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Embedding Future Thinking in Organisations

February 28, 2012

In Here be Dragons [1], we have described The Columbus Project, in which a fictional company called FutureParts uses a range of futures thinking aids to develop new business opportunities.  Why do organisations often find that they need to organise a project to kick-start renewal?  Why do they need a “project”?  What is the role of outsiders?

We can get a handle on this by considering the characteristics that people need to drive strategic thinking or be a futurist in a large organisation.

There seems to be a connection between the staffing profile which has emerged over the past decade and the important role of outsiders.  Organisations are, as a result of outsourcing and de-layering, extraordinarily more permeable to external influences than they were.  The average person working for them will probably have worked in other organisations.  They have a relatively large knowledge base, and an immeasurably wider circle of acquaintances.  It was less so when you worked in either a large corporation or the civil service three decades ago; now a significant part of everyday work involves outside contacts with partners, outsourcers, consultants or suppliers.

During the last twenty years, companies have run down their capacity to think strategically.  The direction has been to target the organisation at a single ‘thinking model’, often tied to efficiency, which means that the organisation dispenses with strategic thinkers who are able to ask questions.

As an example of this, I chaired the Futures Council of the Conference Board Europe from 1995 to 2000.  We started with 25 members nominated by major corporations throughout Europe.  Within five years, all but five had either become consultants or moved to line roles.  The stresses of being a futurist in a large organisation were more than most mere mortals could survive, though they may well have performed better in their next roles as a result of their experience..

So, strategic thinkers congregate in consultancies, and are brought in when the organisation hits a wall, as part of a project.

There is another dimension to this, as well.

In tackling change in an organisation, insiders are bound by organisational structure and it is difficult to persuade a senior person to take on new activities: an outsider is in many ways less bound by reporting lines, can see beyond current organisational paradigms, and is also used to introducing, implementing, and winding up projects.  Insiders are likely to be more used to steady state operations.

And there is the “competence grows with practice” dynamic.  If organisations rarely undertake activities to develop new strategies or businesses, they rarely need futurists and any in-house expertise may well have become rusty.

So, can organisations benefit by having people who are “their own futurists?”  Can they build futures thinking into their processes?

Certainly, activities such as scanning can be built into the ongoing processes, either in-house or outsourced.  And organisations will be more able to anticipate changes if they have senior managers who are attuned to looking for changes in the business environment.  Since senior managers spend between 2% and 3% of their time together thinking strategically [2], any way that can be found to make this more productive must be welcomed.

The answer to success would seem to be a combination of in-house expertise and outsiders, and this is what we describe in Here be Dragons.

For more on Here be Dragons  please click here.  Or contact

[1] Ringland, Gill, Patricia Lustig and Rob Phaal, with Martin Duckworth and Chris Yapp, Here be Dragons, Choir Press, 2012.

[2] Hamel, Gary and C.K. Prahalad, Competing for the Future, Harvard Business School Press, 1996

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