Make Strategic Foresight Your Resolution for 2021

Foundation_Foresight 2021 January 12, 2021 By: Jenny Nelson

In uncertain times, leaders can get a handle on the future through foresight practices. ASAE ForesightWorks provides a roadmap for preparation and taking action.

After a year like 2020, it’s tempting gather the lessons of the year and treat responding to them as a to-do list. But, already, the events of 2021 make it clear that leaders will have no time to stop and catch up. The challenge will be to look ahead and consider those 2020 lessons through a future lens. In light of where our world could be headed, and with the guidance of their own vision of the future, associations can apply the lessons of 2020 for greater value.

Foresight practice provides a systematic approach to applying that future lens to strategic questions and challenges. ASAE ForesightWorks, ASAE’s future-focused research program, might be best known for its summaries of drivers of change that will affect the future of association management. But the ForesightWorks User’s Guide offers a step-by-step approach to practicing foresight, something that leaders may find more useful for understanding and planning around their specific context.

Below are three the steps you can take to start your foresight practice in 2021.

Activate Champions

The first step toward strategic foresight lays the groundwork for the rest of the practice. A key element in that preparation is identifying and activating champions. Champions are the people who will support and execute on the foresight practice. They may contribute to scanning or planning, or they may help get others on board.

You likely seek out champions intuitively in your day-to-day efforts, but a systematic approach supports planning and tracking progress. In preparing your foresight practice, identify and develop strategies to involve people who

  • will enthusiastically engage in thinking strategically about the future.
  • are necessary to success and will be open to foresight.
  • will be a challenge to convince, but are necessary to success.

Scan for Change

Strategic foresight also requires data collection, but it’s the kind of research and analysis that many leaders already do on a daily basis. Foresight data and inputs are collected by scanning, a systematic process of collecting information related to key areas of interest (your framework). These areas of interest could connect to association management broadly, like the ForesightWorks framework, or they might be specifically related to a strategic plan or the future of an industry.

Collecting information broadly is key to scanning, but foresight practice is fueled by tracking the findings. By collecting news items, predictions, and analyses related to specific topics, you discover trends and potential shifts that point to possible new directions, opportunities, or challenges in the future. For example, the ForesightWorks “Algorithmic Rights” action brief identifies several supporting trends and data points, including the growth of “data trails of personal information,” the increase in attention to ethical algorithms and algorithmic bias, and the number of cities and states that had, as of publication, banned the use of facial recognition systems.

Scanning for an organization or industry can be challenging for one person, so consider inviting champions to engage and contribute. A shared spreadsheet or Google doc is all you need to start tracking and sharing news items, predictive analyses, or other inputs that relate to your framework areas. The scanning spreadsheet can then be used to start conversations with other stakeholders, especially those who might need some convincing.

Forecast the Future

Forecasts are used to help stakeholders think through implications and imagine future possibilities. They provide a “story” that melds scanning results into a possible future outcome.

it’s often helpful to develop multiple forecasts to consider multiple possible futures. Forecasts can reflect the most probable outcome, or they can be provocative in a way that gets stakeholders to think outside their comfort zones. For example, two of the forecasts from the “Algorithmic Rights” action brief summarize how the accumulation of identified trends could affect the future:

  • “The growing use of algorithms and automated systems will be a social and human rights issue, as their impacts will be correlated to class, gender, and ethnicity, sometimes compounding existing social inequities.”
  • “Large gaps exist between how various societies (e.g., the United States, the European Union, and China) make decisions about the development and use of AI and algorithms, based on differing culture norms about rule of law, privacy, rights, etc. As more algorithms are deployed, these gaps will become increasingly apparent but also more difficult to manage.”

These forecasts can be used to start and advance future-focused strategic planning conversations. Champions might want to use an “if/then” approach: “If this forecast comes true, then what does that mean for our organization/industry/team in the future?”

One thing forecasts can’t do is predict the future—they only capture possibilities. The future will still hold surprises, which futurists call wild cards. But by understanding and preparing for success in diverse possible futures, leaders are better prepared to weather the unexpected.

Jenny Nelson

Jenny Nelson is associate director, research content, at ASAE.