Tag Archive: strategy


After nearly ten years of foresight practice, I still get a slight sinking feeling in my stomach when someone asks ‘what is foresight?’ This is not because I have lost the fire, or I don’t believe foresight is useful, rather it is an indication that a) the term still has little currency and b) I have to come up with a persuasive sounding explanation. I gave up long ago trying for a ‘one size fits all’ elevator pitch, my most successful interactions have been where I match the message to the receiver.  I have also learned to match my explanation to the situation, I am often asked the question on the side of sports grounds watching kids hitting/kicking/throwing an air filled bladder around early on a weekend morning, so a full blown pitch at civilizational foresight does not seem warranted. The main issue with explaining foresight is that it is a broad church of worldviews, methods and tools. It can be applied to most problems, in most situations and whilst this generalisability is a core strength, it is also a weakness in a world that rewards specialisation.

So, what do I reply?

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via Ecouterre.com

There are some interesting ideas in this latest list of fashion meets environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, the commodification of nature continues… 10 Eco-Fashion Garments Inspired by Nature and Biomimicry | Ecouterre.

Stefanie has found scraps of wood which she has made into couture pieces of clothing, Suzanne is using couple of bathtubs, some yeast, a pinch of bacteria, and several cups of sweetened green tea to make her fabric which is then dyed by beetroot. Donna is using a nanotechnology-based, structurally colored fiber that mimics the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings that does not require dyeing (see image).

When you have a look through the fashion on the website above it is an interesting  project to question the assumptions and thinking behind many of these ideas by moving them into to a world of restricted resources to generate questions such as these:

Which could continue to survive under cradle to cradle manufacturing requirements?

Which looked to ‘waste’ to find a source of material?

Which are high-tech and therefore require the full functioning of a technological society to support it?

Which can be used to support people when they are deprived?

Which will require low wages and third world manufacturing to be commercially viable?

All of these questions can be legitimately asked in relation to innovative strategies and new products in any industry, but more often than not are ignored. When these questions are answered, there will be products and services supported that are acceptable to the moral stance of the organisation/entrepreneur. People may still not like the outcome, but at least the bigger questions have been dealt with. It is the unconscious choices we are trying to make conscious.

In addition, the sustainability of innovation is a key issue when looking at the future. What are the assumptions about the techno-economic base that the large-scale commercialisation of any of these ideas rely upon? If we are into making things for the long-term, these issues will be at the forefront of our minds, if we want to make a quick buck, then we can afford to ignore them because, at the moment, externalities are not priced into our market.

When I am working with clients to determine a course of action, I like to ask the ‘three questions’:

Who benefits?

Who does not?

And the kicker – just because we can, does that mean we should?

The moral dimension of innovation is often swept under the carpet when shiny new technologies beckon.

In a future where we may have less rather than more, who decides what resources are used for?

Victoria was inundated with water yet again, which is devastating for those who are in the thick of it and may have consequences for the State as a whole.

Traralgon flood (The Age 06/06/12)

The government has assured Victorians there is no threat to power supplies after floodwaters began spilling into  the Yallourn open-cut coal mine, forcing the adjoining power station to operate on a reduced capacity.

The Yallourn mine has suffered ”significant leakage” since the nearby Morwell River burst its banks, affecting a conveyor system used to transport coal to the Yallourn Power Station, which supplies 22 per cent of the state’s electricity supply and eight per cent of the national electricity market. Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/floodwaters-pour-into-coal-mine-but-power-supplies-safe-minister-20120606-1zv5e.html#ixzz1wyzcuC5v

There are infrastructure shocks in all countries at all times. Some countries are better prepared than others, usually because they have patchy service delivery at the best of times, others (usually Western countries) come to a complete standstill. We were living in the UK during the 2000 driver’s strike in which they blockaded fuel depots and the populace panicked and bought fuel which in turn meant there was none to be had about three days into the strike. This affected food availability as people started to panic buy and it seemed to take a long time for the Government to control the situation or enact a rationing regime. Coming from Australia which had regular odds and evens days for fuel buying when I was growing up, this seemed ridiculous. We had gone on a driving holiday from York to Cornwall and so were holed up in the very south of the country which was not a bad place to be. This experience probably sensitised me to the potential for infrastructure disruption, as I had experienced problems with gas when a Victorian plant had exploded the year before which resulted in me having to take cold showers when 6 months pregnant in the middle of a Melbourne winter with no heating. Now for those of you who deal with infrastructure issues on a daily basis, these are small issues but as the French heatwave deaths in 2003 demonstrated, many people are not prepared for climatic extremes.

