Futures? It’s not rocket science

Image: IKON

Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you are interested in futures thinking – why?  Please take a moment to answer that question before you read on.

Now, imagine that you have decided to do some futures work – what would you like to get out of it. Take another moment…

As a futures consultant, I am often invited to speak to potential clients who are thinking about doing futures and who want to know how I can help them. My first two questions are – you’ve guessed it – Why do you want to do futures thinking? What do you want to get out of it?

My third question is quite important too. Who do you want to involve?

These questions are critical for designing the futures process the client needs. The thing is, there is no fixed way to do futures and no ‘right’ way to combine the main techniques – signals of change, stakeholder interviews, driver mapping, scenario planning, visioning, backcasting, wind tunnelling and roadmapping (to name but a few) – and if I don’t understand exactly what the client wants, there’s a danger that I will offer them the wrong process.

More to the point, if my client doesn’t understand exactly what s/he wants, there’s a danger that s/he will accept the wrong process.  

Which is why those three questions are important. So, whether you want to work with a futures consultant or whether you want to approach futures thinking yourself, it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

Why do you want to do futures thinking?

The common answer to this question is usually something like “because we want to understand how the market’s going to change and what that’s going to mean for us.”

Sometimes, that’s all there is to it but, more often than not, there’s another reason that the client hasn’t quite worked out yet; so it’s important to dig a little deeper.  

5 whys is a useful and straightforward technique for doing that. The conversation might go something like this:

Why #1: Why do you want to do futures thinking?

Because the market’s changing and we need to understand what that means for us

Why #2: Why do you need to understand what the changing market means for you?

Because if we have to change some of the things we do, we need to think about that as early as possible

Why #3: Why do you need to think about change as early as possible?

Because we take forever to drive change through

Why #4: Why do you take forever to drive change through?

Because we find it difficult to agree a plan for action

Why #5: Why do you find it difficult to agree a plan for action?

Because everyone has different opinions about what is important and everyone wants to protect their own fiefdom.

What has become clear by the end of the 5 whys conversation is that this client has deep cultural issues. Change in this organisation takes a long time because those responsible are more interested in protecting their personal power base than accepting the organisation might need to change to meet future challenges and requirements.   As early as Why #2, the client has started putting limits on the nature of change (“…if we have to change some of the things we do…”).

The reason why this client wants to do futures work is because s/he hopes it will demonstrate the imperative for change. The key to success with this project will therefore be to (i) build acceptance in the team that the future is going to be different from the present, (ii) secure agreement about what the organisation needs to change and what it needs to leave behind to achieve success in that future and (iii) help the leaders make the transition as quickly as possible.  

Resistance – both to futures thinking and to change – is likely to be a significant challenge. The futures process should therefore be designed around a lot of internal stakeholder interviews, some robustly evidenced horizon scanning and (what are likely to be pretty difficult) visioning and road-mapping exercises.

In a different organisation, the conversation might go more like this:

Why #1: Why do you want to do futures thinking?

Because the market’s changing and we need to understand what that means for us

Why #2: Why do you need to understand what the changing market means for you?

Because if we have to change what we do, we need to start thinking about that as soon as possible

Why #3: Why do you need to start thinking about that as soon as possible?

So we can work through a range of options

Why #4: Why do you want to work through a range of options?

So that once we know just how the market’s changing, we’ll know which option to go for and we’ll be able to implement it quickly

Why #5: Why do you want to implement it quickly?

So we don’t lose market share

What this client wants from futures thinking is very different from the first. They accept that change is likely and are probably full of ideas about how to respond. They are already thinking strategically and are excited about possibilities. Unlike the first organisation, the challenge here may be too much enthusiasm rather than too little. The key to success for this client will be to (i) explore alternative ways the market might develop, (ii) test the range of options against those alternative futures and (iii) to identify the key indicators that will show how the market is changing and that will trigger the appropriate response.

The futures process should be designed around some external stakeholder interviews, drivers analysis, scenario development and wind tunneling. The challenges here will be to ensure the timescale for the exercise is right, to get the level of research in the scenarios right and to make sure the narratives themselves are meaningful for all the options under consideration.

In summary:  different clients, different challenges, different futures processes.

What do you want to get out of doing futures thinking?

One common answer is ‘scenarios.’ Another is ‘a vision.’ A third is ‘a better idea of what’s going to be important for us in the future.’

Futures thinking can deliver both outputs and outcomes. Clients don’t always know at first which one they want but by the end of a good futures process, most would probably sacrifice output (scenarios, say) for outcome (a better idea of what’s going to be important for us in the future).  

Ideally, of course, your process should deliver both. Just be clear about which is most important for you. And why.

Who do you want to involve?

Some futures processes are large and involve a wide range of stakeholders in interviews, research and workshops. Others are small and may only involve a few people in a couple of workshops and some research.  

Who to involve depends on the nature of the exercise.   The client in my first example needs a lot of internal stakeholder interviews to build a clear picture of the challenge of change and to build ownership of the solution. The interview programme for my second client is smaller and much more externally focused to get a clear picture of how outsiders see the future trajectory of the organisation.  

Futures is flexible.  You can involve as many people as you want and you can gather as wide a range of opinion as you need. The process is great for turning different opinions and ideas into strategic insights and choices.

3, 2, 1, Go

And it really isn’t difficult.  One of my favourite quotes about futures is something that Peter Schwartz – former head of scenario planning at Shell, co-founder of the Global Business Network, author of The Art of the Long View and now Senior VP Strategic Planning at Salesforce – once said:

‘Scenario planning isn’t rocket science.  Believe me.  I used to be a rocket scientist.’

If you’d like to explore futures thinking further, come along to World Café 2029 at Wonkfest for a conversation about the University of the Future

You can read the rest of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series here.

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