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Make better decisions now with better foresight

Let’s presume you have this goal: Make better decisions now as you build strategies for the next 3 to 20 years.

To do that, you need to understand your operating environment. You need to know what is likely, and what is uncertain, and find strategies that are robust for a range of potential futures.
Most people have long since internalized the idea that we need to be proactive, not reactive as things change around us. A strategic organization does not simply respond to new situations and pressures as they unfold. It anticipates change, and identifies, sorts among, and emphasizes the new opportunities that change offers. Reaction only tends to reduce the opportunities you can take advantage of.
If you want to get this right, foresight needs to be the linchpin of your efforts. Foresight is at once a broadening and deepening process. Its goal is to expand thinking more deeply into the future. But by its nature, it also opens up thinking to a broader range of forces and trends unfolding now. That’s why good foresight can inform today’s actions, as well as your strategies for moving forward. It sharpens your awareness of what’s happening and how it’s meaningful today.
How can you get foresight going in your organization? Here is how you can get started:
Plan a workshop. A group effort is strongest when that group can get together in real time, and, ideally, in one place, to explore the future and develop new strategic options. An independent facilitator, and, perhaps even better, a futurist to facilitate this workshop could help keep people truly focused on the future. Naturally, I’d be happy to help! 
Who comes? Ideally, you should include people representing 1). A range of functions in the organization, and/or a range of stakeholders, 2). People with the right knowledge and access to information and resources to get good strategic thinking done, and take part in implementing new strategies and actions, and 3). The people charged with driving change and strategy, so that they will understand the new thinking you generate, and be ready to implement good new strategies.
What goes on? There are plenty of tools, techniques, and facilitation approaches you can reach for for a foresight workshop. But the goal is not to wow people with technique, the goal is to have a serious, in-depth conversation about your future. You need to give the future its due, and clear the air and the agenda for that discussion. Keep it simple and focused, and you’ll get results. That, by itself, is good foresight.
You need to expand your horizon, and look at the fullest (nearly always global) context for what your organization does. That means looking not just more deeply into the future, but also more broadly, and sectors, regions, technologies, social spheres, etc. that you don’t normally pay much attention to. Again, it will help to have a fresh view of the external environment, to carry your thinking far enough out into the world and into the future.
You should consider having a briefing from someone skilled at shaping an external view for you, and helping you discover how the broad forces and trends at play could shape your interests. A futures briefing is valuable in getting that done. Again, happy to help!
Then, have your group share, and collect for everyone to see, the big forces, trends, and issues shaping your future. Don’t worry about which is a force, a trend, or an issue, just collect the big things that matter. Don’t let the list narrow to the usual forces and trends you always talk about. Too often, the groups I work with want to make budgets the central focus. Taking a longer-term view, and a fresh look at opportunities and even new business models, means today’s budget won’t be the whole story. New initiatives, for example, can have new money.
You are looking around corners here, looking for things that may not obviously matter now, but could be essential to shaping your future. This discussion shouldn’t get fixated on constraints such as budgets and other lack of resources, or even current regulations. You should carry your thinking, your “what if” discussions, past those obstacles.
Prioritize your list of the big forces, trends, and issues, combining similar things, and then have your group vote for the ones will have the biggest impact. Keep encouraging your group not to just vote up the usual suspects: e.g. the price of oil, regulation.
Then, spend plenty of time talking about each of the top items, ideally in groups of four to eight people. Your goal is to draw out the implications of the force, issue, or trend for your business. That is how you can bring the focus back in, on strategic possibilities for your business. I have found over the years that in this part of the process, you need to get people to focus on the challenges, but also the opportunities, and the near-term, but also the longer term.
Finally, have a whole-group discussion of what you learned through this process. Get the groups to brief everyone on what they discussed and what they concluded from the discussion. It may make sense to have them conclude with implications for action. Capture these ideas for everyone to see, and for later reference. If you can, have some of the chiefs in the room to hear what the group concluded.
The group can spend some time decided what to do next, whether that is a list of concrete actions to take, or just a list of ideas you need to research or develop further. More often than not, you will discover through this process that there are things you don’t know and people in and out of the organization you need to talk to, and involve in the discussion. Make a plan to do those things.
Identify champions, or, at least, who will take the next steps.
What you get. Through this process, your team will come up with insights on what’s happening, and what it means to your organization. You may get to next steps, and you should try to. Otherwise, the effort stays abstract, and may be taken as just an “exercise”.
What I’ve just described is a path to organizational foresight. Do this once, and you’ve made a difference in your work. Do it regularly, and you will have built what I like to call a foresight culture. Good luck with this, and, let me know if you could use my help.
Image: Victor Chapa, via Flickr, Creative Commons license
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