How to nurture foresight in organisations?

Having worked in strategic foresight since 1992, I have seen the shocks and surprises (e.g. 9/11, 2008 financial crisis, 2015 refugee crisis, COVID…) come and go, and – after the series of shocks – at last it seems that the majority of organisations have realised that it is not good enough just to produce linear market growth expectations in Excel when thinking about the future.

But as the demand for foresight has risen, so has the need for a supply of foresight enabled staff. And this poses challenges:

  1. Foresight user: How to spread the foresight reflex with a broad group, especially with middle managers?
  2. Foresight experts: How to persuade the organisation of the need for a foresight capability? How to create a cadre of experts?

As to the foresight user, these individuals are not going to become experts but should understand the uses and limits of foresight and think in terms of “safe to fail probes” and of alternative courses of action. To start this process it can be useful to:

  1. Work on a cross-cutting issue with all units: By taking a concrete theme and working on it with the whole organisation, it is possible to show how foresight generates insight and new options. We are doing this with one client, where (thanks to the leadership of HR) we are working to identify the trades and skills they will need in the future in each department. By doing this, we are gradually helping to imbue the organisation with the mindset and tools they need when looking at other issues well beyond trades and skills.
  2. Wind-tunnelling existing strategies in all units: Most organisations have existing strategies and policies. With one client we tested the plans of each department against scenarios (but this could also be done with megatrends or wild cards) seeing if these plans stood up to the possible challenges and opportunities that may emerge. Whilst there is less commonality of learning between units that in 1 above (and consequently more work) the results can be more telling, as they directly inform the daily business of the units concerned.
  3. Running innovation sessions with volunteers: It is hard to think of an area of that will not be impacted by the changes we are facing (AI, decarbonisation…). Hence having a self-selected group of innovators as the core carriers of the foresight approach is an alternative to rolling one process out to everybody. As a side note, in one client where we took this approach, the main ideas emerging were not technological but regarding business model and the way of working with each other inside the organisation.

For the foresight expert:

  1. Build with outside support: Whilst waiting to hire an existing foresight expert to start a team, it can be useful to have experienced outsiders build the interest first. Thus, when the foresight expert comes arrives, the demand is already there. Having done this in a couple of organisations, I think that the model where we went so far as to embed one of our consultants with the client organisation for a couple of months was likely the most effective.
  2. Coaching: When trying to promote internal talent, which knows the organisation but is not an expert in foresight, receiving external coaching can be a super useful tool. We are currently doing that with a major corporation that has an outstanding foresight unit. Quite deliberately they want to equip the person who just joined them from a marketing position not only with an understanding of foresight but also with exposure to different methods and ideas than she would get if only learning from within the foresight unit.

There is a lot more to be said – especially on how to make sure that foresight has an impact on the decisions taken by management – but that is the subject of a different article.

training/coaching in methods and tools