The need to strip things back to their basics for an upcoming series of workshops (for folk with no foresight experience) has prompted some reflection on what the core aspects of futures work might be. Other frameworks – like the process phases of ‘framing’, ‘scanning’, ‘forecasting’, ‘visioning’, ‘planning’ and ‘acting’ described in Thinking About the Future – have been developed but the activities often seem too generic. This post outlines ideas which also address the barriers to effective futures thinking.
My first “mini career” was in marketing and advertising. As a discipline marketing has some core, unique aspects such as customer-orientation, market segmentation and targeting, developing targeted marketing strategies, and branding. It’s pretty easy to explain marketing, although it remains as much an art as a science. By contrast, it often seems very difficult to communicate futures work.
One issue is that there’s no commonly agreed definition. For some, “futures thinking” is the ability to envision scenarios for a desirable future. For others, it is centrally about a more systematic approach to considering the longer-term future and developing better means of dealing with uncertainty. Indeed, scenario planning aims to encourage attention to the future’s openness and irreducible uncertainty, and to enhance preparedness for futures that might happen (rather than focussing on the preferred future). For others again, it is really about the present – e.g. using futures thinking exercises such as scenario-building to ‘re-perceive the present’. No wonder many folk find it confusing!
Another issue is the particulars of specific contexts, e.g. in business planning and management or public policy — although all contexts involve helping to enable future-orientation, enhancing awareness of future possibilities, and improving the quality of thinking (e.g. in organisations). For me, an important element is developing forms of planning and policy-making that take account of uncertainty.
Literally, futures thinking is ‘multi-future thinking’, which tells us it’s not forecasting. It also suggests that, from a futures thinking perspective, a vision shouldn’t be a rigid “blueprint” (single-future). Similarly, Tony Hodgson (of Decision Integrity Limited) promotes the cultivation of “multi-track thinking” — in a highly complex, turbulent world there are often multiple legitimate interpretations of data.
In my work and reading the following 5 “S”s (all verbs) are emerging as core aspects of multi-future thinking. These aspects also draw on my teaching experiences at Swinburne University:
Sensing: spotting emerging patterns and ‘making sense of’ related future risks and opportunities (see the sensemaking literature), with a particular emphasis on uncertainty. The primary purpose of many, if not most, futures thinking exercises is preparing for strategic change. The importance of uncertainty is clear in the definition of risk and uncertainty. Risk is the “effect of uncertainty on objectives” (ISO definition); and an opportunity is “an exploitable set of circumstances with an uncertain outcome, requiring the commitment of resources and involving exposure to risk” (Business Dictionary). I would argue that futures thinking goes further, such as encouraging greater reflection on our objectives and not simply doing detailed risk assessments for a set of static or reified objectives.
One example is scenario planning: core goals of scenario planning exercises are to ‘make sense’ of the business environment and proactively consider the strategic implications. In line with ‘seeding’ (see the final ‘S’ below) the scenario planning field is also developing new links to entrepreneurial invention (see Scenarios for Success: Turning Insights into Action, edited by Sharpe and van der Heijden).
One way of operationalising this aspect is through more ‘outside-in’ thinking. Additionally, looking at range of plausible scenarios (rather than a focus on a probable future) enhances sensing.
Suspending: many practitioners and theorists are putting greater emphasis on the role of “suspension”, meaning to see our habitual ways of thinking and seeing (e.g. surfacing and examining our assumptions) and reflecting on taken-for-granted images of the future. Kahane (2012, p.93) argues that “suspending assumes and acknowledges that there is not only one way to look at what is happening or should happen”, and further suggests that collaborative scenario planning is an effective means of achieving this. ‘Suspending’ also means being careful not to unthinkingly project forward (possibly faulty) assumptions and theories that were formed based on past data and/or experience.
Linked with this, aspect futures practitioners frequently point out that the past is often a poor guide to the future. Recent trends in the Australian Football League provide an excellent example.
The ‘official future’ analysis pioneered by the Global Business Network could be seen as enacting this aspect. Similarly, Sohail Inayatullah’s concept of “used” futures also aims to prompt deeper reflection on our images of the future (which Alex Burns and I discuss in this paper). I frequently find that images of the future are, problematically, really images that amplify some aspect of the present.
