Foresight and Strategy: Disrupting the Powers that Pay

Over the years I’ve had many people ask me why our firm wasn’t doing some cool big picture, long-term, foresight work for [name the issue in obvious need of big picture, long-term help].  My short answer is usually that we’ve never been approached, or that our conversations with leaders in that area have never gone very far.  The longer answer, which we don’t often get into, goes a bit deeper into the underlying value of good futures and strategic thinking, and why it can actually be threatening to the key stakeholders who have the means – but not, as we will see – the interest in bringing new thinking to their issue.

Thinking Critically About the Big Picture and the Long View

Futures thinking can be thought of as critical thinking about the future, both in terms of what it could look like, and in terms of what we want it to look like.  Good futures thinking therefore helps people think about the future in new ways and helps them to be self-aware about how they are thinking about the future.  Assumptions about how and why change happens in their organization, in their industry, and in the external environment are called out and questioned.  Expectations for the future are challenged and changed.  New preferences for the future are created.

Good foresight projects can therefore be refreshing, exciting, and even transformative for participants.  For the same reason, they can also be quite threatening, both on a personal level and on a professional one.

Many years ago as a corporate strategic planner I observed that one of the reasons why good strategy development can fail to get off the ground in the first place is that one or more key leaders correctly anticipates that a good strategic planning process is likely to change people’s minds about what the priorities are and how the organization should be using its scarce resources and competencies.  This doesn’t always happen, but it happens often enough that smart individuals understand that good strategic planning leads to a change in people’s thinking.  And if these smart individuals are wedded to their own viewpoints or are intent upon keeping their agendas intact, they won’t be thrilled about having their colleagues/subordinates energized around a different agenda.

Futures thinking and strategic thinking are both (complementary) examples of critical thinking about the big picture and the long-term.  Both take participants through processes that expose them to a lot of new information, guide them through sifting and organizing that information in new ways, all with the intent of enabling them to reach new conclusions.  As with all approaches to critical thinking, good futures and strategy work are trying to make individuals better thinkers and better decision makers.  That, frankly, is not always in the perceived interest of key stakeholders.

Why Isn’t Anyone Doing Good Foresight and Strategy in This Critical Area?

Coming back to the issue of why we often don’t see good, critical foresight and strategy work being done on issues of clear strategic importance – think land use and development, dominant industries in your locality, or even just critical aspects of your organization – we sometimes have to understand the political aspects of planning and analysis in general.  Very often the only people with the means to fund good foresight and strategy work in a particular issue area are key stakeholders who either prefer the status quo or have their own notions about the future that they are unwilling to open up to debate.  Perhaps they simply have an agenda that they wish to pursue or maybe they believe they have the “right” take on the future and don’t want to have that take challenged.  Whatever the particular reasons, the result is that these stakeholders often have little real incentive to fund a big foresight or strategy push.

This is often where those interested in doing good foresight or strategy work turn to interested third parties – often well-endowed philanthropies – who have a stated interest in improving the issue, but are not actually primary actors in the issue.  Here you can think of the many foundations that fund projects looking at the future or bringing stakeholders together to collaborate.  These actors typically exist specifically to bring about change in an issue area, and thus have the means and the interest in promoting critical thinking about the future.  Unfortunately, foundations don’t exist for each and every strategic issue in the world that needs more critical big picture and long-term thinking.

It is an unfortunate reality that in the case of many of our strategic issues – and particularly for those that are of collective interest – there are few or no stakeholders with the means to pay for foresight and strategy work who also have a strong interest in enabling other stakeholders to reframe the future and to reorient our organizations and institutions towards new destinations.

Ultimately, when you see a big issue that needs rethinking and wonder, “why isn’t anyone doing some good futures thinking there,” you have to ask yourself, “who would pay to make others critical thinkers and engaged actors in that issue?”  Sometimes, unfortunately, the answer is, no one.

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