We love to laugh at the preposterous predictions of the past which supposed that in the future we would all eat pills for meals, wear silver suits and holiday on the moon. What would the futurologists of the past make of today's farmers markets, designer facial hair and infinity pools in the Maldives?
My favourite past predictions were by the IBM computer tech geeks who expected to sell only a few hundred 'desktop' computers and the Forestry Commission research staff who, in 1961, dismissed the chainsaw as 'cumbersome and unlikely to catch on'.
Predicting or planning for the future is inherently tricky and unlikely to win many plaudits. If you get it right then your efforts are a study of the 'bleedin' obvious' and if you get it wrong then you are subject to ridicule.
There's a good case to argue that in any organisation the most important legacy for the future is to manage the present as well as you can. If it's your job to fix the roof and you don't, your successors won't take much note of your clever analysis predicting the future impact of damp in the house.
Many organisations don't need to think too much about the future, but some do. If you steward the capital of a family, an owner or shareholders, you have to think long term. If you manage large-scale plant, buildings or technology then you must plan too.
Organisations reliant on consumers purchasing big-ticket or long-term items - like homes, cars, university courses - need a longer-term relationship with consumers. And anyone managing or reliant on natural resources of land, water, energy, wildlife or trees must think long term. A forester I worked with told me that you 'have to think as fast as trees grow'.
Given that the future is intrinsically difficult to predict, plan for or understand, what then are the approaches you can use in your strategic planning? Here I suggest ways your organisation can think about the future.
1. Incremental learning: many of the technologies and systems, most of the people and other resources and most of the knowledge that you need to better understand your future is around you now. 'Having a go' by experimenting, pilots, trials and letting ideas grow creates a knowledge-rich place that astute leaders will foster and learn from. I've heard this described as 'knowledge gardening' and it's a safe, reliable and creative way of harnessing talent and ideas for the future.
2. Back-casting: For the anglers amongst you this is a way of loading your rod with the energy required to cast a line towards a fish. In organisations it's about forensically examining why something worked the way it did and what were the positives, negatives and powerful trends that helped an event succeed. Some 'back-casters' have used statistical methods (developed in ecology and agriculture) to calculate from lots of data the most powerful predictors of an event.
3. Quantitative predictive analysis: this was the classic technique used by government and companies where there's some certainty - predicting school demands once children are born, care needs of the elderly or the management of a natural resource. As with back-casting, good statistical methods that help you 'see through' complex data are important. These techniques fell out of fashion after the 1970s oil price rises and in economics after the most recent crash. More and more sophisticated models - the IPCC climate change models and models of potential users of healthcare systems are two I'm familiar with - are used and these can be powerful.
4. Scenario-planning: these techniques are now widely used in government, large organisations and in policy analysis. They start by thinking through qualitatively or quantitatively what are the main drivers for change. When these are understood and can be plotted as axes, it's possible to construct a simple four quadrant matrix,which you then populate with narratives or detailed pictures of possible futures. You can then 'test' future plans against these scenarios.
5. Creating Movement: this can be a very powerful approach to gaining a lot of buy in to models and issues of the future. All of the previous approaches can contribute to this because the basic approach is to 'co-create' an analysis of the future with your Board, or your staff, or customers or stakeholders.
A dialogue is facilitated by presenting data, examples and evidence. Smart people in the audience do the rest, making connections, using their skills and knowledge and collectively describing the future. This can be a very strong approach for gaining organisational support for change, even if it might sometimes lack rigour and the potential of major levels of change.
6 Visioning or Envisioning the Future: can be used in a number of the approaches above. Good futurology is like good history or journalism, disciplines that scavenge data, analyse and triangulate to get an accurate picture. They then paint pictures in words, stories, sound bites and photos, cartoons and headlines. So too, the future can be 'brought to life' in creative ways too.
There are, of course, other ways of looking at the future. Whilst unfashionable, the 'this is the future because I say it is' school of leadership has its place and leads often to quick, disruptive and creative change. But as a rule, this won't lead to significant organisational shifts and understanding. And then there's crystals, tarot cards, star signs and tea-leaves. But I wouldn't recommend a presentation to your Board based entirely on those.
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