Methods for Thinking about the Future

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Methods for Thinking about the Future Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight edited by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop. Social Technologies. 2007. 253 pages. Paperback. $19.95. Available from the Futurist Bookshelf, http://www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm.

Two practicing foresight experts lay out guidelines for strategic-thinking professionals.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you may wind up somewhere else,” baseball player Yogi Berra famously said. This singular quote encapsulates perfectly the danger of operating without a clear objective, much less a plan to reach that objective. If a corporation or organization can’t even give words to the place it would like to be, then it will likely lack the vocabulary to describe why things went askew (when they inevitably do) or how to get back on a more desirable course. “Knowing where you’re going” is also the animating theme of Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, edited by futurists Andy Hines and Peter Bishop.

“Many practicing analysts today have little experience or formal training in strategic foresight,” they write in the introduction. “This work addresses that gap by cataloging the best guidelines for successfully applying strategic foresight, offered by professionals in the field today. It is intended both for those new to strategic foresight who would benefit from a reference guide, and for more experienced practitioners, who will be able to pick out ideas to refine and improve their practices.”

The book’s principal sections focus on framing, scanning, forecasting, visioning, planning, and acting. Each contains what Hines and Bishop feel are the most important guidelines for creating workable action agendas and institutionalizing strategic thinking and intelligence systems at the leadership level.

* Framing “defines the scope and focus of problems requiring strategic foresight,” they write. This might include exploring the amount of research required to address a certain objective before beginning an actual course of research and constructing both positive and negative images of the future. “Consciously develop positive expectations from the very beginning of a foresight activity,” the book urges. “Deal with any cynicism and criticality right away. A common mistake of teams in a foresight activity is to look only for negative signs and miss the positive ones.”

* Scanning. “Once the team is clear about the boundaries and scope of an activity, it begins to scan the external environments for information and trends relating to the issue at hand,” write Hines and Bishop. They advise would-be strategists to look at how the past and present are affecting the issue at hand and familiarize themselves with sources or the views that might, at first glance, seem tangential to the topic.

To ignore potential influences simply because you don’t have an apparatus to deal with them carries the risk of not developing effective strategies. Hines and Bishop cite the experience of consulting futurist Joseph F. Coates, who was engaged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review emerging environmental issues. He pointed out that noise can also be a source of pollution, as it can add to stress and hearing loss. The EPA, however, did not have a mechanism to deal with the unorthodox concept of noise as a pollutant. As a result, noise pollution has risen as a threat to human health.

* Forecasting, defined by the authors as “generating the widest range of creative possibilities, then consolidating and prioritizing the most useful for the organization to actively consider or prepare for as it moves forward.” One strategy is to follow the example of science-fiction writers and “think of alternative futures and alternative realities. Non-invasive injections, communicators, voice control, and pervasive computing on the technical side, U.S.-Russian cooperation, feminization, and race integration on the socio-political side were in books and on television screens long before they diffused to everyday life.”

* Visioning, according to the authors, is how one brings “the consideration of the future back to the present by addressing the question, ‘So what?’ Given the future possibilities outlined by Forecasting, what does the organization want to do?” The keys to successful visioning, Hines and Bishop write, are identifying implications, challenging assumptions, and thinking “visionary,” meaning “big.”

* Planning is the bridge between vision and action. This step of the strategic process involves evaluating strategic options. “Make the human context central to any strategic foresight activity. Do not be overly enamored with industry analysis, technology, or business trends and forget to overlook the role of people,” the authors warn. “Many activities produce impressive reams of data but haven’t thought through how the people affected would react or respond in the proposed future. Considering different sociological contexts can help the organization respond to a wider range of needs-be they demographic, sociological, ethnographic, physiological, psychological, etc.”

* Acting is the final stage of the strategic foresight activity. While it seems straightforward enough, this stage should, according to the authors, involve the creation of a comprehensive intelligence system to provide ongoing external and internal feedback on the effectiveness of the strategy that has been implemented.

Poking through the neatly segmented subsections and copious bullet points in Thinking about the Future, the casual reader may be daunted by the complexity of these various strategies and best-practice methods, many of which seem gratuitous if not redundant. In terms of completing the mundane chores that make up daily life for the majority of the world’s inhabitants, the subtle difference between forecasting and visioning seems a point unworthy of serious consideration, much less its own book chapter. If you attempted to frame, scan, and plan all the possible ramifications of getting a glass of water from the tap, as opposed to buying a bottle or waiting for the icebergs to melt, you would likely faint from dehydration.

But, as is so often the case, behavior that is neurotic on the level of the individual may make perfect sense for corporate boards, organizations, or any other body where a handful of unfortunate souls are tasked with making decisions that could affect hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Few could dispute that Captain E.J. Smith and his crew should have been thinking strategically well before that iceberg appeared on the port bow of the Titanic.

In this way, Hines, Bishop, and the book’s other contributors perform a valuable service by reminding us that it’s best to plan, not only for the known journey, but also for dealing with the obstacles along the way, and thus avoiding, in the words of Berra, “winding up someplace else.”

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2007.

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