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When I meet someone who calls themselves a ‘strategist’ I often remark “then we are in the same business, I help them work out where they want to go and you help them work out how to get there”. Sadly, my attempt at bonhomie often fails and I often get a blank look and then a short time later I’m not talking to anyone at all.

As a futurist I am not impressed by strategy that fails to make an explicit link with the intended future that the strategy is meant to bring about. Strategy that fails to make such a link I call ‘cookbook strategy’.  Do this first, then this next and finally this and bingo, there is your future.

Now cookbooks are very useful and when you discover a favourite recipe then you just know that when you apply the correct ingredients in the correct sequence that the yummy future your desire will eventuate. And even if you haven’t cooked the dish concerned for a long time you know that you can always go back to those favourite cookbooks again, repeat all the steps and the desired future emerges again.  If only real life worked liked a cookbook.

In real life if you follow a strategy cookbook – whether it be diamond shaped or involve 5 forces – add all the recipe ingredients to get your favourite banana cake and while you were not looking the future adds some minced steak and a kilo of hot chillies and it also changes the oven to run 100 degrees hotter or colder than the dial says. And when you get to the future you get the shock of your life; “I didn’t order this!”

Imagine my delight when I went to a recent presentation by the writer of a leading strategy text book, Bob de Wit (Strategy Synthesis), and in his opening he described strategy as a “dialectic approach between two irresolvable paradoxes”.  Now that sounds like a strategy approach that is nothing like using a cookbook.

Bob de Wit sees strategy as managing rival tensions with there being a multitude of positions that offer distinct resolutions but never a perfect answer. One such tension is the strategic balance between shareholder value (profitability) and stakeholder value (responsibility). Whatever strategic response is chosen (maximise profit) has consequence upon the other dimension of the paradox (minimise responsibility). This is not a simple binary opposition but there are an unlimited range of synthetic options available – hence the dialectic. His book outlines ten such paradoxes that organisations face.

This did seem like an interesting approach to strategy and one that seemed to integrate with our ideas about ‘using the idea of the future’. I began to wonder how we could use the future to assist organisation’s manage their paradoxes?

The first obvious way is to use the future as the design space within which to prototype future synthetic resolutions of the paradox. Create a synthetic future model that maximises both dimensions of the paradox (responsibility and profit) and thus you have your desired future and hence your strategic direction.

I then saw parallels in our approach called Actionable Foresight. The phase we call Present Need is where the paradox(es) are identified and Pathways Thinking and Option Generation are where the multitude of synthetic positions are explored. And finally Goal Commitment is where we settle on the best resolution of the strategic tension. Not a solution but the best tradeoff we can build commitment to. And as we move towards the commitment future then we scan the state of the paradox, where is the pressure building and where is it lessening, always seeking for new and innovative combinations that provide a synthetic resolution of the tension.

Actionable Foresight operates from the premise that in order to usefully use foresight we need to:

  1. Understand as best we can what is the fundamental issue we face;
  2. Find new pathways of thinking about the situation, the circumstances and ourselves in order to expand the future option space;
  3. Generate working models of those future options – including what happens to the fundamental issue, what happens to the circumstances, what else emerges and, very importantly, what is the pathway to that option; and finally
  4. We need to choose an option and then commit to its future pathway.

This approach is consistent with our understanding of how people utilise ‘hope’ in order to transcend difficult circumstances and to find purpose. It is also a process that creates the favourable conditions for also ‘finding’ hope and purpose. So our approach bootstraps itself onto our innate capacities and also develops those capacities. Yet this approach is quite different to what most people would understand as the most useful way to use the future – making a forecast and then acting on the basis of what the forecast says. Does this mean that we don’t think forecasting is useful?

