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Strategic Foresight:

Most business analysts have little

experience or formal training in
Framing the key issues affecting your organization,
strategic foresight, but futurists can
offer clear and useful guidance in scanning the environment to see how trends may
“best practices.” Drawing on the
wisdom of leading futurists in both play out, and envisioning possible—and desirable
the consulting and academic arenas,
the following framework will help —outcomes are all part of the strategic-foresight
you successfully apply strategic fore-
sight in your organization. These are process. Incorporating this framework into your
the key ideas that one needs to think
about in doing strategic foresight in organizational culture can help you move forward
today’s challenging environment of
constant change and multiple bot- with clarity, creativity, and confidence.
tom lines.
The framework that emerges from
the experiences of professional futur-
ists focuses on what would be most By Andy Hines
critical to an organization’s success
in futuring: ©2006 World Future Society
• Framing: attitude, audience, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450
work environment, rationale and Bethesda, MD 20814
purpose, objectives, and teams. U.S.A.
• Scanning: the system, history All rights reserved.
and context of the issue, and how to
scan for information regarding the
future of the issue.
• Forecasting: drivers and uncer-
tainties, tools, diverging and con-
verging approaches, and alterna-
• Visioning: implications of the
forecast, and envisioning designed
• Planning: strategy and options
for carrying out the vision.
• Acting: communicating the re-
sults, developing action agendas,
and institutionalizing strategic
thinking and intelligence systems.
These six phases of the strategic-
foresight process are not necessarily
arranged in step-by-step chronologi-
cal order, but rather in roughly the
order most commonly encountered
when we engage in a strategic-fore-
sight exercise. Some teams might go
immediately into Visioning after the
Framing phase, for instance, but Vi-
sioning more typically follows the
Forecasting phase.

18 THE FUTURIST September-October 2006

The State of the Art
Framing: Organizing the
Issues at Hand

Framing helps analysts to scope

problems that require strategic fore-
sight. Investing the time to clearly
frame your objective and how to
address it will pay big dividends in
later phases of the strategic-foresight
process. Far too many strategic-fore-
sight activities—and business analy-
ses in general—end up addressing
and “solving” the wrong problem.
The organization then faces the
prospect of starting over, with less
confidence in the process, or simply
abandons it altogether.
The long-term future is naturally bottom-line-oriented organizations the issue. Externally, the team im-
fuzzy and uncertain, and it is hard to will reject it. The team undertaking a merses itself in what’s going on out-
address an issue as vague as “What strategic-foresight exercise should side regarding the issue. The goal is
will ‘X’ technology look like in 10 understand precisely what their to come up with a mix of basic or
years?” How deeply do you need to analysis can and cannot deliver. fundamental driving forces that sug-
go into describing it (how long Resistance may also emerge from gest the most likely future. The envi-
should your report be)? How many participants who see the framing ronmental-scanning process will also
alternative scenarios or images step as redundant; in other cases, a reveal potential change-drivers that
should you generate? Unfortunately, sensitive core issue might be touched may lead to alternative future out-
organizations and foresight teams on that those involved in the process comes. In scanning parlance, this in-
may be tempted to “get on with it” would prefer to avoid rather than volves identifying the macrotrends
and take action right away, thus confront. And participants may sim- that will form a baseline, or most-
skipping over the essential framing ply disagree with each other on the likely, forecast, as well as “weak sig-
process. objectives of the exercise; they’re nals” of anything that might change
That urge should be resisted. only human. This is when the team that probable future.
Strategic foresight is different from leader needs to slow down, be more Techniques for environmental
the typical business challenge. There careful, and resolve the disagree- scanning have improved in recent
are no cut-and-dried, right-and- ments, or else they will come back to years. Futurists working as consul-
wrong answers in strategic foresight, undermine the process and the final tants in organizations can help the
and it is not always clear if the or- result later on. strategic-foresight team members to
ganization is on the right path as the look beyond their own experiences
activity proceeds. Dealing with the and fields of expertise, expanding
Scanning: The Organizational
ambiguity inherent in strategic fore- the breadth and depth of their scan-
sight requires an attitude different ning to include a wider range of
from simply providing the right data Once the strategic-foresight team sources and to probe deeper into
or information. is clear about its purpose and the is- their potential implications. Auto-
Another way to keep the framing sue areas that need to be examined, mobile companies, for example, will
process working effectively for the the boundaries and scope of an ac- tend to monitor vehicle and trans-
organization undertaking strategic tivity, it begins to scan the internal portation trends. They will either ig-
foresight is to set specific objectives, and external environment for infor- nore or pay less attention to develop-
translating the rationale and purpose mation and trends relating to the is- ments outside these areas. It is the
into tangible outcomes. The process sue at hand. job of the analyst to engage the or-
of strategic foresight may be fuzzy, Internally, the team wants to learn ganization in seeing the value of
but its outcomes should not be, or the organization’s experience with looking at a wider range of areas. A

