Lessons from foresight initiatives

This morning I was at a meeting of a ‘launch and review group’ for a Youth Foresight Unit being set up by Catch22. Rosie Chadwick, Catch22’s Director of National Programmes, asked me to introduce a discussion about ‘Pitfalls to avoid and ingredients of success’ by reflecting on lessons from our own foresight work. After consulting present and ex-colleagues, this is what we came up with.

Foresight and strategy

  • Consider from the start how the work will feed into strategic planning and get buy-in andinvolvement from key decision makers before you start.
  • Simplified, there are three phases of foresight work. What (is changing)? So what (does this mean)? Now what (are we going to do about it)? There’s often an imbalance between the 3 questions: more time is spent answering the What? to the detriment of the two other questions.
  • When considering Now What?, understand what you can influence – and what you have to manage - “While the future is uncertain and much of it is beyond our control, we can control many aspects of it. We choose our future: we create it by what we do or fail to do.” Wendy Schultz

People, knowledge and language

  • A mix of inputs is invaluable, such as the tacit knowledge of practitioners alongside the helicopter view of ‘experts’, and those who may have no experience of this field but can bring multiple and varied (and, crucially, different) perspectives to bear.
  • Futures work can be a technical process with a lot of jargon. This can be overwhelming at first. It is vital that everyone understands the way it works. While no one need learn all the jargon, it can be helpful to know that there is a language to futures work which can shape and order what you do.
  • Accept that there will be people who are cynical about imaginative and creative futures work. Cynics can be useful in helping you shape your discussions; they may be the people who feel disenfranchised in the organisation or are raising legitimate and important fears.
  • Network with and try to involve futurists, they’re usually keen to get involved in interesting projects.

Methods

  • Allow multiple possible futures – remember futures work is not about predicting the future.
  • Different tools can yield different results, so think about what output you want.
  • Good driver research and analysis takes time…
  • …therefore plan for this...
  • ... and use, beg, borrow and steal from previous relevant foresight initiatives!
  • Driver analysis is not static - consider how you'll be aware of the evolution or process of change in any of the drivers (eg ongoing horizon scanning).
  • It’s also helpful to learn from past history – look back twice as far as you intend to look forward.
  • Creative approaches (images, drawing etc) can help to unlock ideas.
  • Don’t get too hung up on using the tools ‘properly’, they’re there to get ideas out there so make them work for you.

Perspectives (thanks to Guy Yeoman for these reflections)

  • It is useful to consider how the world looks from different perspectives. What values, biases and cultural perspectives underpin different groups’ likely perceptions of the future (called 'worldviews' in our jargon)?
  • It is useful to think through what is the dominant, prominent or most accepted 'official' future which could impact or within which you’ll have to operate. This may provide a useful benchmark or counter-point to work with (especially if it's politically based in our current changing circumstances).

General

  • The process can be as valuable as the results, but be clear (in a small project) about which you value more.
  • Successful futures work is creative and uncertain - "Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous." Jim Dator, futurist.
  • Out-there futures can very quickly seem much less so (for example  the fourth scenario we developed for the Future of Membership project seemed far off but since a change of government now seems the most likely future).

For more, have a look at the report from a seminar we held in 2007 on foresight work in practice, which brought together VCOs with experience of foresight work with futurists. For more on Catch22’s youth foresight unit, read my post about the unit.

Last updated at 14:49 Fri 26/Nov/10.
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Hi Megan,

Love this post! Sounds very much like Day 1 of teaching students at the Duke University futures institute. I'm in the process of building a futures/foresight education and organizational think tank in the U.S., would love to converse more about your expertise, experience, and ideas.

Thanks,

Frank Spencer

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