Strategic Foresight – What Does it Mean?

strategic foresight

By Svyatoslav Biryulin

If strategic management has been a well-known, well-researched, and widely used practice since the second half of the XX century, foresight still looks a little bit exotic in comparison with way too serious strategic theories. But living in the fast-changing world pushes us to seek for new, more flexible methods of building a successful future for our company. And the foresight approach is here to help.

Don’t try to predict – create!

The conventional strategic approach is based on the idea of forecasts. It is believed that some experts, inside of a company or outside of it, can somehow foresee the future. Then C-Suite managers will find the best place for the company in this future and pave the way there in the form of goals, action plans, and projects. Sometimes, when, for some reasons, the future seems too vague, they can create three scenarios of it and try to prepare for all of them.

And it doesn’t seem to be working. According to Harvard Business Review, 90 percent of businesses fail to meet their strategic targets, and 60-90% of strategic plans never fully launch. It could be credited to people’s inability to make long-term forecasts, but the real problem is that future is unpredictable by nature, and it doesn’t matter how long you try to foresee it – you’ll be wrong. The day when I wrote this article, I was going to have an online meeting with my customer and then see my doctor. I had a very short-term plan, but it failed. First, my internet provider abruptly lost the connection with the net because of some technical reasons. Second, some of the roads in my town were closed due to a marathon tournament, I spent more than an hour in traffic, and my doctor informed me that he couldn’t wait for me anymore. 

Futurists and foresight experts believe that the future is unpredictable, and all the attempts to “predict” it are doomed to fail. First, as I mentioned in my previous article here, humans are inferior future thinkers. Second, the world is a too multifactorial system, and not a single brain or even a supercomputer can’t consider all the factors. So, it doesn’t make any sense to try doing a job that can’t be done.

The good news is that even if the future is unpredictable, it is creatable. All the world around us, except natural objects, was created by entrepreneurial and active people. So, a company, even a small one, changes its world, helping create the future. When C-Suite managers realize that there is no way to predict the future but can create it, they make their first step towards strategic foresight.

Foresight first, strategy second

Foresight is not a way to “guess”, or “predict” the future. It is a number of tools helping create a plausible and desirable scenario of tomorrow of an industry or a domain. When I conduct foresight games, I don’t ask participants to find an answer to the question, “What will the future of your market will be?”. I ask them to answer the question, “What future for your market would you prefer?”. Using some foresight methods, we can play with possible scenarios, discussing and visualizing them.

Even though some foresight techniques, for instance, a Delphi method, look like an attempt to “see” tomorrow’s world, the foresight game is creative action. We don’t think much about the credibility of our forecasts. The best outcome of a decent foresight game is a list of ideas for the future, a vision, and a strategic intention that can later be converted into action plans. Foresight game helps unleash participants’ creative potential and look at the world another way. 

As we admit that the future is unpredictable, we need to be ready that our future vision will be different from reality. But it doesn’t mean that envisioning it is valueless. First, any strategist nowadays must formulate a strategy that can be revisited almost at any moment, a flexible strategy. Second, unleashing team members’ creative potential lets a business find so-called “disruptive” solutions and game-changing products, and who of CEOs around the world don’t dream about them? If you want to see your company successful – play foresight games!

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