Applying Foresight to Create a Vision of the Future

Note: this is a research excerpt from Roxanne Nicolussi’s “Bigger Thinking for Smaller Enterprises”, published in 2017 and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Development of a shared vision is made possible through a foresight approach called ‘visioning’. Visioning provides a process for which organizations can collaboratively design their ideal future. Kotter (2007) explains that “without a sensible vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction or nowhere at all”. Foresight approaches allow strategy development to be an inclusive process: allowing its users to be authentically involved in the process of creating a shared view of their organization’s future.

Visioning is a process by which an organization defines its long-term purpose. A vision is a description of what an organization hopes to be in the future — a snapshot of what success is for the organization (“What is Strategic Visioning”, 2013). Visions are crafted to put forward transformational goals, measure progress, build capacity, and build shared purpose. Rather than concentrating on current and persistent dilemmas, the focus of visioning processes is to clearly articulate future desirable states.

A foresight approach considers a wider range of issues and change across industries. This can include emerging issues and general societal trends. They take a big picture perspective — a systems approach — to identifying and understanding change and look for systemic drivers of that change. Thinking systemically about the future is not about trying to get the future right, but rather ensuring not to be caught unprepared (Conway, 2016).

“Since staff will be asked to implement the strategy, enabling them to both shape and see themselves in the future embodied in that strategy is common sense” — Maree Conway, 2016

A long-term time frame creates a strong context for one’s decision-making today. Potential longer-term impacts of decisions may not be visible if the time frame used in the strategy is too short-term. Foresight enables its users to look forward, identifying possible, plausible, and probable futures and then to develop a preferred future. A preferred future provides users with a long term strategic focus that informs decision-making today. The future is used as a strategic endpoint: helping organizations move ahead with clarity of purpose that provides the ability and flexibility to mitigate challenges and grasp useful opportunities as they emerge (Conway, 2016).

Using foresight can allow members to be involved in the process of creating a shared view, or vision, of their organization’s future. Participatory strategic foresight work aims to reveal and challenge assumptions that underpin current thinking and decision-making. These assumptions are often grounded in deeply held beliefs that are difficult to shift, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. Uncovering assumptions can therefore be hard work, and asking individuals to recognize their blind spots and cognitive biases will usually be an uncomfortable experience. However, trying to avoid this discomfort by dismissing the new and the different will only allow members to ignore the change that could disrupt their business models and make them irrelevant (Conway, 2016).

The reason an organization may not plan very far into the future is due to the uncertainty of the future. Though the future will always be uncertain to those in the present, foresight can help mitigate uncertainty and leave an organization feeling more confident planning for the long term. Foresight encourages the acknowledgement of uncertainty in order to better understand it. When organizations expand their thinking to consider what is possible in the future, they can develop products, services, and business models that will matter in that future — making them “futures ready” (Conway, 2016).

Visioning was selected as a strategic foresight approach of interest because of its ability to aid enterprises in long-term strategic planning. Its collaborative nature enables members to both shape and see themselves in the future, making them more likely to embody their strategy with a sense of ownership and drive. As can be seen in Figure 4, the practice of foresight compares future states that are possible, narrowing in on those that are plausible. The probable is a direct adaptation of the present state. It is tools such as reverse Possible Plausible Probable Potential NOW Time Preferable 11 engineering of futures that enable organizations to turn the preferable into the probable.

In organizational change, visioning is an essential step at the outset of the process to gain a shared vision of the kind of organization the group wants to develop. During implementation, visioning is a way to check that the change process is on track. Crucial is the ability to detect and interpret emergent signals, translating insight into foresight into action (Manu, 2010). Since foresight approaches consider a wide range of issues and change across industries, they take a big picture perspective — a systems approach — to identifying and understanding change. Knowledge of what the big picture holds mitigates uncertainty, making an organization feel more comfortable about the decisions they are making.

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