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FUTURES THINKING
SOME PERSPECTIVES

By Michael Moynagh and Richard Worsley of the Tomorrow Project

Thinking about the future effectively is still a hot topic, despite the short-termism of many companies. The public sector, for example, has begun to show a new interest in long-term trends. Helping individuals and organisations to gain insights into the future of people s lives is the business of the Tomorrow Project. In this article we offer some perspectives on how to think about the future systematically, based on our experience.

Don t involve me!

Organisations can use different methods to look ahead: prediction, forecasting, horizon scanning, risk management, scenario planning, environmental scanning. Sometimes the terms are used precisely, but often less so: horizon scanning is regularly used to describe virtually all the tasks just listed. Enthusiasts are often perplexed that futures thinking is neglected, or at best given a low priority by senior management. An erstwhile Secretary of State, on being asked to approve a budget for a futures programme, is said to have replied, If you think it s got any value, you get on with it. Just don t involve me. I ll run the Department.

The low priority often given to futures thinking is not irrational. Sometimes the methods used are wrapped in mystique and jargon, which make them inaccessible. As one of our supporters commented, I don t want to take a degree in futurology or learn a new and unfamiliar vocabulary. Potential users think that the time required for futures thinking is too great to justify the potential returns. Many organisations choose to be followers rather than leaders . It makes more sense for them to adapt the innovations of others than to be pioneers themselves: they don t have to bear the costs of experimentation, they can learn from others mistakes and they avoid the risks of being first.

To be effective followers, organisations need to be closely in touch with current developments in the market. Thinking 10 or 20 years ahead may seem too remote. The financial markets put huge pressure on business to make adequate profits in the short term, and this drives short-term thinking throughout the economy. Financial institutions do keep an eye on the future they are interested in a company s investment plans, for instance. But because the future is so uncertain, it is often more sensible to maximise profits in the short term than to forego some immediate profit (to pursue a long-term strategy) in the hope that returns will be higher a few years ahead.

Most business leaders find it hard to see what futures thinking can contribute in this short-term climate. Where does it fit? We are often asked, How do you embed futures thinking in an organisation? There is often some frustration behind the question: individuals responsible for long-term thinking sense that senior managers are not fully committed. A helpful start may be to remember the business realities we have just described. In many companies futures thinking is likely to make only a limited direct contribution to strategic planning. Arguing for it on long-term strategic grounds is almost bound to meet with disappointment. The main exceptions, of course, will be companies whose product cycles are themselves very longterm.

Short-termism does not mean that futures thinking is unimportant. We would suggest that it can play four key roles. Learning First, managers at all levels, but especially senior managers, need to keep learning. Not for nothing do people speak about the learning organisation . In a world of rapid change, managers must keep abreast of developments in their own fields and be able to set these developments in the wider context. Changes in how people relate to each other may have implications for marketing, for example. Human resources departments will be very interested in the changing values and preoccupations of their workforces. Paradoxically, futures thinking is an especially powerful tool for learning about the present. " By encouraging people to distance themselves from their immediate preoccupations, it puts them into a learning mode. " Stepping 10 or even 20 years into the future gives you a new perspective on the here and- now. You can begin to imagine how today s trends are going to work out. In the process you may notice things that are happening now which you had previously ignored. Participants regularly leave our workshops on the future saying they have a much better insight into the present. Futures thinking is a forward-looking way of learning about today rather than backward-looking. It asks not only How did we get here , but also Where are we going? " Looking at the present through the eyes of the future stimulates the imaginative side of the brain.

Many managers find their imaginations are stifled by the day to day pressure of their jobs. They find the chance to think out of the box invigorating, fun and creative. The learning experience can become more like recreation than a chore. Often people will return to their desks refreshed. " When people engage in a creative exercise that relates to their work What will your job look like in ten years time? for instance serendipitous learning frequently occurs. A throw away remark may spark an insight from out of the blue . Someone may think, That s the way to approach the problem! The problem has nothing to do with the discussion, but relaxed and imaginative learning enables the brain to make a connection previously hidden. Organisations that want managers to learn about the present, enjoy learning and think creatively will find futures thinking a useful tool. There may for example be a case for embedding it in departments responsible for management development.

