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How can we use the future to plan (part 1)?

There have been thousands of foresight processes run in Australia and overseas since the 1940’s. Still, usually when someone asks me what I do and I answer that I am a foresight practitioner, I am greeted with a blank look then a small smile and a question – “what is that?”

Foresight is the practice of using the discipline of futures studies by foresight practitioners or futurists. Futures studies is the study of the future which can be conceived of in a number of ways such as the:

  • Empirical tradition, which focuses on trend analysis and prediction, originated in the USA.
  • Critical tradition originated in Europe and grew out of a critique of what was perceived as an overly empirical approach to futures in the USA.
  • Cultural tradition arose to include non-Western cultures and to invoke a deeper consideration of civilisational and planetary futures.
  • Empowerment-oriented, prospective, action research approach began in Europe in the nineties and has been taken up by some Australian researchers.
  • Integral/transdisciplinary futures approach is emerging and has the potential for authentic multiperspectival and planetary inclusion (World Futures Studies Federation).

At its simplest, strategic foresight is the conscious use of the future in organisations; usually as part of a strategic thinking process that precedes planning. My work in organisations starts with the premise that the future doesn’t yet exist, it is open and shapeable, we have choices in the present and it is those that create our future.

This is not to ignore the structures and long cycles of change in societies and organisations, but it is a statement that we can change our direction if we have the courage.

At a high level, there are a number of uses for strategic foresight in organisations:

  1. Direction setting
  2. Option generation
  3. Pathways identification
  4. Innovation sandbox

As part one of two, this post will discuss direction setting and option generation.

Direction setting

Many organisations undertake strategic planning processes that generate voluminous documents that allow management to monitor progress and manage operational activities. When asked about the direction setting that preceded the planning, most executive teams will mumble something about a vision, or the wishes of the CEO/Board or the need to continue moving somewhere. When further pushed to explain where the vision or strategic goal came from (and only in the strictest confidence) most concede that a group conversation took place, or the leader had an idea that the group latched onto as the direction for the organisation. Once set, this direction is not questioned instead it is planned for and executed.

My questions are – how does the leader or the executives know that the direction they chose was the ‘right’ or ‘best’? What options had they considered? What assumptions did they make? What did they ignore (consciously or otherwise)? How does the direction chosen align with core purpose of the organisation?

The practice of foresight is the process through which the direction setting conversation can take place in a manner that is rigourous, conscious, questioning and engaging. It demands that people are clear about the future they want to create, the tradeoffs that this may require and the options they are choosing not to pursue.

This can be an uncomfortable conversation for many executive groups. Using foresight asks people to confront the question – why am I choosing this future over another?

There are usually four phases to a foresight project/process. These might be undertaken in workshops or through research and interviews:

  • Analysis –  what do we think is coming down the pipeline from the future – how far out you look is a function of the type of work you are doing.
  • Interpretation – why do we think one thing and not another is important – what might really be happening, and what are our assumptions in this? We try to deepen where/how we are looking.
  • Prospection – based on what we have analysed and the sense we have made of it – what are the forward views that we can construct?
  • Action – what will the action be in response to the future views we have created?

Option generation

Methods such as scenarios give groups insights into the ways in which complex systems operate, and the impacts certain decisions might have on their ability to bring about a particular future state.

The conscious practice of foresight opens up the option generation space by asking groups to engage with possible interactions of current trends, emerging future issues and wildcards. The use of foresight processes to generate options for action allows assumptions to be validated, blindspots identified and present operational shortcomings noted. Traditional planning, even when done well, takes a linear view of the future. Foresight can utilise a number of tools to map out the ramifications of the intersection of trends, sense new issues and create narrative stories about what might be possible.

These first two uses of foresight assist organisations to have open and free-ranging conversations about what might be possible for them into the future.

It asks tough questions, but the payoff is that people can see more and deeply understand the risk/reward tradeoff for each direction set.

At The Dragonfly Collective we work with organisations to use futures thinking to challenge existing directions and imagine new futures, so we can go about transforming our communities and organisations to acheive them. If this is something your organisation could benefit from, ask us how we might assist!


Marcus Barber

I think foresight’s place in planning extends much more deeply than what most organisations think. I’d suggest that under corporations law, directors who do not engage in a deliberative approach to foresight have minimal legitimacy for expenditure of an organisation’s resources. Allocating and expending those resources without a deliberate and consciously stated intention for the future outcomes of their organisation, could well make them liable. It’s just an idea of course, but ‘growth’ would be unlikely to stack up as a legitimate reason for expenditures

Rowena Morrow

I think that is an interesting idea and it will be a tipping point when we see ASIC asking directors what they did to engage with the future before they made a decision. There is still a lot of talk about what ‘we could not have known’ which is often code for ‘we weren’t looking in the right place’.

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