What makes strategic foresight successful in organisations?
We interviewed twelve organisations to understand how they define foresight success metrics.
September 21, 2021, Linnea Sinkkilä, Gökce Sandal
How can organisations define foresight success and identify areas of improvement? To understand which factors are the most influential in determining organisational foresight success, we’ve interviewed twelve Finnish organisations from both the public and private sectors.
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While much has been said on the increasing importance of foresight in a rapidly changing world, what actually makes foresight successful is a less researched question. As foresight is often a continuous process and hence a long-term commitment, identifying concrete performance indicators and benefits of foresight can be challenging for organisations.
To understand how organisations perceive the success of their foresight activities and the benefits gained from them, we’ve conducted interviews with twelve Finnish organisations from both the public and private sectors.
We had a diverse sample of organisations that were at different stages with their foresight efforts. Six of the interviewed organisations had a high foresight maturity level with structured foresight systems in place, three organisations had a consistent approach to foresight and were in the process of developing their foresight systems, and the remaining three were still at the early stages of establishing a foresight system.
In the interviews, organisational foresight experts were asked to describe which factors support or conversely hinder foresight according to their own experiences. To validate the current maturity level of foresight activities in selected organisations, the interviewees were asked to evaluate the level of their foresight practices according to Terry Grim’s foresight maturity model framework.
The table below depicts the frequency of different success elements: “Count” describes the number of interviews where the topic was brought up. As some themes were mentioned notably more often than others, it is reasonable to presume that these themes were perceived to be especially crucial for foresight success.
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As seen from the table above, structure for foresight and effective communication topped the list as the most important success factors, followed by foresight methodology and futures thinking skills. Below, we take a more in-depth look at these three success factors and highlight some quotes from our interviewees.
Structure: Making Foresight A Routine
The interviewees widely agreed that for strategic foresight to be truly effective, it needs to become an integrated, continuous process with an established link to strategy.
Through means of established organisational policies, foresight becomes a formalised process within the organisation, a routine instead of “strategic fluff”:
“Foresight demands that people have time for it, for even just one day per month, and then foresight can gradually establish itself into the daily routine. If only the management is doing foresight and discussing it, that doesn’t really pay off. Foresight remains as strategic fluff that might be noticed briefly, but its meaning is not really understood. That’s why you need contact points, i.e. foresight people.”
Lack of formal processes was also seen as a hindrance to foresight success. Organisations that didn’t have established processes risked losing foresight capability in case of changes in administration or personnel. If foresight is established as a continuous process that’s connected to other organisational activities, it is less vulnerable to organisational fluctuations:
“Foresight should be continuous: often, as the strategy period changes, an external consultant comes in and hands out four scenarios for strategy work and then those scenarios are discussed – that feels a bit superimposed. Foresight should be incorporated, it should be continuous and communicated, and people, who are able to take foresight into the right situations within the organisation, should be attached to it.”
Communicating foresight results effectively
Communication was an overarching theme in the interviews as it crossed several other themes. In line with existing foresight studies, interviewers stressed the importance of communicating foresight insights internally in the right format, to the right person, and at the right time:
“Even if you collect signals or catch something interesting, then you still need to be able to put it in a way that addresses all the relevant actors inside the organisation. That signal has to be translated in a way that more people can catch it. The pervasiveness of the message is truly essential: how the message is shaped and the way it progresses in the organisation is extremely critical.”
Some of the interviewed organisations were also hiring communication professionals and investing in visual communication tools to make the message more effective:
“It’s better to report everything you do verbally and visually: when there is the underlying idea of changing mental images and models, textual form doesn’t work that well and even makes it a bit challenging. And particularly to summarise things, because no one has time to read a full report on all the little details."
Foresight Methodology is for pros, futures thinking skills for everyone
Based on our interview data, we found that foresight mature organisations displayed a greater variety in methods. In addition to utilising commonly used foresight tools such as trend analysis, scenario planning and horizon scanning, foresight mature organisations were also cultivating their own methods.
In most cases, the need to develop new methods stemmed from the insufficiency of current foresight methods. For example, as one interviewee noted, there is an incongruity between the often lengthy foresight processes and today’s fast-paced world, leading to a need to develop foresight methods that are more compatible with limited time-resources and management’s expectations:
“Futures research is so wide and requires an openness of the mind – from this basis, the [foresight] processes take more than a few weeks to complete. In a fast-paced world with limited resources, this is a difficult equation. In terms of the [foresight] process, high-quality methods that are suitable for a fast-paced world should be developed.”
The interviewees also noted that not all participants had to be proficient in foresight methodology as long as the facilitator could describe it through the process. One interviewee even stated that if participants of a foresight workshop are too familiar with methods, this can make them less open to new ideas and thoughts:
“Foresight participants need to understand the purpose of foresight, but it’s almost better if they have no understanding of foresight tools and processes. That way, they are more open to thinking new things and don’t try to think one step further like strategically thinking people tend to do, thus locking themselves in too far-reaching conclusions.”
Foresight reduces uncertainty and boosts futures literacy
While there was some variations on how the interviewed organisations utilised futures knowledge, common themes emerged regarding the perceived benefits of foresight.
The most prominent benefits of foresight were reduction of uncertainty by recognising disruption and the ability to identify and interpret change. The identified success factors all supported this larger goal and helped organisations become more aware of tomorrow's needs and make the right decisions to actively shape their futures.
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This article is based on the Master’s thesis research titled “Becoming a forerunner in foresight – Key elements of success in organisational foresight”, conducted by Linnea Sinkkilä. The research was commissioned by Futures Platform and submitted to the University of Turku, Futures Studies department in Spring 2021.
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