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8 things leaders should know about strategic foresight

Today’s leaders are pressed to focus on strategic foresight and many are responding. But it’s not always clear what strategic foresight means. What do leaders need to know?

  1. It has to be long term. For true clarity on your future, you need a view that goes at least five or ten years out. You need to see past immediate concerns and explore and envision real change. See: The short-term view and the long-term view
  2. There are no “answers.” The future is uncertain, with a range of potential outcomes. So strategic foresight doesn’t mean prediction, it means clarifying patterns of change and modeling potential outcomes and choices. See: Foresight illustrated: The mother of all futures diagrams
  3. You have to look beyond your usual domain. New challenges and undiscovered opportunities will often come from outside your sector or market. See: All futures are global
  4. You need to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit. The actions you can take now to fix things and keep going are obvious, whether or not you are able to accomplish them. They are the low-hanging fruit. Addressing bigger challenges and opportunities, and forging a successful future, means reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit to bigger systems that will need to change. See: Making change beyond the low-hanging fruit
  5. The foresight process itself is valuable. Wider participation in the processes of strategic foresight strengthens organizational foresight, agility, and learning. You need others’ inputs, and you need others to be a part of innovation and decisionmaking. And everyone benefits from the time spent learning, exploring, and imagining. See: Noun=bad, verb=good and Planning, scanning, forecasting—it’s the verb not the noun
  6. You must confront unpleasant truths, not just hopes and dreams. That means “what ifs” that include catastrophic or transformational change. From those scenarios can come fresh thinking about a positive path forward. See: The unspoken scenario
  7. Success means forging a culture of foresight. Strategic foresight can’t be a once-in-a-while activity. Organizational habits of mind and action should stand on a base of clear and regular thinking about the future. See: What is a foresight culture? and The characteristics of a foresightful organization
  8. The future is yours to shape. Finally, the future is not inevitable. You can and must shape it yourself. Don’t wait for it to happen to you. See: Don’t be a victim of change

My work is all about helping leaders do these things. Let me know if I can shed more light on this, or help you kick your efforts up to a new level. Jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444 More about my work is at www.leadingfuturists.biz.

Deep down, it’s about thinking differently

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.” — Association of Professional Futurists

That’s a good definition, rooted, as you’d expect, in considerations of the future. And it nicely characterizes what I do. But what’s even more fundamental about my work is getting people to think differently.

When I work with groups to help them explore change, what I realize is how much they already know, at least about the near-term future. But their view is too narrow. They need help: advice, tools, an independent pair of eyes, to see past the immediate, change their perspective, and get somewhere new. They need to think differently.

Foresight is a superb capability. It jumps your thinking beyond what’s in your inbox, beyond what’s going on today that is soaking up your time and attention. It opens up a space to anticipate change, and to do so with colleagues.

But that fresh thinking needn’t only be about the future. Opening a door and looking out, encountering something new, even in the here and now, is already transformational. Of course, foresight helps. It keeps you from falling back into narrower thinking patterns. It helps makes sure you think differently.

Inhibitors of foresight: Measurement and its pitfalls

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”   –William Bruce Cameron, sociologist (often attributed to Einstein)

We put a lot on measurement. We say, “what gets measured gets done.” What we can measure takes priority over the subjective and unmeasured.

We expect proof of progress that we can measure. Numbers that we can report or publish prove success. Statistical reports and year-on-year comparisons dominate leadership meetings.

But measurement weakens or fails when we’re dealing with the future. The future does not exist. There is no data. There is nothing we can touch or feel or measure.


1. You can’t measure something that hasn’t happened
The results of a policy, program change, or new business model unfold over time. Any measurable outcome is in the future. We need to start the change process now, ahead of any chance at measured assessment. Yet often managers look for immediate quantitative evidence of success.

EXAMPLE: RotoRooter placed radio ads in my city in the 1970s. Then I didn’t hear any ads for 20+ years. But they had planted an idea (and a jingle) in my head that I used thirty years later when I had a blocked drain. RotoRooter could not have measured that payoff of the ads in the 1970s.

2. New or emerging things are hard to measure and our traditional measurement tools don’t fit
New things need new measures. But we don’t always know what those should be. Or, we may think the measurement tools we have fit when they don’t. Our measurement can give results that lead to wrong assessments and decisions.

EXAMPLE: When a consumer sees a promotional Instagram post, some kind of brand message has gotten across. But such social media marketing is new. What’s the value of that Instagram post to the brand owner? Is it the equal of a TV or print ad? We have numerical measurement tools for those: circulation, impressions, and reach. Do those work for social media messages? We don’t know enough to say. But instinct tells us to use the social media anyway. Our instinct is surely right.

3. We can’t measure some things that matter
Some of the most interesting changes in society and commerce are those that are hard or impossible to measure. Social phenomena, psychic outcomes, and culture and behavior change don’t fit our measurement tools.

EXAMPLE: In education, we don’t know all the payoffs from experiential learning, from collaboration, or from the application of new technology. Common standardized testing doesn’t directly assess those programs. The intellectual outcomes for a child won’t be clear or measured until years later. But mandated standardized testing has to correlate specific parts of curricula to measured assessments, today.

