Why A Broad Horizon Matters in Foresight
We explain the reasons why organizations should take a generalist approach when it comes to foresight. And we will also introduce the method to categorize and make sense of the information that is collected.
May 21, 2019, Bruno Jacobsen
When we think of foresight - especially in matters of trying to anticipate future developments, advancing plausible futures, or increasingly resilience and adaptability to changes in the horizon - we tend to focus on a narrow range of developments. That's normal. The world is complex, and there is almost an infinite number of phenomena you could look at. There simply isn't enough time, or resources, to look at everything. That means that, for the most part, organizations and foresight practitioners will look at a limited range of developments, and make predictions based on that. In this article, we'll show why that's not ideal.
Why A Broad Horizon Matters in Foresight
Before explaining why broadening one's horizon is important, we should mention when it isn't.
When it comes to short-term and well-understood problems, a focused approach is often sufficient. For instance, if an organization is trying to predict the number of widgets that will be sold in the following quarter, it can usually predict them quite accurately based on few data. If it has sold those widgets in previous quarters, and aggregate demand is easy to calculate, it's not usually a problem.
The difficulty arises when companies try to make predictions about a more distant future. In this case, even when there's considerable expertise around a specific topic, those predictions tend to be inaccurate.
There's a famous experiment done that suggests this is exactly the case. According to the Harvard Business Review, in a 20+ year study of 284 forecasters done by Professor Philip Tetlock, found that experts are less accurate than non-experts in their areas of expertise. According to the article, "Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations."
Though this seems like a surprising finding, it's not difficult to see why it might be so.
In today's world, where almost everything seems interconnected, expertise in one domain area is no longer sufficient to accurately predict future developments. The same finding can be extrapolated to include organizations.
Often, breakthroughs, or societal and paradigm shifts come from fields or industries other than our own. Sometimes it's adjacent industries (for example, computer gaming fundamentally changed the computer industry - though they are theoretically different industries). Sometimes, it's completely different industries (the app industry, a development that came out of the mobile industry, fundamentally changed taxi transportation systems).
For that reason, focusing on future developments and future trends that appear most relevant to one's industry, to the neglect of trends in other industries, is no longer good practice. In fact, it is best to keep a broad view of developments on the horizon. This approach usually means making an effort to bring a wide variety of trends and topics to the discussion table.
Use The Future Triangle Method to Predict Plausible Futures
Collecting a wide variety of trends or topics from multiple sources and taking a broader approach is only the beginning of a successful foresight work, the next step is to make sense of the inputs and predict plausible future scenarios. One of the methods organizations use to categorize the trends and topics is The Future Triangle method. It is often used to identify plausible futures that emerge in riptide between three pushing and pulling corners, each with their own set of drivers and inhibitors.
1. Pull of the future
The first element of the Future Triangle is Pull of The Future, which contains one dominant visual image or vision. As discussed in our 9 alternative logics blog, different people can have different viewpoints of the future. Therefore, establishing a common shared vision is essential.
Useful questions to detect the future image and its pulls are:
- What would be the ideal future for this issue or topic?
- Do we have a shared vision of the preferred future and of the futures we want to avoid?
- Do we have a shared image of the logic behind how the future gets formed in this specific case, or are there competing for logical beliefs?
- If we were adrift in a river, where do we end up in the issue?
- What tools and resources do we have that can affect the direction and lead us towards that future?
- What do we lack to influence change? What are our limits?
- Is it possible to impact the futures? Or is it needed at all?
2. Push of the present
The second element, Push of the present, consists of trends, drivers, technologies, and decisions, or acts of agents that are disrupting and pushing change forward. This is where the information collected before should be put in the task. The broader the topics are, the more holistic the picture is going to be. Useful questions to detect pushes of the present are:
- What trends and technologies are changing the future right now?
- What things are pushing change forward?
- What already known new policies, procedures, laws, budgets, decisions and technologies will start to push changes forward in the near future (like in the Kennedy case)?
3. Weight of the past
While examining the plausible future, it's necessary to look back at the past. The past contains structural barriers that inhibit change and prevent us from achieving a particular pull or push of the future.
The weight of the past can be understood as being organizational structures, policies, laws, regulations, procedures, knowledge structures or historical narratives that limit or prevent us from moving forward. Existing investments in infrastructure, technology, education, and all the societal contracts, achieved benefits, debts, and demographic structures can also be included.
Useful questions to detect such weights of past are:
- Who benefits from the status quo or loses if it is changed?
- What are the barriers to change?
- What is holding us back, or getting in our way?
- What are the deep structures that resist change?
There's nothing wrong with bringing experts to the table. Or with giving larger emphasis to trends and developments within one's own industry. Both are invaluable and should never be discontinued. The point is - both individuals and companies have already become pretty good at this. Any incremental knowledge gained from digging even deeper into a narrow scope of future changes is far outweighed by the benefits that can be gained from broadening the scope of one's horizon. It allows organizations to take a step back and imagine the future unfold, which often happens independently of what the organization does.
Then, organizations can look at themselves objectively and understand their role within the larger context. Sometimes, there will be an opportunity to influence the future and change it. Other times, it will be necessary to adapt.
And often it will be important to understand the different plausible futures and design strategies that increase the chances of a favourable outcome while mitigating the risks of wrong predictions.
While it is impossible to accurately predict the future 100% of the time (or even close to that), it is certainly possible to increase your chances.
Here at Futures Platform, we suggest our customers take this broad view. One way to do it is by creating a foresight radar and inviting the stakeholders, managers, or even everyone in the organization to take part in the creation process. At the end of the day, both the management team and employees will have a shared understanding of the future and a clear view of things that are pulling the organization forward.
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