June 24, 2021

Strategic foresight requires imagination, rigor and (often) courage

Joe DuFresne
Principal

Cognitive bias, or unconscious bias, has received a lot of attention recently.  The term itself is actually a relatively new one, having only been defined in the 1970s, even though this trait has been around as long as the human brain.  As the numerous studies of cognitive bias show, it serves a useful purpose for species survival, or even for just managing the countless quick decisions the brain has to make during the course of the day. The studies also show that cognitive bias can lead us to make bad decisions too, particularly with decisions that require critical thinking or open-minded creativity.

Strategic foresight requires just that sort of critical thinking and creativity, and therefore is particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias. Fortunately, FSG scenario consultants use several tricks to overcome or expose those unconscious tendencies so that we can use strategic foresight to honestly examine the complex and ambiguous realm of the possible.  Quite often, however, another form of bias comes into play with foresight exercises, and one much more consciously applied.

While we use plausible imaginary scenarios to conduct strategic foresight, we nevertheless operate in a real world with real political sensitivities to navigate, either in actual political arenas or in customer- or public relations-contexts. Those political sensitivities can cause executive leadership to impose limitations on a strategic foresight exercise. This could take the form of prohibiting any challenge to a major strategic initiative already underway, or explicitly avoiding any discussion of a controversial issue, or rejecting the product of an exercise because the message carries too heavy a political risk.

Political sensitivity is particularly acute and emotionally charged these days.  And while for the most part, “third rail” controversial issues don’t usually relate to long-range strategy, the high consequence environment they create can leave executive leadership with a much lower risk tolerance overall.

Strategic foresight is intended to manage organizational risk by providing a way to think about and prepare for an ambiguous future.  To engage in this way of thinking, however, does require the freedom to explore a wide range of possibilities, some of which may challenge the status quo, corporate culture, and convention ­­– and break some china along the way.  That’s OK. It’s what military strategist John Boyd would call a “destruction/creation” process. But strategy teams need to have the permission and cover from leadership to at least take the china out of the cabinet.

That is not to say that all risks from strategic foresight are worth taking.  Sometimes the timing for a strategy isn’t right, or the budget isn’t there to implement it, or the organization’s credibility or reputation would be irreparably damaged.  But we must first be bold if we are truly going to study the future with appropriate rigor.  Political sensitivities can be managed during the process through timely strategic messaging, keeping foresight deliberations confidential, or shelving ideas that carry untenable risks. That’s always senior leadership’s prerogative in any case.

One of the dangers of today’s heightened political discord and uncertainty is that organizations will retreat to a safe corner instead of courageously exploring plausible, but uncomfortable future operating environments.  Yet it is precisely during volatile and uncertain times when stepping out and having those uncomfortable conversations is most necessary.  Constructive strategic foresight requires not only understanding and overcoming the unconscious biases that impact our thinking, but also a willingness to unpack what our beliefs, politics, or Twitter feeds define as absolute truths.

 

 

Comments  | 

Stephen Wehrenberg
Joe, this is a well thought out essay. I'm working with our City Council and government on some issues and I have clear examples of the phenomena you describe. In a sense, the Council is self-censoring (both conversation and action) and ignoring the uncomfortable or difficult elements of the City's future. They seem to have a strong drive to avoid even the perception of partisanship. Since there is so little these days in ur society that isn't purposely used as a partisan wedge, there isn't much space left in which to plan/act.
pkennedy
Steve, thanks for your comment. There are no easy solutions to the situation you describe working with your city council. You may recall from your scenario-planning days that the 'futures' contexts tended to mitigate some of the worst aspects of self-censorship and political over-sensitivity. We've had decent success convincing workshop participants, for purpose of the exercise, to put aside for the moment their personal beliefs about how the future SHOULD turn out and be open to alternative future realities. Most do, and real, quality dialogue results. But I get it that the future scenarios option is not always possible or appropriate. I think it's worth thinking about "futures-like" warmups to help participants open up, cool down, and gain some perspective on the intolerant madness we're living through right now. Thanks!
Steve Wehrenberg
I certainly agree that workshop participants can be "enabled" to keep their apertures open. And those conversations are how participants grow into system thinkers. I was thinking more about the leaders who then must own the effort to convert strategy into action. I seem to recall a certain Commandant who let his biases get in the way.

Thoughts?