To answer this it is best that we ensure what it is we mean when we use the term forecast.  A forecast does attempt to make use of the future (like foresight does). A forecast:

  1. Starts with a question or problem about the future – “will it rain tomorrow?” “how many people are going to need a hospital bed in ten years time?” “how much food are we going to need to produce on the planet to feed the estimated population a hundred years from now?”
  2. Next you collect data that you think is relevant to the question you are asking;
  3. Then you build a model of how the future will work itself out based on the data you are using. This model can be as simple as how you think the world works (“Give people more education and they will become more responsible citizens”) or as complex as a detailed computer simulation (The World3 simulation used in the Limits to Growth, the Climate Change models used by the IPCC or the Meteorological models used to forecast tomorrows weather);
  4. Next you test your model on the only hard data you have of how the world really works – the past. You run your computer simulations time and time again, changing variables and weightings to reduce your forecast error or you use your memories of what happened in the past in order to test your ideas about how the future works;
  5. Now you reach the big decision point – “Is my model valid based on all my testing against the past?”  If you answer “yes” then your answer to your initial question is what your model tells you the future will be based on the most current data you have. You have faith in your model – faith in your judgement of the past, faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future – and so you act accordingly. If you say “No” then you doubt your model – you doubt your judgement or you doubt the past as a reliable predictor of the future – and so you need to do something else. Build a new model or try something different.

So, do we think forecasting is useful?

Employing a forecasting approach to the future gets you to a clear decision point. It closes down the potential future option space to a single point – “this will probably happen, so you should do this”. For issues that employ solutions that have very long development times – (the new Hong Kong International airport took 17 years to be fully built) a forecast is very useful otherwise how does it every get started. For issues that do not have a huge consequence effect if they are wrong (it will be fine tomorrow so I won’t take an umbrella) then a forecast is good enough. The most useful point about forecasts is that they are deeply compatible with conventional thinking. You don’t need to explain to most people how to use a forecast. Give a person a forecast then if they have faith in it (and you) then they may well act accordingly.

So forecasts are useful. Sometimes, but we believe they are also fraught. Everything up to step 5 in a forecast is a mechanical, logical process that is as good as the person doing it and the process being used. But the 5th step is the critical one. “Do you have faith in your model – faith in your judgement of the past, faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future?” If you have faith, then forecasts will be useful. If you have doubt, however, then we would suggest that Actionable Foresight might be useful. We do not say that Actionable Foresight will necessarily cause you to rediscover faith in your judgement or faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future. But you might discover hope or purpose and we think they are very useful.

It always amazes me where inspiration strikes. Innovation comes from having the time to think and I make sure I have thinking time on a weekly basis – usually when walking the family dog. On my walk yesterday, I was looking at the profusion of lilly pilly trees planted on nature strips in front of the houses on my street. I have looked at these trees, and the mess they make at this time of year when the fruit drops off them, for 12 years and only yesterday was I looking at them as a source of food. Lilly pilly is bush tucker, a native tree with a small purple fruit with quite a tart taste, good for eating off the tree as a snack but also good for utilising in jam. It struck me that the idea of foraging for food amongst the ornamental trees and the blending of the old and new (bush tucker with jam making techniques) was a great metaphor for the type of thinking needed in organisations today.

I think that we should develop the ability to look at the everyday occurrences and assumptions within our organisations in new ways. Reviewing what is useful and re-casting that which we take for granted. Only through the conscious use of perspectives and the ability to shift from ours to another’s, do we have any hope of becoming nimble enough to try and deal with the ‘black swans’ or future unknowables that will arise for our organisations.

I think the practice of blending the old with the new has merit as well. When you spend as much time as I do working with organisations around future direction setting, you quickly learn that there is absolutely no point in thinking that the future is a place where the past no longer exists. On the contrary, if you have not taken the time to review and decide what will be taken from the past into the future, there is a good chance that the future will either be the same as today or that you will have undermined what is possible in the future by not putting down what is not needed from the past. Often the hardest question for organisations to answer about the future is ‘what are you going to leave behind?’

