Navigating the complexities of life requires a revised way of thinking.
According to a Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” In a similar way, the best time to engage in futures thinking was before the pandemic. The second-best time is now.
Our world is becoming increasingly complex, issuing a clarion call for new leadership capabilities and mindsets. The pervasive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how ill-prepared our organizations and leaders are for the increased systemic risk of our globally connected world.
Conventional thinking suggests we simplify complexity, but that is both impossible and problematic. Approaching leadership through the lens of simplification flies in the face of research that points to complexity being a sign of maturity in natural systems.
In fact, increased complexity is far from our enemy; on the contrary, we should recognize it as a critical ally.
It isn’t the rapidly changing landscape that is the nemesis of aspirational futures, but rather it’s our mental maps that are tuned to a way of thinking and acting that worked in a previous era. We need to update our collective operating system to not just survive but thrive in our new reality.
Leading with resilience, adaptation, and transformation
While it is tempting to retreat into a reactionary, fear-based operational model given the enormity of the current crisis, that will be the least effective strategy. Instead, we must meet our complex challenges with resiliency, adaptation, and transformation.
The American Psychology Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” In previous times, that translated into a risk-management charter that sought to build up our protective walls in hopes of preventing the effects from real or perceived threats.
Not only will those walls prove to be inadequate, but they result in weaker, more fragile organizations and leaders. It seems counterintuitive, but exposing ourselves to more risk will strengthen our ability to deal with the challenges on the horizon.
Scientists have discovered a similar phenomenon in playground designs. To avoid injury, the spaces have been made so “safe” that children are being robbed of the opportunity to fall and recover.
Adaptation is the ability to learn from the context of a situation and evolve business practices in real time that are better suited for responding to internal or external change. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen governments’ and organizations’ lack of adaptability.
Attempting to cope with a complex, ever-evolving threat while being hamstrung with bureaucratic processes is a recipe for disaster. Even tech giants, born in and for the digital age, are struggling. For example, Lyft and Airbnb have both gone public with their inability to weather the current disruption.
The pandemic provides a wake-up call to our C-suites: Our teams and processes must be agile, which means our leaders must be adaptive.
An increasingly complex world also demands that we move beyond incremental development into transformational thinking to deliver sustainable value. Leaders must embrace the unknown, developing an ability to go beyond their comfort zones and explore ideas outside the scope of their everyday activities.
This is often called creative destruction on steroids. This mindset is about much more than being controversial or provocative for controversy’s sake; it’s about moving away from short-term thinking to a long-term vision.
Cultivating resilient, adaptive, and transformative organizations is not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. That’s where strategic foresight comes into play.
Understanding strategic foresight
Strategic foresight is a decades-old discipline that provides a structured way to create functional views of alternative futures and possibilities. Through this process, businesses are better prepared for potential threats and can capitalize on hidden opportunities.
Through its tools and methods, we develop the ability to navigate an uncertain future and drive impact in several ways: strategy development, disruptive innovation, cultural transformation, and personal growth. By leveraging both qualitative and quantitative data, strategic foresight updates our existing processes and mindsets to become adaptive, resilient, and transformative in these uncertain times.
Although no one can predict the future, foresight enables us to mine the external environment for trends and leverage those insights to create maps of the emerging landscape. These well-informed maps of the future empower us to test current strategy, develop breakthrough innovations, and create transformative change.
You can successfully integrate strategic foresight tools—including unconscious futures modeling, environmental scanning, and scenario mapping—into your organizational culture to create agency in this time of change and, more importantly, long before a crisis is in sight.
Strategic foresight provides a framework to:
- Thrive in complexity by discovering personal and organizational biases.
- Explore the external environment.
- Map multiple divergent scenarios.
- Create resilient, adaptive, and transformative organizational cultures.
Discover personal and organizational assumptions
Today’s environment of accelerating volatility and exponential change is disrupting paradigms in every domain. However, our deeply engrained biases and assumptions prevent us from recognizing those disruptions and taking action to capitalize on them.
For example, employing unconscious futures modeling enables us look past our present-day models and ideas, providing the most effective way to recognize disruptors on the horizon of business and society. When we approach unconscious bias modeling from today’s landscape, we tend to automatically and subconsciously filter any new information through the lens of our present perspectives. Our guiding narrative’s hidden biases and assumptions will overpower any change or innovation we desire, and new ideas or initiatives will be met with frustration and failure.
But with the right tools to think about the future in an immersive, transformative, and provocative fashion, we are able to break through the walls of the past built up through our present-day perceptions. And that’s exactly what foresight does.
