Plan Amidst Uncertainty and Ambiguity with Strategic Foresight

When planning amidst uncertainty and ambiguity, leaders can benefit from five principles of strategic foresight.

What is strategic foresight?

It is a disciplined approach to exploring alternate futures. The approach helps organizations identify growth opportunities and increases organizational resilience. And, it is best suited to longer time horizons when there are high levels of uncertainty.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most foresight exercises focused on a five- to 10-year time horizon; uncertainty was sufficiently high to necessitate alternative approaches to strategic planning. The COVID-19 pandemic has created high levels of uncertainty within much shorter time horizons – under three years. It has also presented opportunities for innovation and planning teams to benefit from foresight methods and tools.

Principles that provide a starting point to plan amidst uncertainty

Here are five principles of strategic foresight that can provide leaders with a starting point to plan amidst uncertainty.

  • The future is fundamentally unknowable.

The purpose of strategic foresight is to change decision-makers’ mental models and perspectives as they plan for their organizations’ possible futures. The purpose is not to predict the future. With a broadened perspective, business leaders can clarify critical uncertainties, ask the right questions, identify new opportunities for growth, create appropriate contingency plans to manage risk, and develop an organizational learning plan to monitor how critical drivers of change are evolving.

  • It is possible to identify and analyze the forces shaping how the future will unfold.

Coronavirus has impacted technology development and adoption, market dynamics, and consumer behavior. When you integrate an understanding of technology, market, and consumer trends you have a more comprehensive view of the forces shaping the future. Some pre-existing trends (like increasing workplace flexibility and digital transformation) have accelerated, while others have slowed or even reversed.

In planning for the next normal, organizations that recognize these shifting trends and re-orient their innovation activities to align with a post-COVID-19 reality are more likely to succeed.

  • The forces shaping the future must be considered differently, based on their level of certainty and impact on your organization.

Long lists of signals and trends are only the starting point. You and your team must dedicate time to making sense of what these changes mean. Not all forces shaping the future are created equal. A critical part of any foresight process is analyzing uncertainty and the potential impact of various forces.

Companies are usually adept at incorporating high-certainty trends into planning efforts. Strategic foresighting provides a structured process for extracting insights from high-uncertainty forces—a responsibility that has become increasingly important amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Expand your understanding of possible futures to help you identify emerging opportunities and increases organizational resilience

Foresight practitioners never try to predict the future. Instead, they envision multiple futures. These futures are rooted in observable signals and trends from today and use critical uncertainties to create multiple plausible – yet provocative – visions of the future. When teams creatively envision a plausible future, they are able to recognize emerging white spaces, strategically position their organization through partnerships or acquisition, or create contingency plans that increase organizational resilience.

  • Actively monitor signals to help you move forward with agility and speed.

Organizations that have a structured process to identify signals of change and monitor the evolution of critical uncertainties can react with speed to seize opportunities or recognize emerging threats. With hundreds of signals and trends evolving simultaneously, strategic foresight helps leaders identify and prioritize the most important signals to track.

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About the author

Jim Redden advises our corporate and government clients that want to improve their innovation processes and outcomes. An expert at facilitating innovation, he understands the complexities of organizational innovation initiatives and enjoys applying innovation best practices to help teams solve new challenges. Jim has helped establish innovation programs in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, and in companies across the United States. He brings diverse perspectives to our clients, having worked as an engineer in oil and gas and a teacher. A podcast connoisseur, whitewater rafting enthusiast, and Cincinnati native, Jim has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

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