Three facilitative frameworks for futures thinking

Star, Mountain, Chessboard

At the heart of futures thinking is a framework that identifies the primary categories involved in thinking ahead. Although simple in concept, these categories are easily and frequently confused.

The fundamental distinctions are between intentions, options and scenarios. Intentions deal with the ‘future of desire’ and describe the future you would like to create, involving vision, ambition and goal setting (the star and the mountain). Options deal with the ‘future of possibility’ and the creation of strategic choices, opening up multiple pathways towards the future of desire. Scenarios deal with the ‘future of fate’ (conditions on the chessboard) and describe the future that may happen whether you like it or not, allowing assessment of risk and opportunity, and checking of assumptions.

The methodology of futures thinking rests on these simple but important distinctions.

Futures Thinking Skill Set

Experience shows that when futures thinking is used for strategy it needs to be adopted and applied as a social praxis (theory applied in practice) within an organization. In contrast, automated prediction technologies – based on algorithms, big data and complexity modelling – rely on repeating patterns and are primarily effective for improving operational performance, not for developing strategy.

This is because genuine strategy is about taking a new and initially unproven course of action (in contrast, for example, to the military concept of doctrine, which consists of actions already known to work). Good strategy is ideally novel and unique, which enables it to cope with future newness and gives it the advantage of surprise. Futures thinking therefore works with strategic complexity and novelty and treats the future as an open system, capable of fundamentally new developments that call for detective-style sense-making.

To work with this newness and openness, futures thinking brings together specific cognitive and behavioural skills and participatory processes. Together these form a praxis, a blend of knowledge and applied skill. An organisation needs to learn this praxis – hence our executive education offering – and ideally it should be embedded as a sustained competence.

Long Game Leadership

Good leadership means delivering future success. That involves putting futures thinking skills to work with other leadership competencies. The Long Game Leadership framework combines strategic framing and goal setting with other key attributes of leadership: intention, communication, focus, holistic thinking, and tactical agility. This lays the foundation for leadership success over both short and long term.

In our view, futures thinking is fundamental to leadership. Leadership and management serve equally important but different functions. Leadership promotes new directions, management executes them. New directions involve the future, and hence futures thinking. Furthermore leadership can potentially come from anywhere in an organisation – it can be top-down, bottom-up or sideways. This is why futures thinking as an organisational practice is ideally distributed throughout the organization.

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