- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
How Do You Use Strategic Foresight?
One of the explicit motivations for writing my novel was to showcase some of the tools and techniques of Strategic Foresight for a popular audience. As a rule, you don’t use Strategic Foresight to predict the future; you use it to INFLUENCE the future. While there is not a single “correct” way for using the tools of Strategic Foresight, a good initial list consists of the following six steps: Framing, Scanning, Forecasting, Visioning, Planning, and Acting.
These tools and techniques are not limited to any particular organization, philosophy, or political outlook. They can be employed to address an incredible range of organizational and individual objectives
Framing is a critical first step in the Foresight process. You will want to decide what type of organization you are interested in, describe why you are interested in pursuing it, and determine what tools you will be using. Framing has three components:
The Domain Description (this should be a single sentence) briefly describes the Focal Issue, Geographic Boundaries, Time Horizon, and Stakeholders involved. Using my own project as an example, I came up with the following Domain Description: “How will I get my novel published to a global audience within two years?”
The second step is the Assessment. This also has two parts; Expected Outcomes and Measures to Assess Achievement. For my novel, the expected outcome is “A Book Publishing Contract.” And the Measures to Achieve that success are to “Complete the manuscript, submit the book proposal, engage a literary agent, and finally to receive a publishing offer.
The third step is Logistics. These are the nitty-gritty details of the project that include team members, duration of the project, relevant timelines, the resources required, and the Foresight Method to be used. For my novel “I will use the Science Fiction World Building Technique.”
You see, these are tools that can be applied to nearly any process.
At its simplest level, scanning involves looking at current trends to get a sense for what is happening. If you read the news every morning, you are engaged in a form of scanning. However, to truly benefit from the scanning process, there are two more techniques that really help narrow the focus.
The first technique is to consider how the trends will impact your specific organization. Even in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment, some things remain constant. When we focus on those important elements that do not change, we have upgraded to “Horizon Scanning.”
In this figure (adapted from Tibbs, 2000):
“The Star” represents our enduring values
“The Mountain” is the goal we strive to achieve
“The Chessboard” represents the issues and challenges we are likely to face.
“The Self” is our attributes and efforts to become “Future Smart.”
Once we have undertaken the process of Horizon Scanning, we can comprehensively evaluate the trends affecting our organization using the STEEPLE analysis:
S – Stands for Socio-Cultural: includes items such as population, attitudes, age structure, or lifestyle
T – Stands for technical: advancement in technology creates new opportunities and dangers
E- The first E stands for Economic issues such as inflation, economic growth, unemployment, and interest rates.
E- The second E stands for Environmental: These impacts will vary, but in a general sense, pollution and waste are considered negative factors.
P – Stands for Political: How do current and future policy decisions impact your organization?
L – Stands for Legal, and in some ways, closely resembles political. These are the specific laws and regulations to watch.
E- The final E is for Ethical. Your organization ought to be the bastion for ethical thought and action, but as we have seen from watching the news, many organizations struggle with ethical dilemmas. I have created a series of articles dedicated to ethical decision-making titled Ethics for the 21st Century to assist with this.
Will analyzing trends help us to predict the future?
Well, no, not really. Predicting the future is also known as “Point forecasting, and it is very difficult if not impossible to do” (Gordon, 2009). However, we may be able to get things “usefully right” enough of the time to provide tremendous benefit to our organization. By understanding our current trends, we can extrapolate alternative futures.
For any given trend, here are five important alternative futures to consider:
“A surprise-free scenario. Things will continue much the same as they are now. They won’t become substantially better or worse.
An optimistic scenario. Things will go considerably better than in the recent past.
A pessimistic scenario. Something will go considerably worse than in the past.
A disaster scenario. Things will go terribly wrong, and our situation will be far worse than anything we have previously experienced.
A transformational scenario: where something spectacularly marvelous happens –something we never dared expect.” (Cornish, 2004, p. 98).
I can safely say that even more important to us than predicting the future is INFLUENCING the future. To do that, you can employ the “flip side” of Forecasting – Backcasting.
While none of us can wave a wand and magically create the future we want, by understanding trends and extrapolating alternative futures, we can decide which of those alternate futures we prefer.
Holding firmly to our preferred future state, we can backcast by imagining that the future state already exists and then try to determine the steps needed to get there.
