Making futures work stick
I posted a version of this a few days ago to the Medium page of The Futures Company (now renamed Kantar Futures as part of a corporate re-branding). I’m cross-posting here because I realise the audiences for the two sites aren’t the same.
A while ago the consultancy Sparknow, which uses stories and narrative techniques to help organizations to effect change, asked us to share our learning on how to make futures work stick inside organisations with a client of theirs. This is the note we wrote for Sparknow, shared here with their permission.
1. Embed it in your processes
When working in the Performance Innovation Unit and Cabinet Office in the early 2000s, Geoff Mulgan agreed five “big trends” that Departments needed to review as part of their planning processes. The five were: Ageing; Digital; Globalisation; Climate Change; and Security. If departments didn’t take the request seriously, it had an adverse effect on their budgets. Similarly, following a scenarios process, the Army put in place a trends monitoring process that informed its annual planning process. There’s no reason why commercial businesses shouldn’t do the same thing.
2. Understand how the outcomes will become inputs
It is an obvious point but often overlooked. If you commission and do a one-off piece of futures work to explore some issue for your organisation, you need to know how and where it will reconnect with the organisation afterwards. The risk is that a futures project gets the organisation to an idea about the future which it can’t land back inside, for reasons of resource, time, culture or process. Positive examples: Wales Tourist Board used scenarios to identify and agree a preferred strategy with stakeholders that they could take back to the Welsh Government; a rail project about “sustainable rail” that framed the requirements for a technology/innovation road map; a regulator that wind-tunnelled preferred policy options to stress test them.
3. Simpler is better
Futures work can involve complex methods that are hard to integrate into day-to-day organisational processes. The learning and cognitive effort required is too great for non-specialists. There is a particular danger: that the participants in the process have had a rich experience which has led to changes in the way they see their organisation and its future, but they find the *reasons* for this difficult to communicate to people who are just looking at the outputs. Practitioners talk about “scenarios as learning” for a reason. Generally, alignment is a greater virtue and produces better outcomes than complexity. A food company client, for example, removed its relatively complex trends programme and replaced it with three easy-to-remember (and uncontroversial) trends that could be used by staff and business units as guiding principles around innovation.
4. Use scenarios strategically
Scenario-building is a distinctive futures process and is probably over-used. To use it well, you need a question of sufficient complexity that it needs structured thinking about a range of possible futures, people who understand the benefits and limits of scenarios, and good processes to link it to business questions. As a tool it is also a better fit for quastions about longer-run change (say, over a generation or more) or where there are good reasons to believe that a market is facing deep and unpredictable disruption. For example, the Environment Agency’s Water Division used a set of scenarios over a sustained period to identify the likely range (or “envelope”) of water demand out to 2050, and why.
5. Find ways to maintain the knowledge
Futures is typically a marginal practice in organisations. This means that knowledge about it tends to decay unless it is actively maintained. For example, the Army process mentioned above survived four years, given the two-year career rotations in the Army, before the organisational memory of why they had originally implemented it was lost.
“Most people think of the future as the means and the present as the ends, whereas, in fact, the present is the ends and the future is the means.”
Fritz Roethslisberger, quoted in Richard Pascale, Surfing the Edge of Chaos.
The image at the top of the post is Moholy Nagy’s ‘la grande macchina delle emozioni’ (1920). It is licensed by Wikimedia Commons uncer a Creative Commns licence.