As many shocks, disruptions and unexpected crises before, the current Covid-19 situation has put the flashlight on a critical organizational capacity: strategic foresight and scenarios thinking.
Covid-19 is not a black swan, but rather a Cassandra moment
And as always, the first question is why strategic foresight practitioners, or futurists as they are often referred to, have not seen the global pandemic crisis coming, why they have not warned decision-makers about the risk and possible implications of such a disruptive situation.
But of course, that’s completely inaccurate. You just need to take a look at the various annual global risk studies, or the many megatrends reports of a large variety of global think tanks, government foresight agencies or international consulting firms over the last couple of years and you will see that all this is not a complete surprise as it is now frequently described. As an example, ‘infectious diseases’ was well in the top-10 of the global risks listed in the 2020 edition of the World Economic Forum’s famous global annual risk study (which was launched just at the time when the virus hit China in mid-January).
In reality, we are living a classical ‘Cassandra’ moment as has been pointed out by my colleague Anne-Cécile Violin in this recent article. In a nutshell, Cassandra was the daughter of a Greek king and when Apollo, the Greek God, fell in love with her, He gave her the ability to see the future as a gift and in order to seduce her. When she refused to love him back despite this special gift, He added the curse of her never being believed about her predictions and visions of the future. This metaphor has become a popular analogy amongst foresight professionals to deplore their incapacity to make decision-makers buy into their insights and ‘knowledge’ about the future.
For strategic foresight to generate impact, a number of challenges need to be addressed
In this context, it is interesting to have a look at some of the other factors that make it so difficult for strategic foresight to truly make an impact and help us prepare for an uncertain future. To do so, I have revisited the report of the first meeting of the OECD Global Foresight Community that was brought to life by the former Counsellor for Strategic Foresight at the OECD, Angela Wilkinson back in 2014. 6 years later, the community is more alive than ever, with Duncan Cass-Beggs and Joshua Polchar growing it into one of the most distinguished and dynamic global foresight communities.
At this first event that attracted the participation of a diverse community of governmental foresight professionals from over 20 countries, participants agreed on the following key challenges that Strategic Foresight units needed to tackle in order to better bridge foresight with policy (‘foresight for impact’), including :
- Better alignment of strategic foresight with the key challenges decision makers are wrestling with : the crucial issue is to better understand policy-makers and the strategic context in which they are operating and therefore improve the relevance of strategic foresight by co-creating the strategic questions that should be addressed and involve them as early as possible in the framing process of each foresight initiative.
- Stronger focus on embedding strategic foresight into decision-making and using it to create agency : when foresight work has a clear mandate from policy-makers and the request for strategic foresight is clearly expressed and understood, there is a high confidence in the added value that it can bring to the policy process. However, the transversal nature of strategic foresight frequently surfaces issues which do not have a clearly defined agency. In those cases, a user space needs to be created (sometimes in a cross-sector or cross- policy approach, i.e. a coalition of actors) in order to pick up the insights and feed them into the policy process.
- Providing results of strategic foresight work at the appropriate time : a need to better integrate with existing ‘policy cycles’ so that policy-makers can take the insights into the decision process and not lose momentum. Strategic foresight outputs need to be useable and timely given the strong constraints and time scales of policy-making.
- Communicating results of strategic foresight work in an appropriate manner :foresight analysis needs to be made available to policy-makers in an understandable and readily usable form. Also, foresight teams need to take a more holistic approach to communication as it is not only about better dissemination of results but rather about improving their acceptability through a better understanding of the entire project chain from initiation to production to use and impact. A clear vision of how outputs have come about and who has participated in the process will improve the perceived accuracy and trustworthiness by policy/decision-makers. Finally, the use of a diversity of media capturing the attention of the audience can have a strong impact on the accessibility of the outputs: push messages via published media, social media coverage, use of videos, creation of visual systems maps ...
- Attracting users to participate in the strategic foresight process : engaging high level policy-makers in the process is an important condition to generate real impact on decision-making. However, the degree of how closely policy-makers should be involved is not so clear. While a strong involvement can help with the acceptability of recommendations (fight the ‘not invented here’ syndrome) a too strong involvement might hinder open future-oriented thinking because of policy-makers’ vested interests. The involvement process therefore needs to be carefully designed, possibly via the attribution of specific roles that appropriately suit both the foresight process and the policy-makers in order to avoid feeding a specific political agenda while at the same time not losing the client/sponsor of the initiative.
Over 6 years later, I can confirm from our YouMeO client engagements that all these points are still valid, both in a policy-making and a business context. One of the key reasons for this is that many of the best strategic foresight practitioners that I have come across in my years of practice are humble and deep-thought professionals, extremely curious and aware of the increasing complexities and interdependencies of our world. Mostly at ease in multidisciplinary and sometimes messy settings, they are more interested in the quality and the depth of their thinking and research than in the question of how to navigate the systems that needs to deal with their findings in order to generate the required decisions and impulse the much needed transformations.