THE FUTURIST September-October 2006 19

food trend toward portable foods,
for example, may suggest possibili-
ties for “dashboard dining.”
Strategic foresight thus differs
from competitive intelligence in that
it is less about finding a piece of in-
formation that no one else can find
—since information is so freely avail-
able—and more about understand-
ing and acting upon that information
more quickly and creatively than
One tool for broadening and deep-
ening the scanning process is the
“system map.” Mapping the system
is like creating an organizational
chart, but one that also places the or-
ganization in the context of its exter-
nal environment. It outlines the
forces, factors, and stakeholders and
their relationships in light of the is-
sue being studied. Insight will often
come from thinking about things the
organization does not typically con-
sider and discovering relationships
or impacts that would otherwise
have escaped notice. The system
map is often a key reference piece,
and in many cases, analysts will
blow it up to wall-size and place it in
either a dedicated “war room” or a
place where those involved can rou-
tinely see it. An effective visual can
be very helpful in stimulating inter-
est and thinking.

Forecasting: “What Will Be”

May Not Be
Forecasting involves creating alter-
native futures. Most organizations, if cessfully navigate through whatever prompts the organization to chal-
not challenged, will tend to believe future does emerge. lenge existing assumptions about the
the future is going to be pretty much Futurists are frequently asked to future, to consider “what if” possi-
like the past. This belief is often produce a “correct” future—that is, bilities, and to plan and act differ-
based on an array of unexamined as- to predict exactly what will happen. ently. An alternative forecast that
sumptions and biases toward an im- Though a single, clear prediction of eventually turns out to be “wrong”
age of the future that reflects the sta- the future would obviously be easier can still be useful if it prompted the
tus quo or only incremental changes. to deal with, the organization will be organization to take the future seri-
The strategic-foresight team should better served if it understands and ously and prepare for previously un-
seriously address the possibility that prepares for a range of possibilities. considered possibilities.
things may not continue as they Forecasting alternative futures does The forecasting process includes
have. not mean developing detailed plans identifying the key change-drivers
The future is inherently unknow- for every contingency, however. and uncertainties affecting the issues
able, and efforts to get it exactly Rather, it means monitoring the ex- that the strategic-forecasting team is
right are futile. Instead, the strategic- ternal environment for signs (guide- targeting. What is really driving
foresight process uses the forecasting posts, or leading indicators) pointing change into the future? How certain
phase to envision alternative futures toward the realization of one or are we about the probabilities of
for the organization to consider. The more alternatives. those specific changes? Some drivers
result will not only reduce the likeli- The forecasting phase leads to a are fairly well understood. The aging
hood and magnitude of surprise, but useful set of alternative futures. The baby boomers, for example, are go-
also enable the organization to suc- exercise itself is useful because it ing to continue to age, and they

