Learning from the Future

HBR, July-August 2020

Facts and Opinions

  • Uncertainty and volatility are part of life, COVID or not. Frameworks:

  • DEF: VUCA = Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity

  • DEF: TUNA = Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel and Ambiguous.

  • (so many cool English words)

  • Knee-jerk reaction of managers: stick to the predictable short term, sacrifice innovation (and billions of unearned dollars) for efficiency

[MK: I would LOVE to look in the eye of a calm person in those circumstances]

  • The tyranny of the present: survive the immediate threats for the sake of the status quo. Buy the future by slightly strangling the present.

  • However, strategic foresight is not about planning the future. It’s about how to think about the future and have many possible outcomes in mind (and the means to get to them).

  • Yes, ye olde scenario planning to the rescue:

  • Identifying forces that will shape future market and operating conditions;

  • Exploring how these drivers may interact;

  • Imagining a variety of plausible futures;

  • Revising mental models of the present based on the possible futures;

  • Using the new models for strategic planning.

  • Most companies do it once and don’t set up a process of continuous exploration – impact analysis of the present actions on the future.

  • The outcome? Strategic foresight.

The limits of experience

  • Uncertainty stems from our inability to compare the present to anything we’ve previously experienced.

  • Uncertainty == you can’t put a probability on an event; even the range of possible outcomes is not clear.

  • Managers use judgement in uncertainty, but the judgement is based on past experiences —> avoid looking back at the past.

  • Uncertainty precludes prediction but demands anticipation.

Strategic Foresight

  • Strange aids to thought – developing multiple imagined futures via simulations.

  • Scenario-planning exercises must be institutionalized.

  • Strategic execution is different from strategic foresight.

  • Paradox: strategic foresight requires different skills, resources and org structures than just relying on existing competencies.

  • Going back from the imagined future to the present while creating a storyline of how the future came to be; and prepare for it.

  • Time is a loop, not a line, and taking action in the present requires thinking about the future.

Getting Started

  • Invite the right people to participate. Need a diversity of opinions, experiences and roles. Those with the powers to: perceive, think and act.

  • Identify assumptions, drivers and uncertainties. Disaggregate transactional actors (which you can control) from environmental forces (which you can’t).

  • Imagine plausible, but dramatically different, futures. Takes creativity as the futures shouldn’t be based on extrapolations. [MK: that’s where consultants come in]

  • Inhabit those futures. Immerse, try to create fictional artefacts. Works best at offsite sessions.

  • Identify and isolate possibly useful futures. They may feed back into the existing strategies.

  • Implement the strategies. (Obvious, but many firms fall short here).

  • Scenario exercises are helpful:

o   Provide the participants with common language to talk about the future

o   Build support for new ideas faster

o   Enables participants to act on a unit level, even if the firm is slow.

  • Ingrain the process. Has to be an interactive cycle. The current crisis requires this feedback loop to speed up.