Foresight, through unconscious futures modeling, gives us the personal and collective tools to transport our thinking beyond the boundaries of today and opens up new vistas of diversity, ability, and opportunity. Approaching change from the lens of alternative futures frees us to think far beyond our present obstacles, granting us the perspective of unseen opportunities we can gain rather than known commodities we can lose.
Explore the external environment for signals of change
We live in a noisy world in which we are bombarded with information (and misinformation) daily.
Foresight helps us to develop the skills necessary to separate attention from intention.
By identifying signals through environmental scanning—that is, scanning the world around us for trends and emerging issues that will shape our future—we avoid information overload and gain the ability to focus on appropriate and novel areas.
Environmental scanning provides the qualitative and quantitative data that informs maps of possible futures from which decisions and strategies will be formed. Scanning enables us to explore and interpret both our internal and external environments to better understand how today’s emerging issues will affect us tomorrow.
Map sets of divergent, possible futures
A core strategic foresight principle is that there is not one but unlimited futures before us.
For success in a complex environment, we must be able to think in simultaneous, multiple futures rather than the traditional, single, and linear forecast. Being able to consider paths beyond the official future through scenario mapping generates robust, resilient strategies that will be successful no matter which future emerges.
Scenarios are well-informed stories. When ideas are woven into compelling narratives, individuals can imagine themselves in those worlds. That ignites discussion and creates the opportunity for long-lasting change and transformation.
When used in conjunction with traditional planning methods, those stories equip us for success in our volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous environment. By creating those multiple alternative narratives, we can test our existing strategies to ensure they are successful in a variety of operating environments, develop new strategies based on the divergent worlds painted in the scenarios, and even inspire new innovations that we can use in our current environment.
Create a resilient, adaptive, and transformative culture
Today’s complex environment demands that we continually refine, redesign, and reframe our strategies, outcomes, and actions.
Many of today’s leaders mistakenly believe that they are future ready because their company does competitive and business intelligence, regularly develops a five-year strategic plan, and even commissions a yearly trend report. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In actuality, each of those common business practices are leftovers from a previous era and do little to help us lead in a landscape of entirely new perspectives and approaches. Today’s executives must leverage the full spectrum of the push and pull of the future.
The future exists across a spectrum, with two distinct ends: the push and the pull. Most organizations focus solely on the push of the future. That end of the spectrum represents the trends and emerging issues that are coming at us, pushing us into the future regardless of our actions.
On the other end of the spectrum is the pull of the future. That represents our ability to purposefully identify and create our preferred futures.
When leaders only think about the push of the future, they become tied to the present-day trends that attempt to predict life in the short term. When CEOs, executives, and entrepreneurs shift their focus to leading from the pull of the future, they transport themselves and those around them to a place of ongoing discovery and creativity.
In that way, they move from the brittle environment of short-term forecasting and linear incrementalism to a vision of simultaneous multiples that results in long-term adaptiveness, resilience, and transformative growth.
Strategic foresight seeks to address the disconnect between our outdated systems and the turbulent externalities causing them to fail at an unprecedented rate. The full impact of the pandemic is still unclear, but there is one indisputable fact: Recognizing that bandages and short-term approaches will not ferry us forward, the only way to hasten our collective rebirth and ensure history does not repeat itself is to invest in a foresight-fueled global operating system. Senior executives can do their part by enacting organization-wide foresight capacity building.
A road map to begin creating the future
Distilling an entire discipline into one article is impossible, but strategic foresight resources have never been more accessible. In addition to formal degree programs and professional foresight certification, many learning opportunities are available to build your futures-thinking capacity.
If you are seeking ways to jump-start your organization’s foresight journey today, here are some suggestions.
Question your assumptions and biases. Make a conscious effort to notice your own biases. Question your gut reaction to news, information, and people. Examine the roadblocks you naturally put up when hearing certain ideas.
What might you be missing? What’s another perspective you can imagine?
Talk to others and learn from their biases too, especially from youths. They see the world in different ways.
Scan from the outside in. As a leader, you’re already seeking out news and information that may affect your organization, but that’s not enough. You need to look outside of your industry to discover disruptive ideas and innovations, as well as unexplored opportunities.
Pick up a magazine from an unrelated industry. Follow someone on social media who focuses on topics outside of your normal interests.
Be provocative. The natural next step of scanning is to use your imagination. Challenge yourself to think of the provocative implications of ideas, innovations, and events.
Connect the dots between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Challenge yourself to think outrageously.
As legendary futurist Jim Dator once said, “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.” In 20, 30, or 50 years, what may happen because of a trend we see today? If you are afraid to let your mind wander, you’ll never find yourself at the leading edge.
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