What to do about this

In strategic conversation, consider changes that you won’t be able to assess quantitatively. Allow strategic action that has weak or no measures. Get beyond the tyranny of measurement. To do otherwise is to hamstring organizations and limit positive change.

Image: G. Combe, Elements of Phrenology, 1824, via Wikimedia Commons.

Change is messy

It’s easy to fall into assuming:

  • No change is happening because we cannot see or feel it (a famous metaphor is the frog in heating water. AKA change blindness)
  • Change is gradual (after-the-fact simplification of history can lead to this)
  • Change is sudden (forces, trends, and evolutionary change are not plain to us until a moment of crisis or a high-profile event, e.g. Occupy Wall Street marches in 2011-12 or the risk of extremist terror after 9-11).
  • A small change is significant (this is aligned with confirmation bias, in which you place excess significance on something you are particularly aware of or interested in).

Understanding history helps us see that change does not work in only one way. It’s not always gradual. It happens whether we’re focused on the changes underway or not. It includes sudden shifts, like Post-9/11 change as well as gradual ones, like the rising influence of the Baby Boom after World War II.

And change happens;simultaneously for each element of society; populations and communities, natural systems, technologies, etc. Some change gradually. Others jump forward. And the changes all interact. It’s messy.

The future will emerge the same way. The future will be messy.

Image: James Lee, via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license.

Four metaphors for the classroom of the future

Stepping into a 2017 classroom, a school teacher from 1917 or even 1817 would recognize where she was. Formal education long ago settled into Flatland. We put students in rectangular rooms, seated in arrangements of chairs and desks. They use books, papers, chalk and whiteboards, and tablets or computers. They follow fixed, planned curricula.

In fact, the language we use keeps us in Flatland. Our words — school, classroom, teacher, grade, class — connote that enduring Flatland system.

It’s time to finally break loose from Flatland. Here are four metaphors for the future learning place that can open up thinking:

A black box theater — A place where learners and their helpers can arrange and rearrange their learning spaces with total flexibility.

A forest — Learning in and from nature, anywhere and everywhere. Learn about the world in the world.

A maker space — The learning place has tools, materials, and room for learners to experiment, create, and collaborate.

A diner — A place to be with friends and encouonter strangers and to learn together.

There are lots of other metaphors that can help change how we think about education. What are your ideas? Please share them in the comment section, below.


For more on the future of education, see: Education futures.

Images: all Creative Commons Attribution License. Black Box Theater, Beso17, Wikimedia Commons; Finland forest, Tiia Monto, Wikimedia Commons; Maker space. Makerspace der SLUB, Germany, 2014, Albert Steinmetz; Al Mac’s Diner, Fall River Mass, 2012. Source: “Al Mac’s Diner-Restaurant Fall River MA 2012” by Kenneth C. Zirkel.

5 stages of grief for people facing their future

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief and loss. To anyone trying to get people to face and accept change or the need to change, the stages ring familiar.

Experts in change management recognize this. They have used the stages in identify what happens when people face change. The stages make sense in foresight too. They are a lens for looking at how people cope with the future.

Don’t be a victim of change

When you face change, your respsonses fall on a spectrum. Foresight makes sure you are in the right place.

Reactive — Watching and likely being blindsided by change, and only making a move when forced to do so. Often your action is expensive and not effective. You miss opportunities and risk failure and economic loss.

Responsive — Preparing for and responding to emerging, visible change. You gain agility for responding, and may get ahead of crises and seize opportunities.

Proactive — Anticipating and shaping change. You are ready for crises and sharp change. You can seize opportunities ahead of others. 

Never be a victim of change. Anticipate and shape it. Foresight is decisive in making you ready.

7 Deadly sins of foresight

1. Ignoring the future (You let today's concerns give you an excuse to not focus on the future) [See: Keep an eye on the future while righting the ship].

2. Shortsightedness (You only think a few years into the future) [See: The foresight gap: what too many organizations get wrong]

3. Mistaking the present for the future (You mistake fixing things and catching up with today for being future-focused) [See: If you're only keeping up you're probably going backwards]

4. Narrowness (You fail to realize your future will be shaped by a much larger one which you need to understand) [See: Foresight illustrated: choosing how broad a view to take while exploring the future]

5. All else held equal (You let your attention focus on just one change, and assume everything else stays the same) [A solution is to use scenarios– fleshed out views of the future — to make sure you explore how multiple changes will unfold. See: Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future

6. Lack of vision (You have not thought through nor communicated the future you want or expect) [See: You can't be what you can't see]

7. Deafness (You don't listen to others, or pay attention to signals of change) [See: Talk to the frog]

For more on pitfalls and "deadly sins" for foresight see: 13 mistakes you make when exploring the future

For good habits in foresight that can fight these sins, see:  27 habits of highly effective futurists

Image: detail from Hieronymus Bosch, The seven deadly sins and the four last things, circa 1500. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public domain.

What magicians can teach us about foresight

Don't look where the magician wants you to

Magicians rely on tricking the eye and the mind to dazzle and puzzle us. How they do it offers cautions for exploring the future. We are easily tricked by the signals of change or blinded to them.