Similarly, Swinburne University’s Joseph Voros has encouraged greater focus on perceptual filters. These filters (or cognitive biases, or mental ‘frames’) can also impair our sensing capacity.
Structuring: making our futures thinking and assessment more systematic, for example by embedding specific methods in a larger foresight process, was a central theme in the Swinburne University strategic foresight Master’s program (which I completed in 2003-05). Voros asserts that “if you don’t think about the future in a systematic and disciplined way, it becomes a blank space onto which you end up projecting your fears and biases”. Consequently, an important part of futures thinking is adopting more structured process that are able to militate against such projections.
Many frameworks can be used to help structure futures thinking, so it’s more systematic, such as Voros’ ‘Generic Foresight Process’, Inayatullah’s ‘Six Pillars’ approach, or specific frameworks like the ‘Three Horizons’ framework that seeks to enable an explicit focus on multiple time horizons. Other frameworks for specific tasks (e.g. the classic ‘uncertainty/impact grid’) can also be extremely useful.
My own view is that a futures exercise should, in most cases, be approached as an embedded learning process (Sharpe & van der Heijden, 2007). This means ensuring decision-makers are deeply engaged, and enabling them to think about and explore the future more systematically. I agree with Sharpe and van der Heijden (2007, p.xx) who argue “scenario thinking is a cognitive skill that must be developed as a learning process” – I have seen this in both the classroom and my consulting experiences.
Such a learning-oriented approach contains a critique of traditional “command-and-control” and linear planning models, which poorly address increasing uncertainty, complexity and volatility. (A ‘predict-and-plan’ or ‘predict-and-adapt’ approach is an example of linear planning). Linked with this, multi-future thinking embraces new and original ways of strategic thinking – that, emphatically, are not another version of mechanistic forecasting – and related forms of strategy (e.g. adaptive learning). Similarly, the new Centre for Australian Foresight advocates new models of decision-making and planning.
Simulating: What I mean by this is creating and interacting with representations of future worlds and situations, for example in the form of role plays, written scenarios, cognitive maps, timelines, or indeed via computer models (more traditional ‘simulations’). Developing richer pictures of possible changes over different time scales is a more obvious aspect of futures thinking. But a particular emphasis is placed on developing new perceptions and ‘mental models’ (in contrast to business-as-usual), i.e. stretching thinking, and giving people greater permission to step outside the box of orthodox linear projections. For example, scenario projects aim to improve the quality of long-range strategic thinking.
Similarly, the Horizon Scanning Centre of the UK Government Foresight program suggests that a “futures workshop is, effectively, a laboratory where policy makers can experiment with ideas, ask ‘what if?’ questions and test the impact and consequences of policy” (my emphasis added).
Seeding: this final aspect — seeding change and possible futures — is tentative, but I’m seeing it in more and more literature. The core idea here is that futures thinking and techniques should play constitutive roles, as well as the traditional anticipatory/predictive role. This is most obvious in the use of roadmapping, backcasting and visioning. However, more practitioners, like Adam Kahane and Angela Wilkinson, are pioneering new forms of scenario planning that are less ‘reactive’ and more ‘proactive’ in their intent, and are a form of action learning (e.g. see Transformative Scenario Planning, and ‘Reflexive Interventionist / Multi-Agent-based’ [RIMA] scenarios). Consistent with this some futures scholars like Sohail Inayatullah see futures practices as tools for societal and organisational transformation.
Here, another ‘S’, storytelling, is important. Well-crafted stories, can often energise and inspire better than any Powerpoint presentation or report containing detailed diagrams and analyses.
Inayatullah, S. 2006, Questioning the Future: Methods and Tools for Organizational and Societal Transformation, Tamkang University, Taipei, Taiwan.
Kahane, A. 2012, Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, San Francisco, USA.
Sharpe, B. & van der Heijden, K. (eds) 2007, Scenarios for success: turning insights into action, Wiley, Chichester, England; Hoboken, NJ.
Wilkinson, A. & Kupers, R. 2013, ‘Living in the Futures’, Harvard Business Review, May 2013.