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Finding A Way To The Future

December 14, 2016

This review of 4 Steps to the Future by Richard Lum and Future Infused Strategy Development by Maree Conway was first published in the October 2016 edition of Compass, the newsletter of the Association of Professional Futurists, and is republished here with their permission.

These two books have a similar provenance and a similar ambition. Both are written by futurists; both seek to explain to non-futurists what futurists do and how futures thinking can improve organisational outcomes. In the process, perhaps, both also hope to create better customers for futures work.

Of the two, Richard Lum’s book focuses on the process an organisation goes through when it executes a foresight project. Maree Conway’s focuses more on the process an individual needs to follow to get their “foresight switch turned on.” Both books are valuable assets for getting more people to understand the value of — and therefore the use of — foresight. I tried to read them with my corporate hat on, through the eyes of the intended audiences.

4 Steps to the Future is intended for potential clients who don’t have a huge budget for foresight but still need to think about the future(s). It is set up to help them to feel more comfortable with foresight concepts and to ask the right questions both of their colleagues and potentially of their consultant. It isn’t an exhaustive description, rather a short explanation, that will get them to a shared understanding and some action.

The 4 steps Richard speaks of are a guide to the process that can be followed to achieve the holy grail of understanding how the future is different from today and how it might look, so that you can develop a vision and strategy.

The steps are:

  1. Past
  2. Present
  3. Futures
  4. Aspiration

At each step Richard provides questions and worksheets that can be used to stimulate thinking, along with a valuable discussion. Since it is written with (potential) clients in mind, he reminds them that we can’t predict the future, that there are many possible futures, and that we co-create the future, whether we understand this or not.

It is written in an approachable, informal style and is free of jargon. It can be hard for an ‘expert’ to remember what it was like not to know about their subject, and therefore to deconstruct it to the point that they can lay out the steps that someone who is just beginning should follow. Richard does this very well—I really liked his list of everyday practices and ground rules for people just starting out into foresight thinking, as well as his checklist of indicators to help the reader to test of their organisation will be supportive of futures work.

This isn’t a book for foresight professionals: it is for potential clients who don’t know what foresight is about. In that light it is often simple — I think this is on purpose to make it more accessible. You could argue about this (thinking it too simple), but I think it gives a clear trajectory of the path that a foresight project takes from start to finish — you could add more detail, but one basically follows his four steps in most foresight work.

The book is short (87 pages) and clear, easy to read and follow. Even a busy executive ought to be able to find the time to read it. With my corporate hat, I found it an excellent how-to book, if quite US-centric. In a short book Richard has provided good, structured suggestions – things like making sure that scenarios have both good and bad in them, paying attention to the focal issue, identifying stakeholders and looking at how they will react to a change (to help you explore threatening dynamics) — the kinds of things that make it something that can be used, straight out of the box.

The focus of Maree Conway’s Future Infused Strategy Development is on how to help and encourage individuals to “turn on their foresight switch.” As with 4 Steps, it is informal, easy to read and designed for the non-practitioner who wants to find out more about strategic thinking.

She makes the point that using foresight is personal. It is about changing the way a person thinks about the future. And it is a process best understood by experiencing it.

Maree’s own foresight journey, shared in the book, started when she was asked to run a foresight project at the university where she worked. She learned by doing many things wrong as well as many things right (the way we all learn). She found out the hard way that the organisational context — the seedbed for the process of foresight — needs to be properly prepared and nurtured in order for the process itself to flourish.

She starts with the conceptual framework around Foresight — with guiding principles and with assumptions and worldviews which may need to be challenged. She points out that “We are responsible for future generations — the future we create today is for our descendants.” In other words, we need to think about being good ancestors.

Maree uses a framework which combines Richard Slaughter’s Social Foresight development model to describe the stages of development of organisational foresight capacity and Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant model for making sure that all four quadrants have been considered when exploring an organisational change. She uses this framework to help identify how futures ready an organisation is.

She then explores foresight and strategy and the relationship between the two. Foresight is how you think about the future, strategy is about positioning an organisation to be ready for the future. Stumbling blocks along the way: people seek certainty, they are afraid of change, they want to use quantitative data (which is about the past, not the future), and they feel uncomfortable involving staff/larger groups of people.

This is followed by discussion of how to manage these challenges. She goes into some detail about the Generic Foresight Process Framework and how to use it, then briefly describes several further foresight frameworks and their process steps so that you get a feel for the choices available.

The next four chapters are about using foresight in anger, each one a step on the way. In Getting Started Maree provides a table of 10 questions to help you position yourself, which I found useful and insightful. She discusses the prerequisites for a successful project — including the organisational context questions that need to be considered to give the project a chance of success. These might seem basic to a practitioner, but it covered all the areas that one needs to consider.

The following chapter is a methods overview organised using the Generic Foresight Process Framework with descriptions and graphics of each method described, followed by a chapter on scanning. There are examples throughout the book from Maree’s experience, successful and less successful, with some great ones in this chapter. A novice might want a bit more information about some of the methods in order to feel comfortable with trying one.

A chapter on Strategic Thinking ties it all together — analysing and making sense of the information that came out of the foresight process to develop a plan for the organisation to thrive in the short, medium and long term. The final chapter, Lessons from the Field, has great tips from years of experience to enable a really successful project.

I found it an easy and interesting read, accessible for people just starting out. I liked the examples and that Maree was willing to share those that didn’t work — or didn’t work so well — as well as those that did.

Of the two, I’d say that Richard’s book was written for a more senior manager who was looking for greater structure, while Maree’s was more suited to someone who was really open for exploration. Both are valuable additions to the available books out there in our field, and both are deserving of a round of applause — plaudits to both for being simple, short and sweet.

Written by Tricia Lustig, SAMI Associate, Managing Director of Unlocking Foresight and European futurist and author.

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