Among other reasons, it was to address this issue of foresight as a practice being disconnected from more vital and influential functions such as strategy, innovation or even risk management, that emlyon business school as one of the leading business schools in France decided to introduce all first year Grande École students through an intensive 5-weeks action-learning course called ‘Disrupted Futures’ (d.futures). Together with a group of diverse and passionate foresight professionals (entrepreneurs, researchers, consultants, designers, academics…) and under the leadership of Thomas Gauthier, my colleague Manon Raclot and I have the opportunity to teach open futures thinking where future leaders of public and private sector organizations are being educated. It is remarkable to see how the students in this fast-paced co-learning context not only learn how to develop plausible, challenging scenarios tailor-made to a real-client situation, but also how they use these alternative futures to come up with interesting and novel strategic options and thereby involve their ‘clients’ in a high-quality strategic conversation and challenge their worldview.
Reflective foresight professionals often agree that strategic foresight is ‘overproduced and underused’, meaning that not enough time, thinking and effort is put into the questions of how scenarios, design fiction and other artefacts of alternative futures can be used to get better and more direct access to the highest decision-makers, capture their attention and engage them in meaningful strategic conversations that lead to better informed decisions and ultimately generate impact in the real world.
Now is the time to invite yourself into the inner circle of decision-making
As a profession, now is the time to think more as a career-driven business executive that wants a seat at the table of influence and decision-making than as a thoughtful researcher. When, if not now? It is the perfect moment to demand being part of the crisis units and happy-few decision bodies that have been launched in every organization and company around the world since the outbreak of current Covid-19 crisis situation.
In normal times it might be understandable that many leaders don’t want to give too much time and attention to risk managers, contingency planners, compliance and strategic controlling units who remind them of invisible threats, always think up potential business threats and thereby distract from the really important tasks such as boosting productivity, accelerating new growth initiatives or any other profit and shareholder generating activity. But not now, not during the most devastating global crisis the world has seen in a century. If you can’t make it into the inner circle in the current context, you probably never will.
But don’t just wait and hope that top management will call you up, make their ‘mea culpas’ and offer you this new strategic position on a silver plate. You will have to stand up for it and ask for it. And you will have to bring something of value to the table.
You can do this in the way a strategic foresight team of a global chemical company did over the last 10 days, developing a set of robust post-covid-19 scenarios tailored to the strategic challenges their industry is facing and send it to the executive directors as an input for a strategic conversation and to challenge them to think beyond the immediate firefighting. As I learned, the feedback from the CEO was overwhelmingly positive since all he got from the other departments was short-term crisis management without any consideration of the emerging mid-to-long-term threats and opportunities. If you don’t have the time and resources to develop your own scenarios, you can always tweak and adapt a set of existing scenarios that spring-up all around the world in these particular times.
The problem of crisis situations is that decision-making power tends to climb up the ladder of corporate hierarchy. The tougher it gets, the fewer people decide what to do and then communicate their decisions top-down into the organization. Command-and-control is a strong corporate reflex. But in unprecedented and extreme situations, there are no proven recipes ... so especially in these situation, the most enlightened leaders will remain true to their convictions of trusting the collective intelligence of their teams and involve a large panel of managers and employees in the process of making their organizations fit for the post-covid-19 time.
With my colleagues at YouMeO, we have pulled together over the past weeks a diverse post-covid-19 opportunity task force composed of a multidisciplinary team of economists, business anthropologists, psychotherapists, journalists, historians, military commanders, foresight professionals, designers etc. to help our clients think through their options once the immediate crisis is confined (what a nice play on words). Faced with the dramatic and highly uncertain situation we are in, we believe it is essential to anticipate the possible evolutions of the context, to think through them and thereby develop our resilience. Like many others, we are convinced that we are witnessing a profound paradigm shift, of which covid-19 is only one of the triggering events.
But we also believe that ‘what brought us here won’t take us there’ in terms of tools and methods and that a new, collaborative and creative approach to strategy building can help forge new ground and co-create new strategies for an uncertain post covid-19 world. So why not put this forced confinement period to a good use and engage in an in-depth strategic conversation? The promise: no miracles or ready-made solutions! A trial and error approach to explore together the opportunities that open up, by changing perspectives, and developing novel solutions.
And maybe we also need to become better in corporate marketing and invent a new name for the critical business function strategic foresight has. Why not become Chief Resilience Officer, Chief Business Continuity Officer, or something along those lines. Just make sure it’s got a C in it. If thereby we can help better connect strategic foresight into the decision-making processes, we would have gotten something very valuable out of this crisis.