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.
Predicting the future is impossible; however, understanding trends that may shape the future is an important part of developing a strategy that can manage uncertainty and minimize risk. The use of foresight can help inform the strategy and subsequently create change for an organization.
Infusing strategy development processes with foresight methodology ensures the strategy is futures ready — flexible for the range of challenges and opportunities the future may bring (Conway, 2016). Foresight approaches consider a wide range of aspects that may influence the future of an organization’s business: social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and values-based emerging issues and trends (Jackson, 2013). Additionally, they take a big picture or systems approach to identify drivers leading potential global and systemic changes that can affect the future landscape. By omitting this kind of analysis, strategists have an incomplete picture of change shaping the organization’s future and, as a result, may miss significant disruptors for which the organization should be preparing. Foresight is the only way to reduce uncertainty.
Gluck, Kaufman, Walleck, McLeod, and Stuckey (2000) for McKinsey & Company outlined forecast-based planning as the second step of strategic development. Forecasting predicts possible future(s) based on what is known about a prescribed area of study and is limited to known boundaries (Cuhls in Amsteus, 2008). Foresight, however, embraces the unknown to enable preparation for possible future conditions. Foresight includes qualitative and quantitative means for monitoring early indications of evolving trends and their developments. Strategic foresight methodologies help to analyze the disconnected signals of change, and to identify potential future outcomes. Foresight prepares us to meet the needs and opportunities of the future — understanding the forces that drive change as fundamental to planning for a sustainable economy in Ontario’s future (Cuhls in Amsteus, 2008). Given the potential influence of trends, drivers, and unknowns in the external environment, a company can 16 create an achievable internal vision. Collisions and intersections between trends and across industries are explored in depth to identify potential strategic implications for the organization. Strategic foresight work identifies and uses wider sources of information from both the mainstream and the periphery, as well as seeking to source tacit views, beliefs, and ideas about the future held by individuals. Visioning can help describe a preferred future independently from the possibilities of the future.
Strategic foresight illuminates such possible futures and allows visioning to choose a preferred future among the plausible or possible futures. Once a vision of a preferred future exists, it is strategy that defines actions necessary to reach or at least advance toward the preferred future. A preferred future provides a long-term strategic focus that informs decision-making today, used as a strategic end-point. Moving forward with clear purpose, abilities and flexibility are applied to mitigate challenges and grasp useful opportunities as they emerge. Foresight approaches consider a wider range of issues and change across industries, including emerging issues and more general societal trends and concerns. They also take a big picture, systems approach to identifying and understanding global change while looking for systemic drivers of that change. As industries are shaped by this global change, not exploring it means SMEs have an incomplete picture of change shaping their organisation’s future.
The design of a strategy is the crafting of deliberate actions to shape an organization’s future (Dyson, Bryant, Morecroft, & O’ Brien, 2015). It is thus intentionally steered by an explicit sense of direction, toward a desired future. The desired future becomes a strategic intent, a point toward which employees of the SMEs can move and against which they can measure progress. By having better ideas about what the multiple futures may hold, the enterprise can build the appropriate capabilities that enable it to be agile in the face of accelerating change. Although rapid change may force short-term course changes and detours, the destination should stay stable and should not be discarded. To attain that desirable future, a coherent set of individual actions must be outlined in support of a system of goals (Eden and Ackermann, 1998).
Strategic foresight influences organizational change by preparing an organisation for a resilient future. It reduces uncertainty by allowing participants to see a picture of the change shaping the organization’s future and, as a result, may have an advantage by discovering significant disruptors before their disruption can become detrimental to the business. Foresight is the only way to reduce uncertainty. Weick (2009) emphasizes the importance of retrospective thinking applied to future events by envisioning possible events in the future as if they were events in the past. The impact of this perspective on strategic planning will be explored in the next section.