How do the things magicians do trick us?

Magician Teller of Penn and Teller (the silent one) explained ways a magician's tricks the audience in a recent article. Below are the tricks with my interpretation of parallel issues in exploring the future:

  • Exploit pattern recognition — Magicians make viewers trick themselves by relying on our pattern recognition. In foresight, we also interpret things from the known and the familiar. That obscures important unknown and unfamiliar change. 
  • Make the secret a lot more trouble than it seems worth — Magicians rely on their audiences not believing the magician would, for example, modify every card in an card deck to enable an illusion. Audiences assume something simpler must be going on. In foresight, we reach for the easier-to-understand implication or outcome. For example, we think the future will be a lot like today, with a few high-profile and highly-visible changes.
  • Make 'em laugh — Jokes distract audiences. In futures, we fall victim to 1). our own jokes about the future–"bet you're wondering where your flying car is" which make light of change or even foresight itself, or 2). others' sense that all this future stuff is a bit wild and crazy, so why look closely at it? 
  • Do the trick outside the frame — A magician get us to focus on their right hand while the left is "out of frame" hiding something in a pocket, for example. In futures, things that matter happen further afield than we think is relevant. What's right in front of us distracts us. 

So you risk being tricked when you set out to understand the future. The solution is to know that, acknowledge it, and fight it all you can. Don't look where the magician wants you to.

Image: By trialsanderrors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Getting an organization to pay attention to the future is hard. There are people you meet along the way that help and others that throw obstacles in your path. Here are the five people you’re likely to meet along the way:

1. The Booster

The Booster lets you follow the path you’ve mapped out. Once you’re on it, they back you 100%. Boosters can be future-oriented themselves. They know what questions they have about the future and why the answers will be valuable. They clear a path for you to let you guide the exploration. They are your advocate and sometimes your collaborator in the work.

LESSON: Work as closely as you can with the Booster to align with their specific interests and goals. Answering their questions about the future gives you license to communicate any other insights, even sobering ones, about the future. Be prepared for this client’s own sophistication and knowledge about the future. Do your homework for a more fruitful relationship.

2. The Enthusiast

The Enthusiast is a gee-whiz fan of futures ideas. They thrill at the ideas that bubble up when you explore what's possible. They are impatient to break past near-term thinking. They have a reputation in their organization for having “out there” ideas. Your relationship with the Enthusiast can be fun and fruitful, but it also has traps.

LESSON: The Enthusiast may have a narrow interest in the futures cool factor, and much less interest in careful efforts to map and interpret change. Understand that you are, at times, a tool for the Enthusiast’s goal of shaking things up, and only that. Try to build interest in a more comprehensive view forward based on their enthusiasm. Their gut interest in new things can spark a passion for strategic foresight.

3. The Organization Man

The Organization Man is for exploring the future but fiddles with the process. The Organization Man believes in what you are doing, but fears others won’t. They bring up organizational norms and rules, and to look for conventional ways to measure outcomes that fit their organization’s usual business processes. They will pressure you to make things palatable to the organization and take out scary or sobering conclusions.

LESSON: The Organization Man needs reassurance. Understand their organization as well as you can. Be ready to ease concerns or even respond in the ways they crave. They may struggle to find a “safe” fit with something new and strange—futures. Though you may feel constrained by their worrying, they are doing you a favor; you can learn how to do a better job delivering insights to an inward-focused organization.

4. The Skeptic

The Skeptic is predisposed to fear or at least not have faith in the foresight process. They may say that it won’t work, or people won’t go for it. They may think it’s a waste of time. Often the skeptic will say, “We tried that in the 1990s, and it didn’t work.” If you are lucky, you’ll face a person who is Skeptic but still is willing to engage new ideas anyway.

LESSON: Be ready for cynics/skeptics. What can you do to respond? Work to get them to arrive at their own new insights. Work to build readiness for ideas about change. Be patient. Show the reasons, the power of new ideas about change. Winning over the skeptic can give you a strong advocate and will make your work stronger, clearer, and more compelling.

5. Big Foot

Big Foot will not allow an “out of control” process like futures to be as free as it should, if they allow it at all. “Big foot” is far more interested in order than discovery. Big Foot’s tendency is to subvert all parts of the process that lead toward unknown outcomes. They are not sold on the process to begin with. They may even be acting to unsure deniability if the process upsets anybody.

LESSON: Organizations want to protect what exists and avoid risk. Big Foot takes that to heart. You need to decide if you can work with this counterforce. Some potential clients are prewired for a bad fit. You are best off if you can find a true advocate that can endorse and guide the process, and get clear of Big Foot.


Do you see yourself in one of the five types? If so, I hope you’re a Booster or Enthusiast. Even then, you may need to give yourself some coaching, to be sure you are not in the way of the process of getting folks to explore the future.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to the people I’ve worked with over the past thirty years. Whether I liked how it happened or not you showed me what it means to introduce long-term thinking in organizations.

And of course I based my title on Mitch Albom’s novel: the Five People You Meet in Heaven. Thanks for the inspiration.