Networking

Networking is increasingly important to people s jobs. Good networks increase learning (you are more aware of what is happening around you), they put you in touch with people who can help you and they can spark new initiatives ( If I hadn t met her, we wouldn t be doing this ). Thinking about the future can create opportunities to cement and extend networks. Some organisations we have worked with have used it to bring together different departments.

Let s look at the future of the work-life balance , for example. People who would never otherwise meet each find a common interest. Lunch-time meetings on different emerging trends can join up an organisation. Other organisations have valued futures exercises as a way to meet experts from outside. For example, we convened a workshop on well-being that drew together experts who did not know each other from several organisations, creating at least one new network. Futures thinking can be a particularly helpful aid to networking because it is more neutral than asking people from different, sometimes competing organisations to discuss immediate concerns. If the topic is now , issues of confidentiality may hamper discussion. If the same topic is approached in terms of What might this look like in 10 or 20 years time? , pooling ideas is often easier.

Problem-solving

We suspect that one reason why futures thinking is not embedded in many organisations is that it is restricted to highlevel concerns, instead of being a tool for everyday problem-solving. We see no reason why ordinary problems, such as how to improve an aspect of the supply chain, should not be tackled in a futures way. What might this problem look like in five or 10 years time? How might different organisations have approached it? What tools for managing it are likely to have become available? It can help to tackle problems because it is such an effective aid to learning, which is often at the heart of problem-solving. As we have seen, it can provide new perspectives on the present, stimulate the imagination and encourage insights from out of the blue . We used a futures approach, for example, to help one organisation prepare a bid for installing a new information system. We asked what contexts the client might face in 15 years time, what types of information it might need and what the implications could be for the proposed system. A selling point of the bid was How often do people say two years after a system is installed, If only they had thought of that! By imagining a variety of futures, we have developed a more flexible system than would normally be the case.

Shaping

Despite what we have said about short-termism, some organisations do set out so shape the future. Their leaders have a vision of where they want the organisation to be and an intuitive grasp of what is possible. They are not deterred by the complexity and uncertainties of the future. Let s make the future happen! is their motto. Futures thinking can be an aid to these leaders.

It can help them test their intuition. Are they making accurate assumptions about the emerging world? Is there something out there that they are missing? What new information do they need to take on board? Good intuition, properly tested, can be amazingly powerful. Our experience Our experience suggests that futures thinking needs to be kept simple. We encourage organisations to ask four straightforward questions: " Where are we now? " What will influence the future? " What alternatives are possible (scenarios)? " So what what are the implications? Futures exercises should be done regularly to be most effective for learning. Too often senior managers hold a session on the future and think they have done it. But you can never do the future because the world keeps changing and our understanding is imperfect. Senior managers should at least do a regular check on emerging trends to make sure they are still in touch. Why shouldn t a board or senior management team devote one meeting a year to look at the future, using their own staff or outside experts? It s not a new idea, but fewer companies are still doing it. It is often helpful for organisations to use a futures approach to focus on little strategies not just an their grand strategy. It can help individuals at every level to tackle the strategic problems they face.

As more managers have direct experience of how thinking about the futures can help them in their particular jobs, support for it will spread. In the long term this may prove the most effective way of embedding it within an organisation.

Finally, there needs to be commitment from the top commitment to lead an organisation that is constantly learning, developing its networks, solving its problems and in some cases shaping the future. It is hard to think of a time when the lives of organisations in both the private and public sectors were more full of change and uncertainty. And yet much of the focus of organisations, in many ways understandably, is more about surviving the pressures of But it is increasingly recognised and understood as a means of helping to do what matters most making the best decisions for our organisations.



SNIPPETS

The UK s 400 farmers markets have combined sales estimated at £166m a year. But this is only a tiny proportion of the total spent on food and drink - £105bn. And Tesco alone sells ten times as much food as all the farmers markets put together. (Prospect)

The US economy grows as much in a day as it did in year in the 1930s (Specialist Schools Trust)

In 2000 there were 150 people working at 10 Downing Street, compared with over 1000 in the prime minister s departments of both Australia and Canada (The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, Professor Vernon Bogdanor ed. OUP)

In Russia, male life expectancy is less than the retirement age (Anon.)

30% of published hardback books go directly from the printer to the remainder warehouse (The Daily Telegraph)

A civil servant transferring from the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, to Brussels in the same rank would increase his salary 22-fold. (The Sunday Telegraph)

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother (Albert Einstein)

 

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