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How can we use the future to plan (part 2)?

When an executive team develops a strategic plan, how is it that they know whether the direction they chose was the ‘right’ or ‘best’ one? What options had they considered? What assumptions did they make? What did they ignore (consciously or otherwise)? Strategic foresight helps answer those questions, and demands that people are clear about the future they want to create. This post follows on from part one.

Pathways identification

Alongside traditional planning processes, which start in the present and plan out to the future, sits foresight – using the future to plan back to the present. Known as backcasting, this method requires groups to inhabit a future state and plan backwards. Commonly, the outcome of this process indicates the gap between the required ‘present state’ the organisation needs to inhabit in order to reach the preferred ‘future state’, as well as the current ‘present state’. It is often this gap that stops organisations achieving future goals.

Foresight also asks some interesting questions about the present state of the organisation and the willingness to change this in order to be different in the future. Many times, I have worked with groups that have a vision to be very different in the future. They know they cannot continue to operate in the same manner, but when asked “what will you stop?” very often the answer is “nothing”.

A foundation rule when working with the future is that you cannot expect to have a future that is different if you continue to operate the same way you do in the present. If we want the future to be different, then we need to be different now.

Foresight will also uncover the assumptions we make about the pathways that may be taken. In economically straightened times, assuming that more cash will have to become available for you to achieve future success, is an assumption that needs to be challenged. Any phrase that starts with “they” should have questions asked about the research/evidence on which it is based. Too often organisations expect others to act in particular ways, or assume they have influence over the actions of others, and these assumptions must too be questioned.

Foresight is a robust process through which pathways to preferred future states can be generated. It opens up thinking spaces for groups to engage in creative conversations about possible ways in which activities can be undertaken, choices made and actions planned.

Innovation sandbox

As the future has yet to happen, it provides a place for play and innovation. Using the future to ask people to generate new ideas about what might be possible is a creative and engaging activity.

The future often lacks the political pressures that are so often present in organisations. Removing these and asking people to navigate future challenges and opportunities generates a space where anything is possible and innovation can occur.  Reframing the current understanding of a problem, taking different perspectives or allowing the future to emerge through the group are all ways in which we can ‘play in in the sandbox’.

It is the introduction of this type of space that can be liberating for many organisations, giving people the permission to be ridiculous and allow ideas to bubble to the surface, which can then be developed into new products, services or organisational activities.

If innovation in your organisation appears to be the same ideas rehashed time and again, then sometimes the current environment isn’t helping. You may need to liberate the group for a short period into a space that is different, unbounded and new. Foresight processes can be crafted to create such a space for your organisation to play.

This two part series has introduced a high level view of what foresight can bring to your organisation. We work with you to build knowledge and capacity, to teach you how to fish, rather than give you a meal.  If this is something your organisation could benefit from, ask us how we might assist!

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