Are You Doing Enough Foresight?
Why and How You Should Do More
November 21, 2017, Ville Vanhala, Bruno Jacobsén
Do you know enough about the future to get you where you want to go?
Foresight guides every organization to some extent. Management, functional heads, team leaders and individuals on all levels in an organisation have beliefs about what the future holds. These assumptions will influence many plans, decisions and actions. But is futures thinking used to create a shared understanding of possible and desired futures? With a dose of systematic foresight, teams of all kinds can dramatically improve their chances of consistently making the right choices in a rapidly changing world.
In larger organizations, active foresight thinking may be used most often in some phases of the annual strategic planning process. In some organizations, foresight may also be incorporated into regular market intelligence reports, which might include elements like trend monitoring or occasional deep dives to analyze disruptive market forces.
However, all too often information about future disruptive forces competes with massive amounts of day-to-day information. There simply is not enough time or attention to look ahead recognize how fundamental changes in the landscape are beginning to take shape.
Here are 4 reasons why it pays off to make foresight a systematic practice in your organization.
1 - Things change faster than we expect
In this VUCA world, with growing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, things change faster than we expect.
By executing implementation plans that are based on periodic foresight (such as evaluating future trends only as part of the annual strategy process) can easily bind a company to a static strategy that does not respond or adapt to a world where change happens continuously.
Foresight therefore should be thought of something necessary at all stages of the strategy process, even during the implementation stage. New information throughout the year about likely future developments will have impact on many of the already - agreed Must Win Battles or Strategic Development Initiatives. Technological advances, changes in customer preferences, political events, or even disruptive business models can emerge at any point in time and change the foreseeable market evolution. Change does not run on a company’s schedule.
Strategic foresight should then remain as an important strategic activity that could flag the need for small or big adjustments to organization’s strategy, or sometimes even complete turnarounds.
2 - The sources of disruptive change can be found far and wide... and some very close
To be an innovator, it is important to look beyond trends in your own industry. Companies should constantly scan for trends in the broader context of their existence. Changes in society and in unrelated industries often are the early warnings of what may soon have impact in all business sectors. Picture, for example, how the new business models sprouting in some industries, like digital platforms, spread to almost every industry and changed their status quo.
Or think about how lean, and then agile, thinking started as a capability of a few companies decades ago. Companies are still talking about becoming leaner and more agile, and many started only recently, as if before they operated within a different reality. Companies that can foresee and apply these trends first in their industry will often have an upper-hand when competing.
But foresight is not just about the external environment. Looking inside your organization, developments like AI, robotics, new organizational models, the characteristics of the younger generations of employees, to mention just a few developments, will all have significant effect on the way organizations are run.
Many of the developments ahead can be foreseen to a reasonable degree of confidence. These developments, when brought to view, will encourage management to think about how the organisation must develop itself in order to align with the new opportunities and requirements.
So when thinking about foresight, we should think “broad” when looking outside. But we should also look inside our organizations when thinking of what the new developments will bring.
3 – Foresight improves the quality of your decision-making
Being future-oriented allows you to think more critically and be more aware of the changing environment in which your organization operates. Being future-minded broadens horizons and prepares everyone involved in the process to make decisions with a mind trained to accept, predict, and even welcome change.
Without foresight it is difficult to know whether decisions made still make sense. But by accepting strategic foresight as a key driver of a company’s success, the organization’s decisions will be validated, improved, or revised. This is only possible by regularly checking how well they are aligned with the latest view of the most plausible future.
4 - It aligns your organization around a shared view of the future
With systematic foresight thinking, and identifying foresight as a key driver of good strategy, confidence in strategic choices is warranted, as decisions are made based on a solid assessment of possible trends and disruptions. Members of the organization will understand how decisions connect with changes happening in the world and how the company’s own vision is aligned with those changes.
On top of that, when foresight becomes an integral part of the organization, and people are encouraged to participate in the process, decisions and changes are more likely to be accepted, however tough they may be.
How should you do foresight?
While in an ideal world all the above would be done seamlessly, it doesn’t happen without planning and facilitation. What does it take to turn foresight into an impactful activity that adds value to current key processes?
One easy step, and perhaps the first step, would be for top management to foster a foresight-minded attitude throughout the company. By encouraging everyone across different functions to keep an eye in the future, evaluate trends, and discuss how they may affect their activities and the future of the company, foresight can be decentralized to an extent, increasing knowledge of the business environment, trust in managerial decisions, and motivation towards one’s work.
For those companies that want to take it further, managers are recommended to establish Strategic Foresight as a distinct, recognised and necessary activity, requiring resources and producing specified deliverables for other organizational processes.
Hence, strategic foresight, in this case, would have clear goals, a responsible person or team, as well as effective methods and tools to deliver valuable output for the rest of the organization to utilize.
Much like strategy teams’ work, it should support and complement decision-making throughout the organization. It should work not only with a specific function or group, but with different ones across the organization. From HR to technology teams, it should keep them informed and well-advised on the foreseeable trends, disruptive changes and emerging issues in the near term, mid-term and longer term future.
As an example, take an HR manager in charge of selecting a range of perks for new employees. Their goal is to attract the best possible talent, people who have no difficulties finding employment. A separate foresight activity working specifically to support other functions would be able to foresee the large numbers of millennials entering the workforce, identify key motivation drivers and provide specific recommendations to HR. Many millennials are often willing to trade a higher salary for well-being programs, more free time with their families, or the opportunity to work on projects they are passionate about, so HR would adjust their employee benefits accordingly.
Or take an R&D team in a larger company working on the development of new products. They are often in charge of innovating within their field, improving current technologies or developing adjacent ones. However, all new disruptive technologies necessarily come from different value networks serving different markets – until companies developing them find a way to break into your market when the technology improves and is good enough to replace current technologies.
With a strategic foresight team in place, R&D, management, or other functions will be able to foresee these developments and tackle them appropriately. It will allow them, not only to remain competitive if they can reorganize themselves to address the changes, but also to lead the change themselves and be at the forefront of innovation within their industry.
Is it necessary to have a separate team?
If you are a large organization, this might be ideal, as foresight with a broad scope, continuous nature, and capable of producing advanced deliverables for different stakeholders does require a certain amount of manpower.
However, even a foresight-minded culture can have a significant impact by allowing people to keep an eye on developments important for their own functions within the company and its future at large.
On top of that, many organizations also manage future orientation well with a different set-up. They do it by including strategic foresight as a (part time) responsibility in the job profile of several persons that have shared methods and tools to coordinate the activity.
For smaller companies, where resources are scarcer, one person with a clearly assigned responsibility to facilitate foresight thinking, coupled with a good foresight tool, can go a long way in improving the company’s ability to maintain a clear view of the road ahead.
How exactly to organize foresight within an organization, large and small, can depend on a variety of factors and can go from an entire team dedicated to it to a single person using a tool. But the bottom line is, foresight should not be an add-on to strategy. It should be thought of as an important value-adding activity for a whole range of processes within the organization and as a necessary element in the culture of the company. And this absolutely needs someone in the organization to be tasked with the responsibility to facilitate foresight discussions, and to ensure questions about future opportunities and risks are raised with key stakeholders on a regular basis.