thenextwave

Best practice in strategic futures

Posted in future, reports by thenextwavefutures on 4 January, 2012

Ten years ago, I co-authored a report which The Henley Centre produced for the British Government’s Cabinet Office, trying to identify what represented best practice in strategic futures. We started with a benchmarking project, then identified a further range of interviewees, whom we talked to at some length, before distilling it into a collection of principles about good practice. I re-read it earlier this year, and found that (perhaps because it was about principles rather than process) it had held up well. A summary of the principles can be found below the fold. The full report has just been republished by my employer, The Futures Company (free, but registration required).

Before getting to the principles, it’s worth noting that the reason that we were able to re-publish the report without legal or copyright difficulties is because the British Government has moved to a surprisingly liberal copyright regime for government-funded documents, as a result, or so the story goes, of a conversation between the last Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Tim Berners-Lee. The Open Government Licence incorporates most of the most liberal aspects of a Creative Commons licence; we can, in effect, use all or some of a report, we can combine it with other reports, we can do this for either commercial or non-commercial purposes, and so on.

I’m not going to rehearse the argument of the Understanding Best Practice report here, except to say that it stresses:

  • the importance of engagement, both before and during the work, and both inside and outside the organisation
  • the importance of rehearsing the future
  • the culture and positioning of the futures group within the organisation – both connected to the centre but also sufficiently arms-length to maintain its independence of thought
  • thinking about how the output will be understood and used before you start the work – which may affect the tools and methods you decide to use.

Dancing around the edges

Re-reading the report, one diagram I was particularly pleased to see again, which we adapted from the work of Max Boisot, who sadly died in 2011, was about the difference between intended and emergent strategy. The diagram is largely self-explanatory, but it suggests that good futures work can help organisations adapt when their intended strategy runs into turbulence and it becomes clear that persisting with it is likely to be damaging. As the report says,

Strategic futures thinking allows the organisation to regroup in a new place, and thereby develop new strategic insight from new places. This is, however, an iterative process; for turbulence can develop quickly and from unexpected quarters. Continuous futures thinking improves an organisation’s agility, enabling it to dance around the edge of difficulties. In other words strategic futures work enables organisations to see beyond the ‘noise’ generated by turbulence, and thus respond more quickly to changed circumstances.

The ten point summary

It concludes with a ten point summary, which I’ve summarised further here:

  1. Start early: Don’t wait until the organisation starts to feel pain from turbulent conditions, because by then it will probably be too late to act on the findings.
  2.  Strategic futures work is about rehearsal rather than knowledge: It’s not about predicting the future but preparing for it, understanding possible futures and the opportunities or threats they represent.
  3. Ensure clarity about the objectives and intended uses of the work: strategic futures work needs a clear strategic remit. And this can take time at the start of the process.
  4. Be patient about the process‘ The work is more likely to have an impact if it is approached as a continuous process of learning rather than a quick one-off exercise.
  5. Ensure senior management involvement:  They need to understand the benefits, be seen to support the process, and are exposed to the work: “thinking about the future can’t be entirely delegated”.
  6. Ensure the involvement of other key stakeholders: Create involvement amongst those who are likely to be affected by the work or be charged with taking it forwards. And ensure that learning about strategic futures thinking is distributed through the organisation as quickly as possible.
  7. Choose the right people for the job and give them a licence to be different: Select individuals who have an aptitude for engaging with the future and the will and ability to question existing assumptions. Grant them a licence to challenge existing management thinking – and accept that the process may cause some organisational discomfort.
  8. Use an appropriate balance of internal and external inputs: Don’t underestimate the value of the knowledge within the organisation, while also including a wide range of external views.
  9. Align the methodology with the purpose of the work and the culture of the organisation: Avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The key requirement is to ensure that there is a fit between the approach used, the ultimate objectives of the work and the culture of the organisation.
  10. Develop feedback mechanisms to create a virtuous circle of learning: Always ask the questions: How has the work been useful to us? How could the process be improved next time? Tracking metrics help

A copy of the report can also be downloaded – as a pdf – from my ‘Selected Articles‘ page.

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