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Future thinking and strategic foresight

| Strategy

Future thinking helps anticipate futures, empowers businesses to actively build it, and assists in strategic planning and communication. In this blog we discuss some tools for taking future thinking and strategic foresight into action.

Portrait of Annina Antinranta
Annina Antinranta

Principal Designer - Emerging Business

Disruption is inevitable in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. We can talk about micro-level risks or opportunities such as the ones listed in technology trend reports by agencies, and massive risks of magnitude, such as the pandemics. Based on our experience, organizations need guidance in terms of prioritization and execution. This is why a Future Thinking process is a necessity. The only way to make future-proof decisions is to boldly imagine a concrete future world together with actors from the same value network, and backcast and define an action plan to get there.

Essential steps of future thinking

Businesses need to understand the long-term impacts of today’s phenomena. Systematic future thinking and strategic foresight are the keys to this understanding. The traditional macro-environmental analysis method like environmental scanning, i.e. going through political, economical, societal, legal, technological and environmental drivers of change, gives us an overview of what is happening. Scanning the environment to see what’s there is, of course, important, but feeling what isn’t is just as vital. By spotting both patterns we see and what we cannot see, we can start creating a holistic picture of what future phenomena stand out. To do this, we can use both existing data and our instincts. The former we do by utilizing big data and machine learning, the latter by feeling our way. A forecaster Faith Popcorn calls the technique “cultural brailing’ - feeling the bumps.

Scenario analysis as future research method

After scanning the horizon and mapping out the key trends, themes and topics, building different scenarios for the future worlds, helps us make the future concrete. Scenario analysis is an essential component of future research in which scenarios of the alternative worlds that might lie ahead are built. It is a creative process in which we imagine where the drivers of change might lead us in the future and sort of alternative futures that might lie ahead. It also helps to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Next, we connect the scenarios of the future with business strategy. This is the step in which we estimate how the business and strategy perform in different futures and use these new insights in today’s decision-making.

How can businesses connect the gap between the future and today?

The most important part is linking the future work with today’s business. Future thinking assists us in strategic planning and communications. By taking the scenarios and the current business plans, and comparing how current key elements of the organization and the strategies perform against the future worlds, future thinking assists us in strategic planning and communications. This is what our Lean Futures Toolkit is designed to do - creating an actionable roadmap and business strategies based on the alternative futures.

Until recently, many companies followed the Diffusion of innovations model by Everett M Rogers, created in the 1960's for their future initiatives. The internet pretty much wiped out that whole curve. Regardless, we still feel that companies should stay true to their vision. There are many layers to observing the world and envisioning the future, and it is important to understand where your company is at. Some phenomena are fast, some are long-term. Some things change, some things stay the same. Our human minds still operate the ancient way: we want to eat, love and we search for higher meaning. Actions should be considered and decisions made with long-term consequences in mind.

As it is important to understand where a company is at the moment compared to the possible future worlds, it is equally important to understand the impact of the different decisions on the way towards the different futures - how are the decisions forming the steps towards future and what kind of cause and effect they might have in a long term.

Strategic foresight leads to concrete solutions

In strategic foresight we take key topics, identify alternative outcomes and make strategic connections. Making a list of business-critical aspects, such as strategies, functions and business units, is a good idea. Evaluate their impact. Cross-reference how the current set-up holds against the future scenarios. Are our key functions weak, neutral or strong? When the strategic connections have been found, consider how to improve the weakest performing areas, with the company vision and position in mind. Finally, make a list of actions to commit to and evaluate our actions on a systemic level. What is the economic, social and environmental impact of the solutions? And what are the risks? A company can always decide to play against the results of the comparison, but it should be a conscious choice, not one based on ignorance.

Interested in future research and strategic foresight methods. Read more about our Lean Futures Toolkit which is free for anyone to use.

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