The Emerging Field of Strategic Foresight:

By Tyler Gilchrist

Kodak. Blockbuster. Sears.  Stories of their rise and fall are well known around the world: companies who enjoyed a dominate market position and competitive advantage, only to fail in spectacular fashion.

What did they have in common?  The inability to anticipate foundational shifts in consumer behaviour in their markets.

If these enterprises had employed a Strategic Foresight lens to the businesses, it is unlikely they would be the cautionary tales they are so well known for today.

Strategic foresight is an increasingly important discipline with a wide spectrum of application, tools and approaches within it. It involves the systematic approach to researching uncertainty and change as well as their implications to the future. Fundamentally though, strategic foresight concerns decisions and mental models.

Decisions

It is important to understand that we do not mean decision making in the future. It is not about what we are to do in ten years or five or even next year. It is about making decisions today. These decisions concern where we are headed and what strategy and innovation is required to get there.  A strategic foresight exercise is biased toward action – foresight looks long but acts now.

Mental models

Mental models are simply an understanding of how something works in the real world. They are mostly unconscious, yet direct most of our thinking, feelings and decisions. For instance, if you had a mental model of the earth as being flat, it would very much influence your decisions about how to navigate the world.

When the future of your organization is tied to people outside your walls, surfacing and testing their mental models becomes essential. Strategic foresight exists to surface, test and improve our collective mental models for future. When we make strategic decisions today, we make them with full awareness of our own and our colleagues’ thoughts and feelings of the future.

The industrial designer Raymond Loewy’ s MAYA principle comes to mind here – Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. We can, and should, push boundaries and expectations when innovating and making strategic decisions for the future, but we must meet people where they are to do so. We cannot expect people to make giant leaps toward understanding something they have no history with or previous frame of reference for. We need to stretch their mental models yet do so in a way consistent with how they currently think and reason about the domain we are operating within. What we consider rapid, disruptive innovations today were often the result of many gradual nudges that expanded the mental models of a core consumer base over time.

Three phase process

At RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP we follow a simple three step process for thinking about the future with our client partners

1) framing

Framing is all about scoping and bounding the future challenge at hand relative to the systems and mental models that exist within an organization

2) horizon scanning

Horizon scanning predominantly involves identifying all the driving forces of change occurring outside an organization

3) scenario planning

Scenario planning concerns the process of creating multiple plausible futures (based on the critical uncertainties organizations are faced with), identifying all the implications of such futures, and identifying a preferred future to proactively work toward.

Backcasting

Essential to this process is identifying the consumer mental models that exist today. As we identify multiple plausible futures and a preferred future to strategically align toward, we go through the process of understanding and planning for all the change required to get to that future both inside and outside an organization. This concept is referred to as ‘backcasting’. By backcasting, we ensure that we are making strategic decisions that are the most advanced we can, while still acceptable to the way our key stakeholders think about their world. When we do this with insight and evidence – particularly into our future consumers’ unconscious mental models – we can understand their current state, expand their thinking, and influence their understanding proactively. This is how you successfully co-create the conditions for successful futures oriented decision making.

For more information on this emerging field, please get in touch with us.