Friday, November 30, 2018

On Foresight in Organisations

The Omidyar Sessions, Part 1

This year I've been doing some work with the fabulous folks at The Omidyar Group, a collection of impact philanthropy organisations and initiatives blessed with an in-house team of excellent, greater-good-oriented humans skilled in systems and complexity practices.

At the team's annual planning retreat some weeks back, I joined to facilitate a deeper exploration of the potential value that a foresight/futures orientation and toolkit can bring to planning and strategy. We also recently met in Washington DC with a larger community of practitioners from across TOG for a workshop about experiential futures, and in a follow-up webinar soon after, had a chance to dive into some practical questions people had surfaced on reflection.

This post is one of two, from an edited transcript of that online follow-up. I'm sharing them here because they have a practical focus and may be of use for folks newer to these areas. At the bottom of each post are some links for further reading.


Let’s start with the question about how to operationalise futures to support practical decisions and make it useful in organisations.

Our gathering in Washington DC focused on a particular aspect of practice which I had been asked to highlight, experiential futures. This is an emerging set of approaches to doing futures work with design, performance, film, and materiality, all these media and modalities that have not traditionally been used so much. What does it look like when you infuse foresight practice with those diverse ways of connecting with people and mediating ideas? We looked at many examples, and also practised a bit using The Thing From The Future card game.

Prior to this is a whole body of futures literature and practice that is not oriented towards being animated experientially, but that is still focused on making a difference to how decisions are made, and helping people navigate change. The experiential turn in futures builds on a previous half century of work, conceptual infrastructure, methods, and so on. I gather that people here have some experience with scenarios, so that’s a good place to begin.

We can never know precisely what the future is going to hold. But scenarios can help provide a way of moving forward in our thought and decision-making processes despite that fact. It's a move that can be made in many different ways, because there are at least a couple of dozen different ways of generating scenarios, and of course, each can be used to make particular scenarios for any number of topics. So it's a really large design space or activity space we're talking about, and there's a lot of literature and prior practice.

I'm going to make a generalisation about all that scenario work, that it's a way of systematising our navigation of uncertainty, by parsing what I think of as the possibility space into a series of alternative hypotheses about how change could unfold.

Scenarios describe those different hypotheses, different theories of what could happen in the domain you’re interested in, be it the political scene in the United States, or artificial intelligence in healthcare, or whatever. Since we don't know exactly how change is going to turn out, there is a need for for a contingent, plural, multiple-scenarios approach, and that need becomes more obvious the further out in time we try to cast our gaze.

Scenarios for strategic conversation in organisations or communities can be used to test the robustness of existing strategies or to generate new options, or both.

To test current strategies (policies, priorities, plans, actions), whatever they may be, you take each of the scenarios in turn and say, “How would we fare if this is what happened in the wider world while we did these activities?” That is, you test or “wind-tunnel” current efforts by putting them against the backdrop of those different hypothetical worlds and seeing how they would hold up.

Scenarios can also be used to generate strategies. Whatever the scenarios are about, whatever time horizon they are on, you ask “inside” each one, what does success look like here. What would you wish you had done, if by the year 2030 or 2040, the domain you’re operating in had unfolded in this direction? Also, what could be done along the way, if anything, to steer things towards conditions in the scenario that you like, and away from things you want to avoid? Ask these same questions in each scenario, and you end up with lists of actions that might be good to take, either to influence what may be in your control, or address what happens outside your control. You can create a portfolio of candidate strategies from those lists. “Well, it looks like almost no matter what happens, X, Y, or Z, here are the things that we should be doing that will stand us in good stead.” Then there are contingent plans: “If the world (or the country or the market; the relevant context as framed) began to move in that direction, then here are the things that we should think about rolling out.”

In using scenarios to generate strategy, you end up with a strategy portfolio that can include a range of things that are good to do no matter what; things to do if X or Y happened; and things to do if Z were to occur.

