In today's constantly changing, interconnected, digitally disrupted, politically challenging, post-Brexit and highly uncertain world, is it a good idea to make a single strategic plan and stick to it regardless? How do you ensure that your business grows and thrives when you know that the future is uncertain at best?
The film Back to the Future II is a great example of how you can't predict the future. Twenty six years later we can see how many things it got right, like video calls, big flat screen televisions, wearable tech, and smart glasses. There were also many things it got wrong (faxes anyone?) or missed entirely. The biggest thing it missed was something huge: our ubiquitous smartphones. But then 1989 was the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web, so the film went out before the start of our current, always on-line world emerged.
No one can accurately predict the future. But you can use strategic foresight - the practice of anticipatory thinking and leadership - to get an idea close enough to what is likely to happen. Developing plans in response to these different possible, probable futures will ensure that your organisation is amply agile and resilient; quickly able to adapt and succeed.
Strategic foresight helps you imagine a range of possible futures and uses structured frameworks to minimise what you might miss. It allows you to decide on a preferable future and then work out what you can do to influence the present in order that this future scenario has a greater chance of becoming reality.
These five steps will help develop your "foresight muscles":
- Search out emerging trends and keep your eyes open for new things from sites like Flipboard or Apple News which you can configure to feed you news of interest. Or, you can use a tool like Factr which you can configure to mine information of interest from chosen information suppliers online. Once you've got the information, consider which of these trends might disrupt your business? How might different trends combine and what kind of disruption would that create? What advantages could you develop? What risks might need to be mitigated? This must be an ongoing activity
- Develop a range of possible, probable futures based on how these trends may unfold. This is highly unlikely to be a direct extrapolation from the past.. . Add a wild card future, caused by a highly improbable event. The Fukushima disaster happened not because they hadn't done any disaster planning, but because they hadn't thought through the effect of three catastrophes happening at the same time. That was just considered too unlikely, so no plans were made. Wild cards help you exercise for really 'far out' events. Make sure you have both negative and positive futures to consider, so that you have plans for each case.
- Identify how you would know that one of the futures you imagined was actually emerging ("early indicators"). If you work backwards from the future scenarios you've developed, you will start to see how each could happen and therefore what you need to watch out for as an indicator that it is about to happen (your early indicators), as the present and future become merged.
- Each of the futures you developed needs a plan. If this future emerged, what would you do to take advantage of the situation? What would you need to stop doing? What risks would you need to mitigate? How can you innovate?
- In step 3) you identified early indicators. Now you need to actively monitor for these signs that a particular future is unfolding. When you notice this, you can execute the appropriate plan for that future. This will give you the best opportunity to thrive and endure.
Keeping an eye not just on how the future unfolds into the present, but also on how (and in which direction) trends could emerge will enable you to make robust decisions for the future of your organisation. Exercising your foresight muscles and thinking through what could happen in several circumstances will enable you to respond more quickly and easily, even if you encounter an emerging future that you didn't foresee. Your resilience and agility are improved because you have thought about several futures and have a number of plans you could build on. With Plans A, B and C thought through and all ready to implement, should the need arise, you don't have to start from scratch. And because you are keeping an eye on how trends are emerging, you will be aware of the need to act sooner rather than later. Becoming more agile and quick to respond to changing circumstances are two key reasons why you should conduct due diligence on the future.
Patricia Lustig sees a growing need for more people and organisations to use foresight. She works with leaders and organisations to help them make sense of the emerging future by developing their foresight muscles and building foresight capability into their organisations. Her latest book, Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future, Triarchy Press 2015 is available on Amazon. Contact Patricia on her website or follow her on Twitter.