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Sense-Making With Strategic Foresight: Scanning for Future Disruptions

Jul 03, 2018
MacKenzie Thorne MacKenzie Thorne
Research Associate
Strategic Foresight

Making sense of the interdependencies within complex social systems is not a skill that is readily taught in traditional academia, nor will it make our day-to-day jobs any easier. Planning and decision-making are less complicated when we operate within rigid mandates or strategic plans, but our organizations can get blindsided when we lack mechanisms to anticipate and adapt to disruptive change. Every organization faces a rapidly changing environment replete with such disruptions. To help organizations navigate an uncertain future, the Conference Board has been providing foresight research and training to individuals, firms, and governments for over four years. Through these activities, we try to identify common gaps in how organizations plan for the future and develop training to help improve their planning.

In July 2017, a BBC podcast explored why most economic and business forecasts fail to accurately map the future. The program concluded that, because of the highly complex and variable nature of the systems we are trying to predict, projecting a single linear future is almost always incorrect. The constrained mathematical models within which these forecasts operate use data from the past to project how the future will look, irrespective of the unpredictable environment we are constantly faced with.

This is not to say that forecasts are without value. Less complex and more observable data, such as an estimate of the distribution of an aging population, can be forecast with relative ease and accuracy. But with more complex systems, we as the consumers of this information are still taught to treat the highly probable as the expected.

Relying on simple models of the future has never been riskier for organizations. Of course we need to monitor the broad social and economic trends that shape society, but firms and governments that only pay attention to a narrow consensus will not be well-positioned to adapt when innovation thrives and markets shift. Legacy institutions are experiencing consistent pressure from start-ups with disruptive value propositions. With enough venture capital, competition can emerge rapidly, scale fast, and worry about profit later. People are always looking for convenient ways to save time and money, and Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon are just a few examples of organizations that are redefining user needs. It’s difficult to imagine that the success of these companies was driven by playing it safe or using mainstream projections to determine where the future was supposed to be.

What Is Scanning?

As we gain comfort within the confines that shape our perspectives, we often reject narratives that conflict with our established understanding of the world. Unfortunately, certainty is not resilient. We live in uncertain times, and strategies based on certainty will certainly be disrupted by surprise. Literature reviews, market research, and current knowledge of general trends will always be necessary as we plan for the future. What these methods lack, however, is a mechanism to look beyond the consensus to uncover emerging signals indicating that significant change is occurring. This is where strategic foresight comes in.

Scanning is the foundation of effective foresight, which is the practice of creating a variety of forward-facing views and applying the emerging insights in practical ways. It is a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence gathering process designed to detect adverse conditions, guide policy, and shape strategy by exploring new markets, products, and services.

Scanning takes place at the beginning of the Conference Board’s foresight process. Its goal is to identify developments at the edge of current thinking that could fundamentally change or disrupt organizations in unexpected ways. In other words, we are actively seeking out insights that conflict with our current understanding of a given system. This process helps individuals and organizations better understand their assumptions about the future while avoiding being blinded to change.

Moving on From Predictive Planning

The goal of foresight is not to predict the future. In fact, any claims to such a promise in today’s rapidly changing environment should be taken with a grain of salt. Rather, participatory scanning forces us to look beyond our established mental models and consider scenarios that open our minds to a range of plausible future states. By understanding where the future might go, our strategies can incorporate the potential for disruption into long-term planning.

The pace of change is significantly faster now than it was even a decade ago. Rapid technological advancements are shifting social, economic, and cultural norms at unprecedented rates. The digital and physical echo chambers that shape our perspectives need alternative techniques to anticipate what the future holds for our organizations. Strategies, missions, and mandates are often designed with an assumption that the future will proceed at today’s pace. By systematically exploring the weak signals of change that occur alongside our domains, we can develop a more holistic perspective of the future. By anticipating change using scanning and other foresight tools, we learn to constantly reframe unexpected challenges and opportunities. Familiarizing ourselves with the unknown—and sometimes uncomfortable—can provoke new conversations that lead to more robust and adaptive strategies.

Related Workshop

To learn more about how you or your organization can build foresight capacity through scanning and other foresight techniques, contact MacKenzie Thorne or join us on August 29 in Ottawa for our inaugural Strategic Foresight Scanning training workshop.

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