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Does Foresight work? Case studies

September 13, 2017


We know that there is evidence that long term thinking is linked to superior performance .

How does foresight contribute to long term thinking? Can the effect be measured? As I was taught at Stanford Business School, it is impossible to directly measure the effect of strategy because strategy only has effect through implementation – and good strategy, bad implementation may be worse than bad strategy, good implementation. But it seems obvious nevertheless that long term thinking underpinned by effective foresight must be better than long term thinking underpinned by un-examined assumptions that the future will be very like the past.

So it is worth looking at case studies of foresight used to underpin decisions.

There are a range of studies of the effect of foresight in the form of scenario thinking at Shell, since the early 1970’s. For instance:

Another perspective can be found in “Scenario projects in Japanese government: Twenty years of experience, five tales from the front line” which can be found at

Directly tackling the evidence through evaluation in different environments, we know of a classic book on the use of Foresight in Research – which for instance evaluated how to get better results from Delphi following 25 years of experience in Japan – Research Foresight, Ben R Martin and John Irvine, Pinter, 1989. A more recent article is Martin, Ben (2010) The origins of the concept of `foresight’ in science and technology: an insider’s perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 77 (9). pp. 1438-47. ISSN 0040-1625

In SAMI we have seen many organisations use foresight to improve their long term thinking. For instance:

  • In the insurance industry, Legal and General used scenarios to explore changes through regulation, demographics and technology – concluding that the only two scenarios were Evolution or Revolution
  • In asset management, the Man Group used Scenarios for the City of London to gain insights into their different businesses, leading to divestment and re-alignment: and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development wanted to take stock after 25 years of operation.
  • Angel Trains developed scenarios for the rail industry and realised that they were in the risk business rather than the rail industry
  • Global lawyer Allen & Overy bought a number of firms in North Africa after using scenario thinking to surface their exposure to Sharia Law.
  • Accountants Grant Thornton UK developed scenarios the business environment in the UK as part of their Future Perspectives project and found that this led naturally to their Vibrant England strategy to work with innovative, and small and mid-size, businesses.
  • Scenarios for Europe were developed to advise on research agendas and policy options related to converging technologies. These are often defined as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences (NBIC). The recommendations were used widely to inform research programmes in national laboratories across Europe.
  • In Higher Education, scenarios for Scotland were used to frame the development of Napier University: and scenarios for Higher Education in Romania led to Government White Papers and the secondment of three of the team to the World Bank to plan implementation.

What can be learnt from these case studies?

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, that

  • foresight is often undertaken for a reason, such as a new Principal (Napier University) or new CEO (Legal and General), unacceptable losses in a division (Man Group), perceived need to restructure (Romanian Higher Education), the need to seek new investors (Angel Trains), the need to make assumptions explicit across cultures (Scenarios for Europe) or because of perceived challenges in the business environment (Allen & Overy, Grant Thornton)
  • Decisions can be made and actions can be taken with more confidence after foresight work has explored alternative futures – Shell have estimated that they can take decisions 3 to 6 months earlier than their competition through scenario thinking.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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