The leaving behind process is not easy, even when it is acknowledged that what is being left is no longer useful. For many organisations, and the people in them, doing what we have always done is a comfort. It is a tried and true approach to chaos and complexity that will leave us with a feeling of control and influence. That fact that we may be deluding ourselves is not often reflected upon!

The process of looking at the old and seeing something new should not entail recrimination or the feeling that one ‘should’ have seen differently beforehand. Sometimes seeing takes time and space, or it may be a new context shifts your perception of those things around you that were taken for granted. This ability to move the way you see the world is one worth celebrating.

Lilly pilly jam may be an acquired taste, but the process of engaging with an old fruit in new ways is a path to utilising resources we have around us that we may take for granted. What can you see in your organisation that could be used differently or leveraged in another direction? Where is your lily pilly jam?

We think of problems or challenges as issues that are presently impacting on us or on our organisations.  In our opinion something is not as it should be, we cannot achieve something that we wish or we need to do something to prepare or prevent a likely future event.  If we think we know what to do about the problem then we call that a solution. When we don’t have a solution or the solutions we have all tried don’t work then we are stuck. Foresight can help here – we have a process called Actionable Foresight that can lead to breakthroughs in thinking by individuals and organisations facing problems when they are stuck.  Here I want to elaborate on one of the elements in that process – Present Need.

Actionable Foresight employs the idea of the future in useful ways that discovers opportunities and new options. Present Need is our starting point for employing foresight and it is pretty important because where you start will significantly shape where you finish up. Sometimes our perception of the problem or challenge we face is faulty. If we start with the wrong idea of what our Present Need is then, not surprisingly, even foresight is not going to help much. The true or fundamental Present Need is always there, we may just not be aware of it. Sadly it is common for well intended groups to employ time, effort and resources in trying to address the Present Need they are aware of while the true Present Need is like the elephant in the room. That is why it is heartening to see one of those well intention groups actually point out the elephant that is our fundamental Present Need. The 27th Edition of the Worldwatch State of the World 2010 is one of the best examples of elephant pointing I have seen for a long while.

The title of the 27th edition is “Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability”. The Foreword to this edition is by Muhammad Yunis (Founder of the Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Prize winner) and in it he makes the observation that “culturally rooted fallacies are difficult to slay”. I would go a bit further and say that we cannot slay what we cannot see.  The invisible elephant in the room is these fallacies and the act of pointing them out is the necessary first step in dealing with them. These fallacies are actually our fundamental Present Need, if only we knew it.  Yunis goes on to say:

I am excited about State of the World 2010. It calls for one of the greatest cultural shifts imaginable: from culture of consumerism to culture of sustainability. The book goes well beyond standard prescriptions of clean technologies and enlightened policies. It advocates rethinking the foundations of modern consumerism – the practices and values regarded as “natural” which paradoxically undermine nature and jeopardise human prosperity.

Yunis goes straight to the point about this book, it points out where the elephants are in the room and it says loudly and clearly “that is the Present Need you have to deal with”. And what an impressive collection of elephants the State of the World 2010 points out to us.

The first elephant it starts with are the world’s religions. Despite the ‘greening of religion’ of the past two decades the report says that “the world’s religious traditions seem to hold a paradoxical position on consumerism…religious warnings about excess and about excessive attachment to the material world are legion and date back millennia…[and yet] religious intervention on this topic is sporadic and rhetorical”. It calls the message that the purpose of humans is to consume a “false god” and demands that the world’s religions tackle this heresy. A good start.

Next it points out the population elephant in the room and calls for Environmentally Sustainable Childbearing. The report sets out the mess that is reproductive rights, the social standing of women, the use women’s bodies for sex and advertising, political manipulation of societal attitudes to fertility and the importance of the child as consumer and points out the necessity of discussion and not avoidance of this particular elephant.

Hopefully you now have a sense of why I rate this report highly as an elephant spotting text.  Later elephants address the need to reduce working hours (to reduce consumption and promote equity), for governments to implement choice ‘editing ‘ policies to ultimately eliminate unsustainable consumer choices  (most tourism,  packaging etc), to redesign urban areas that don’t promote motor vehicles, to reform health care from disease consumerism for the few to equitable health for all and so on.

So get a copy and try and see the pachyderms all around us.