to flourish? what if each person’s core talents were being highlighted and used to their highest potential? how would they collaborate on projects? how would people’s contributions be compensated? (because each person would have a multitude of ways they contribute, not something clearly defined in today’s job descriptions). how would that organization interact with its customers? how personalized and customized would the product or service be? how attentive would they be to the customer’s needs?
ask yourself all those questions, and a picture begins to form. and i suggest envisioning an “ideal”… so when it falls short, you are still waaaaaaaay ahead of the game.
Thanks for your focus. Applying this rekindled skill to a domain dear to you and us, Junto, this came up as a possible vision or statement of
People who talk to each other may generate valuable insights they wish to share with others. Others observing the conversation, e.g. as teleconference or as a recording, may find the knowledge and wisdom they seek obscured by a volume of communication not useful to their purposes and the topic at hand.
Traditional ways to provide the focus needed to share insights involve note-taking, transcription, hiring subject experts to present, and traditional teaching/lecturing models. All of these require significant time and manpower, an expense we are used to.
The assumption is we can realize untapped value of a conversation for future audiences and improve speed and outcomes of collaboration if we
support open collaborative models, usually run as circles. Examples: world cafe, open space technology, or unconference. The benefits of these are well supported in literature.
improve focus and enable findability of relevant conversation passages in context.
So awesome Venessa. Very grateful for these posts .. encouraging us to dream of a better world and, importantly, sharing your insights on how to bring the dreams into being.
I love these scenario types – especially the transformative one – and I will definitely use disaster and pessimistic to overcome a tendency to ignore potential pitfalls.
So backcasting – I’ve never used that label, though it’s a way I love to work. It’s so natural to create the vision and work right back to day 1, through each stage. I find it helps maintain perspective at each step and retain he vision, without compromise, right the way through. Surprising variations emerge too, as optional ways to manage different aspects arise. At a practical level I find it very easy to get a fix on the resources for every step, and that allows me to allocate cost estimates as the plan seems to write itself. If that makes sense!
You combine inspiration so nicely with practicality. Thank you so much.
Venessa Miemis said:
Emile Hooge said:
Hi Venessa. Thank you for that nice post. I like your starting point: foresight is about dealing with Black Swans.
Now the question you raise is how do you do that, if you consider with NN Taleb that those Black Swans have the following characteristics: “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability”?
According to me, any foresight work that seeks to make predictions is flawed and that is why trend analysis of scenarios building must always be used very carefully (but I am sure that’s how you do it Venessa!) with proper explanations about their actual purpose.
I suggest two interesting directions to follow, with a first list of useful skills (some of which fit in with Venessa’s ideas and some of which could certainly be elaborated upon a bit more):
direction 1 – resisting and/or adapting to negative Black Swans: we need solidity and coherence!
This requires skills such as: learning from past failures, working collectively rather than relying on experts (or people who have the wrong incentives…), visioning to build stability and engagement, reorganizing and simplifying some of the complex systems around us, rebuilding rather than repairing something that failed, prudence to avoid putting oneself or others in dangerous positions, etc.
direction 2 – seizing and exploiting positive Black Swans: we need serendipity and the capacity to “surf the wave”!
This requires skills such as: creativity and brainstorming to dream up unusual positions, gaming and gambling with small stakes, collective improvisation to turn the world into some kind of Jazz music, timing to keep your balance and move together with others, sharing your harvest to create a momentum, etc.
Venessa said ” Well, no, we can’t see the future – it doesn’t exist yet, it’s not set in stone. ”
Like Rodin said:
” It is inside already – all you have to do is to chisel it out .. “
Ned Kumar said:
Another excellent post. You are absolutely right in that foresight is a critical skill to be developed for success. We always talk about ‘leadership’, but what many don’t realize is that people are willing to follow a leader precisely because the leaders can “see more clearly the best destination to head towards and the path to that”.
One thing I would like to explicitly call out to the readers is the fact that use of the tools by default does not give one great foresight. One has to learn how to interpret the results.