For instance, I may want to imagine that I am a famous author publishing books about Strategic Foresight.
I would have to sign a contract with a Publishing Company
Before that, I would have to sign on with a talented Literary Agent
Before that, I would have to build a digital platform and get you to read my stuff to help build a fan base.
Can you see how this works?
So far, we have focused on scanning the trends that affect our organization. Along the way, we have done a little forecasting and even some backcasting as we have considered what impact these trends will have on us. As you decide on the vision of your preferred future state, there are some important factors to keep in mind:
Prepare for the future: Lack of preparation invites disaster. We have already begun to prepare by taking the time to investigate the trends facing us. However, there is still much that needs to be done.
Anticipate future needs: Take the time to analyze alternate futures and make contingency plans for them.
Use poor information when necessary: You never get perfect information when considering events in the future. “Our business with the future is to improve it, not to predict it – at least not infallibly” (Cornish, 2004, p.3)
Now let’s use our imaginations and consider some of the possibilities that open up for us.
It is time to use the insights we have gained to explore the future. Typically, this phase of the process would involve the workshop participants developing specific tasks, goals, and metrics to help the organization achieve its goals. However, in this article, let me offers some ideas in the form of questions designed to prompt further discussion:
Technology use seems to offer significant positive potential to impact most organizations. What if there was a way to leverage the wealth of knowledge and experience already in your firm to attract younger generations?
Could the isolating nature of technology be overcome to provide important support or services to customers?
How might it feel for customers to know that there was a vast network of caring people behind them?
What if we blew up the idea of increasing sales? Maybe there is a different way of effectively reaching those customers in need of your products or services?
Trends in education have never been more chaotic. People are fleeing traditional educational approaches in search of ways to gain the skills necessary to thrive in a COVID environment. Would it be possible to offer the benefits of your formally trained personnel through an outreach program?
What might be the pros and cons of these approaches? (These are just examples of questions that could be used to generate discussion in a planning session.)
With a plan in place, it’s time for your organization to move boldly into the unknown (but no longer uncharted) future. Now is the chance to measure what you find in the real world against what you imagined the future might be like.
The measures and performance of each organization will vary, but there are still a few techniques you can use to tighten up your Strategic Foresight plan. First, before the Foresight meetings have ended, schedule several times (perhaps quarterly) to review your progress. Does it turn out that you are happily enjoying the optimistic scenario? Or are you struggling to survive the pessimistic scenario? Which one is actually unfolding?
Finally, before you conclude your Foresight meeting, schedule another strategic session (perhaps annually) to review the foundational aspects all over again. There is a danger of getting “stuck” in a plan and trying to execute it just because you spent so much time planning it. Be deliberate and make time to ask the big questions on a regular basis. Have you framed the problem correctly?
The goal of strategic foresight is not to predict the future but to offer plausible alternate views of the future. When done right, these alternate views are often provocative; they tend to challenge previously unexamined biases and preconceived understandings. By making the time to do the hard work of strategic thinking, we will be better prepared to face the future, even if the complexity and velocity of change continues to increase. We can be more predictive and adaptive – more “Future Smart.”
Explore the Strategic Foresight Curated Library
Canton, J. (2015). Future Smart: Managing the game-changing trends that will transform your world (First Da Capo Press ed.). Boulder: Da Capo Press.
Cilluffo, A & D’Vera, C., (2019). 6 demographic trends shaping the US and the world in 2019. Factank. Retrieved from. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/11/6-demographic-trends-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world-in-2019/
Fergnani, A. (2021). A Detailed Account on How to Frame a Futures & Foresight Project. Retrieved online Association of Professional Futurists (facebook.com)
Gordon, A. (2009). Future Savvy: Identifying trends to make better decisions, manage uncertainty, and profit from change. New York: American Management Association.
Hines, A. (2006, September/October). Strategic foresight: The state of the art. The Futurist, 40(5), 18-21.
PESTLE Analysis. (2015). Difference between STEEP and STEEPLE Analysis. Retrieved from https://pestleanalysis.com/steep-and-steeple-analysis/
Tibbs, H. (2000). Making the future visible. Psychology, scenarios, and strategy. Global Business Network. Retrieved from http://www.psicopolis.com/futurdrome/archivio/futures.pdf