Does foresight render the future irrelevant?

For the last year or so most of my involvements in foresight activities in organizations seems to have different results than before. More often than not they are putting the focus back to fundamental issues about internal organizational issues. In some sense the results tell me:

“Don’t fiddle around asking questions about the future! Focus on fixing the basic organizational issues first, because otherwise the issues about the future are irrelevant.”

These kinds of result wasn’t unheard of some years ago, but is much more common now. Almost a standard result from both commercial and public sector scenario planning exercises.

Based on my view of the future it isn’t strange and also seems to resonate pretty well with the conclusions in e g the book “Navigating the Badlands: Thriving in the Decade of Radical Transformation” (Mary OHaraDevereaux) (Amazon US) where the message is:

  • We are in a decades long transition period
  • Hunt down your obsolete (and sometimes even dangerous) ideas and methods
  • Start from scratch from where you are and innovate and build new structures from the new prerequisites that slowly and unpredictably emerge

If this is true, what does it say about the role of scenario planning and foresight? Does this render long range foresight useless?

One interpretation of this could be yes, looking into the future isn’t helpful at all when it comes to survival. Being pragmatic, down to earth and focus on the result is. This is without question a valid interpretation but I believe it is flawed and too quick conclusion. Ignoring the big picture is always dangerous and even more so in volatile times. The reason is simply that everything that can help you interpret and make some order in all the small seemingly contradictory signs will in the long term help you take the right decision.

But what seems to have changed is that foresight is not directly helping companies to take any mid- to long term decisions any more – i e strategic decisions. At least if we by strategic decisions mean long term decisions about investments and choice of options which reaches 5-10 years into the future. The reason is that in turbulent times nothing can help us taking what we used to call long term decision.

But that doesn’t mean that we shall ignore the big picture. Understanding the big picture of current change is mandatory, but it is not anymore a tool for identifying the next big decisions. Long range foresight is rather a meta-strategic activity which creates a higher level of understanding of the situation which is invaluable for taking the small and important steps towards the future.

This also means that the role of strategic and top level management has changed. The top level management cannot anymore think about the big picture and then take the big and important decisions at the same level. Their role is more and more to provide the big picture and then let the required decisions being taken at the right level. Or maybe more correctly their role is to provide the structures and resources so the organization can achieve really good big pictures to help them take all those small decisions that takes the organizations forward. This means that the major long term decisions top management must take is to open up the structures so that tomorrows new structures can emerge.

I heard Gary Hamel used a interesting phrase that connects to this: The CEO and the board should increasingly be editors of strategy, not creators of strategy.

So, yes! Focus on fixing the basic organizational issues because the way the world works is changing dramatically from the ground up. But remember that understanding the big picture is essential to take the right decisions even if you don’t recognize it in the line of fire.