I also briefly want to mention two additional terms – systems thinking & intuition.
In simple terms, systems thinking tries to look at interactions as a whole rather than break the interactions apart to understand it individually. As you mention in the trends section, STEEP is a good way to study overarching trends. But to succeed, I really believe we need to develop a ‘central-brain’ way of thinking (instead of a right-brain or a left-brain) where we can knead these different trends together along with even other elements like anthropological and psychological to develop foresight. To have foresight, one has to be absolutely immersed in the present with conscious awareness of all things around them and how they interplay with each other.
The second topic I want to briefly touch on is intuition. And here I am not talking about the touchy-feely intuition but intuition born out of experience. If you take experienced folks in any field, many can intuitively make a better call by looking at a subset of the informataion than a novice who has more information. The train of thought here is that foresights can be “drawn” from episodic memory. The more specific experiences you have, the more encodings you have in your episodic ‘database’ which in turn provides one with more associative representations. In essence, having a good collection of representations in your episodic memory allows you to “travel back in time” without explicitly looking at the actual data.
And that brings me to my last point and a full circle back to my initial statement – I believe foresight is a continuum. Some of us are good at it to a little extent and some of us have foresight that is build on complex neuro interconnections. So while we might all look at the same information and scenarios, each of us will have a different interpretation of it and what that means to the future.
Spiro Spiliadis said:
“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”
What makes the “future” unfold is being present with the feelings of “it” now.
What does the future feel like?
What do we want to feel?
The closer we come to the present moment, the better the future will unfold…
If we allow ourselves to “be” the future will do it’s part so that we continue to be.
Foresight then becomes being, doing then comes naturally,
My vision for future species is to give them the opportunity to “be” more and “do” less enjoy life, smell the roses, and reduce psychological time by eliminating my attachment to a need to unfold a future that will never exist but now….
and now i feel happy, now i feel content, now i feel “ok” with the present moment and that vibe will thrive and sustain as new future species will come into this world with conscious awareness of now, and present with humanity, psychology will be but an observation, rather then an obsession….
Ned Kumar said:
Interesting thoughts and perspectives and one I agree with on an ‘individual’ level — that we should be ‘present’ immersive. But deep down I also believe that foresight is more than being ‘aware’ of present/past. Also, based on what I have observed I think the term foresight is [mis]used loosely by many.
The more I have ruminated over this, the more I am led to believe (just my perspective) that foresight is not an analytical output. It is not an output determined by the tools used or a conclusion you derive using a mathematical formula. If foresight were to be an analytical output, we would have many millions more in this world with foresight (unfortunately most of us have more hindsight than foresight).
I think the most important thing in developing foresight is the “process” within yourself and of lesser importance is the process you use externally (tools, methodologies, software, etc.). We may all look at the past, immerse ourselves in the present, and use great tools but, not everyone develops the foresight to interpret the inputs and interactions between these inputs (I guess the analogy would the falling apple and gravity. Many has seen a fruit fall off a tree but only Newton ‘realized’ the significance of it).
So going back to your statements, I think the advantage of just allowing ourselves to “be” is that we start honing our internal process of thinking and decision making. We get better at using the lessons learned from the past, we get better at interpreting the signals we get from the present and in general our consciousness evolve to a point where ‘foresightful thinking’ becomes second nature.
Anyway, just some random thoughts 🙂
Spiro Spiliadis said:
I have to be honest the first three skill sets i felt comfortable knowing i possessed them, after reading this post on foresight, i had to ask myself if i knew i possessed it….
Re-reading the post, re-reading my comment and reading your comment i realized that hindsight is the path that leads to foresight…
According to a general definition hindsight is “understanding the nature of an event after it has happened” to me this sounds alot like “being” lets use the analogy of the apple falling off the tree..
Hindsight leads to foresight…..
I think i’ll stop there and see what responses we get from this
John Tropea said:
Snowden has a good post on Scenario Planning
The expert delusion (Nassim Taleb)
“We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control”
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