Why Foresight Is Needed in the Public Leadership Space

Public Leadership without Foresight Is Like a Ship without a Rudder

February 9, 2019, Willow Pryor

Public Organisations or any business, in fact, it is so easy to get caught up in the hamster wheel of busy-ness. The inherent problem with this though is the ability to lose sight of where they are, what will happen along the way and the vision of the future that drives them forward. The practice of Strategic Foresight is a way of stepping out of the hamster wheel and re-igniting your capacity to shape the future. However, it takes strong public leadership to do so…

Strong public leadership has evolved to be more than just about an individual holding a public office role and guiding the community. Today it is as much about shared vision and collective responses as it is about guiding the community. In his book ‘The New Public Leadership Challenge’ Stephen Brookes describes Public leadership as the following:

“A form of collective leadership in which public bodies and agencies collaborate in achieving a shared vision based on shared aims and values and distribute this through each organisation in a collegiate way which seeks to promote, influence and deliver improve public value as evidenced through sustained social, environmental and economic well-being within a complex and changing context” (Brookes and Grint, 2010: 1)

This definition highlights the need of Public Organisations, whether it be a public organisation/body or for-purpose organisation, to lead with a cohesive shared vision and clear roadmap forward. Foresight enables public organisations to find their rudder by utilising collaborative and innovative processes to ensure that a shared vision is created. To get to this shared vision though there are some key steps that need to be taken.


Move from Risk adversity to Calculated Risk

We live in complex and uncertain times that are changing rapidly. The word best used to describe these times is VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. Futures thinking provides a framework to help organisations to become ‘future proof’ and resilient in a VUCA world by solving tomorrow’s problems today and identifying opportunities as they emerge. More specifically, futures can help mobilise bureaucracy. Public organisations can get caught in the trap of not trying anything new because they are responsible for their communities and do not want to put them at risk. This fear can be a killer for innovation. An important step is to move the organisation from one of risk adversity to calculated risk, that is, know the landscape that lies in front of you as you take new paths forward to shape your future. When asked about the practice of foresight in his leadership practice as Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Kevin Cocks went even further to say that “risk adversity creates exclusion”.


Scanning the Horizon to know your landscape

Identifying key emerging issues and trends are an important step in identifying the landscape that lies ahead of you. This is part of a practice known as horizon scanning. Done within the organisation you and your team are better placed to understand potential growth opportunities and the impact of trends upon your current strategy. It is easy to know what is happening in our own sector but it is those things that challenge our known ‘used future’ that can trip us on in a rapidly changing world. Let’s face it – we don’t know what we don’t know!


Challenging the ‘way things are done around here’

When foresight is used collectively within a team or organisation you can start to create a shared language and understanding of how the future trends could impact your organisation or sector. Cultivating a culture where team members are safely able to question the status quo, the business as usual, is a vital step.

For the past ten years Queensland Police Services (QPS), Australia, has been actively involved in ‘future proofing’ their organisation. The use of futures tools and methodologies has led them to create a more open mindset amongst their senior and emerging leaders, 50 of which to date have been through Public Leadership and Foresight training with the Executive Challenge Academy (ECA). This more open mindset has led them to be able to question what is, how things work and how things could work better. A place that Inspector Craig Hawkins described as where the real change can happen. Ultimately this work has led QPS to re-defining their purpose to including being one of social-inclusion which has led to greater cross-sectoral and organisational collaboration. This re-framing of their vision and purpose for example has changed the way that QPS has approached the issue of homelessness.


Breaking down the silos

Breaking down the silos across departments, sectors or organisations is also a crucial step in building a shared view of the future. Foresight practices provide a platform to see beyond the silo’s thus creating a ripe environment for cross-pollination. By inviting all stakeholders to the conversation, diversity of thinking can support the emergence of new solutions that have not previously been thought of. When leaders in the public space share the mutual language of foresight they can also begin to challenge and support each other in new ways. Thus, begin to explore novel and innovative ways to address significant and complex challenges. 

For Multicultural Development Australia (MDA), a significant for purpose organisation, who has worked tirelessly for a more inclusive multicultural Australia, foresight has been instrumental in their organisations transformation from one of being reaction focussed to opportunities focussed. Like QPS, MDA has sent approximately 50 senior and emerging MDA leaders through Public Leadership and Foresight training with ECA resulting in a forward focussed organisation that is willing and able to have the collective ‘hard’ conversations. Together they are now much clearer about their vision and more deliberate in the key areas they want to make a difference. When an opportunity arises, they take the time to question whether it aligns with their shared vision of the future and if it does they ask, ‘how are we going to get there?’ – by utilising a future’s tool known as backcasting.

The more our environment around us changes, the more important it is to keep an organisations strategy alive - that is something that is malleable and aligned with the greater shared vision. Keep asking whether your organisation’s strategy is taking into consideration the trends and challenges that are on the horizon?

Want to start the conversation with your team or clients? The Futures Platform tool can get you started, and you don’t have to do all the hard work of identifying all the trends that might impact you. The Futures Platform has a list of over 370 full descriptions of phenomena and trends that you can utilize in your horizon scanning and mapping. Check out the free trial here.


Willow Pryor is a professional futurist with a focus on consulting, facilitation and teaching strategic foresight to enable the creation of alternative futures. She believes to create more equitable and sustainable futures our leaders, young and old, need to think like futurists.


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