20 THE FUTURIST September-October 2006

must be reckoned with. They should The starting point on the map is not mean inaction. It means having a
be considered in constructing any al- the connection between the alterna- robust, flexible approach to the
ternative future where demographics tive futures and the organization future that the organization hopes to
are important. Other forces, how- itself. What does it mean to the or- achieve.
ever, are far less certain. Will nano- ganization if the alternatives were to
technology provide breakthroughs in occur?
The Acting Phase
materials science? It’s difficult to Though the visioning phase needs
know, and a materials organization to stay practical, it is important to Organizations reluctant to devote
would do well to consider how this also “think big.” Now the organiza- precious resources today to a some-
force plays out strongly, even though tion should express its hopes, times uncertain future payoff must
it is not certain to do so. dreams, and aspirations about the be able to see their goals clearly. The
One goal in the forecasting phase future. What is the preferred future? acting phase thus is largely about
is to use creative problem solving Because this question now arises in communication, making the abstract
and futures thinking to generate as an atmosphere well grounded in the progressively more concrete: What is
many different ideas as possible, reality constructed throughout the to be done, who will do it, how, and
even if they seem to come from left foresight process, it is not mere wish- when?
field. The goal here is quantity rather ful thinking. It is preferable to err on The acting phase of strategic fore-
than quality. From there, the team the side of being overly ambitious at sight taps into the routines and
narrows down the huge list of ideas this point, as the next phase, plan- processes of the organization. One of
to be included in the alternative fu- ning, concerns itself with how to the traps of foresight is to do it only
tures, based on agreed-upon criteria, bring that vision into being, and can once, failing to leverage the learning
such as importance and likelihood. scale back or fine-tune the vision. and capabilities developed during
How many alternatives should that first strategic-foresight exercise
there be? There is no ideal number. to make the next futuring activity
Planning: Building the Bridge
One is too few, and more than six is more fluid and productive. An on-
probably too many. Different organi- Planning is the bridge between the going capability can become an im-
zations will have different capabili- vision and action, the “strategy” por- portant asset for the organization.
ties and preferences. More important tion of the strategic-foresight team’s Strategic foresight can become a fun-
than the number is that each alterna- work. The specific sets of tactics and damental part of a learning organi-
tive future described should be dis- strategies that are outlined will be tai- zation, which is essential to success
tinct in order to challenge as many lored to the individual organization. in today’s fast-changing environ-
assumptions as possible. The goal of the planning phase is to ment.
help the organization translate the All results—positive or negative—
vision and alternative future possibil- of any initiative need to be fed back
Visioning: From Possibilities
ities into strategy, and just as there are into the process in order to improve
To the Preferred Future
alternative futures, there are alterna- it the next time. By “next time,”
The goal of strategic foresight is to tive ways of achieving them. however, we really mean “ongoing.”
make better, more-informed deci- Compare what can happen—the Foresight should be part of the fabric
sions in the present. Forecasting lays alternative futures—with what the of the organization, and strategic
out a range of potential futures to organization would like to see hap- thinking should be internalized into
consider so that the organization can pen—the vision. How wide is the the entire institution. It is mission
act effectively now. The visioning gap between these futures? Although critical for any organization’s future.
phase focuses attention back on the the gap may seem insurmountable in
present, because now we must ask, some cases, the planning phase em-
About the Author
“So what?” Given the future possi- powers the organization to develop
Andy Hines is director of
bilities outlined, what does the or- better-informed decisions, which
consulting at Social Tech-
ganization want (or need) to do? include the decision not to act when nologies, teaches futures
Failure to ask this question dimin- the timing is wrong or make changes studies at the University of
ishes the activity to just an interest- when they are not appropriate. Houston, and has worked as
ing intellectual exercise, and few or- By developing strategic options a full-time futurist for two
ganizations have time or patience for and multiple contingency plans, the major U.S. corporations.
much of that. Like any organiza- organization will be equipped to E-mail
tional activity, strategic foresight manage the uncertainty of the This article draws from Guidelines for
must demonstrate a link to the mis- future. The challenge here is to avoid Excellence in Strategic Foresight by Andy
Hines and Peter Bishop (forthcoming). An-
sion, purpose, effectiveness, per- the temptation to focus exclusively
other, more detailed version of this essay
formance, and bottom line. Since the on the “best” option and ignore the
appears in Creating Global Strategies for
payoff for strategic foresight comes rest. After spending time dealing in Humanity’s Future, the World Future Society’s
down the road, it’s important to possibilities and uncertainties, deci- 2006 conference volume, which may be
have clear maps showing the path- sion makers may feel a natural de- ordered online at
way to that payoff: We can get there sire to “get down to business,” but
from here. considering a range of options does Commentaries begin on page 22.

THE FUTURIST September-October 2006 21