So that’s the structure of the logic: using futures to interrogate strategies that you already have, on one hand, or generate new options, on the other. Since the organisation that you're working in obviously already exists, what's really helpful may be a combination of the two things. Take the strategies already in place; our program priorities; how we're allocating resources over the next several quarters or years –– and in light of these alternative theories of how change might unfold, ask what else we could or should be doing.

Then you have to place bets, essentially. Organisations and communities do this anyway, but they don't necessarily do it informed by thoughtful consideration of the longer term.

It perhaps becomes obvious in light of this that you need some capacity to keep track of how change is unfolding in real time. Not just a set of scenarios (experiential or not), but some way to monitor the signals today that scenario X or Y might be starting to trend. This points the way to an underlying argument, and certainly the place I'm coming from, that what you really want is to instill and augment an ongoing capacity for foresight. It's not such a great idea to just make a special big deal of doing scenarios once; what is needed is a persistent process for describing and using alternative images of the future, that are being updated as the world changes. (You don’t take just one reading of your bearings as you steer a ship, because everything is in motion; navigation requires constantly reading of changing conditions and updating plans accordingly.) As certain possibilities come into view, you start taking them seriously; when other possibilities that once seemed viable wither on the vine, at some point you let them go, and their accompanying strategies, if they are no longer relevant.

What I think organisations (and governments, and societies in general) really need is this distributed capability, which some of us in futures practice call a social capacity for foresight, or social foresight.

In organisations, this would include having a periodic opportunity or cyclical structure for revisiting the multiple-scenario outlook, recognising that the futures are changing just as the present is. But then on top of that, you also have a kind of shorter loop, a day-to-day practice of scanning for change in the present as things arise.

This goes to the connection between tools for futures sensing and the maintenance of policy or strategy. We've talked a bit about how scenarios can be used to test or generate strategies, but in terms of monitoring signs that suggest what should come forward in the weave, or moved back, you need to have a good evolving map of the present, too.

Here is where scanning practices enter the picture (environmental scanning; horizon scanning; these are semi-interchangeable terms). Scanning is about looking at the operating environment to see what is coming down the pike. And so if you have a scenario set that includes, as part of the analysis, things you need to look out for –– relevant trends and emerging issues, and their implications –– then someone in the organisation would be keeping track of what's going on, and looking at the list of triggering factors accompanying the scenario sets, and saying as those signals materialise, “now that this new technology is available, or this election has concluded, or this demographic is entering the workforce, we may need to be doing such and such.” And you are collectively poised to act because you invested in a foresight capacity, considering the necessary steps ahead of time, instead of being surprised and put on the back foot.

This is how you tie the existence of an up-to-date scenario set to the existence of an up-to-date picture of what is going on in the world, and what it's trying to tell you. The scanning function is less about the grand process of creating the map, and more about the essential day-in day-out work of tracking the journey.

It’s worth underlining that foresight and futures practice as a whole is more than just generating and using scenarios (I'm steering away from the term “scenario planning” someone mentioned earlier, because there's a whole deficit model in the planning paradigm that I think is problematic.) In my experience there tend to be more people that are aware of that particular method, scenarios, than are aware of foresight practice and the wider set of methods. Having the wider set is much more helpful than having just one tool, and it’s important to avoid conflating this one thing that we could do with the whole array of things that we could do. Different contexts call for different methods, techniques and actions.

Still, in any case an effective organisational foresight capacity calls for some form of scanning, scenarios and strategies. All three are essential.


Stay tuned for Part 2, which is about the practicalities of experiential futures.

(Thanks Becky, Rob and all!)

Further reading in the field:

> Scenarios and strategy: Van der Heijden (n.d.)
> Scanning: Conway 2009
> Foresight process: Dator 2009; Voros 2003
> Foresight methods: Glenn and Gordon 2009; Curry 2015
> The Thing From The Future: Candy 2018
> Social foresight: Slaughter 1996; Candy 2010 (Ch. 7)