In a world of uncertainty, decide your future in six steps

Foresight methods to apply in your work

November 23, 2020 in Innovation, Technology

Marna Kagele is a Boeing Technical Fellow in systems engineering and strategic foresight.

PHOTO: Marian Lockhart

Shaping the future is more practical, and practicable, than predicting it. Instead of identifying a single future state, foresight methodology provides tools to understand a set of potential futures, build resilience into our plans, monitor for signals of change and execute our plans when needed to help create our preferred future state.

1. What problem are you trying to solve?

First, you must determine what question you are really trying to answer. For example, are we trying to address how we can sell an in-development product in the future or are we trying to determine what consumers will want in the future?

Dissect your problem statement. Ensure other stakeholders are in agreement. This may seem easy and obvious, but nailing down the basic “job to be done” is often overlooked or not well coordinated.

2. Consider different time horizons.

In a highly uncertain environment, approach your assessments of the future from a range of time horizons. Different industries, circumstances and goals require flexible time frames. For example, in response to an industry disruption, one might consider near term (present-6 months), interim (6-12 months) and long term (12 months-2 years).

For the near-term time frame, focus on rapid response and operating in a dynamic environment.

For the interim period, identify key indicators and monitor them closely for indications of future trajectory.

For the long term, articulate what an evolved future state looks like for your industry and company. Many previous assumptions may no longer hold true.

As you emerge from the disruption, explore which things will be forever changed, which will move in other directions and which will go back to resemble “the way it was before.”

3. Look at trends.

Today’s trends give us a glimpse of what trajectory the future could take. Identify trends — social, technological, environmental, economic and political — that are relevant to your problem statement. Evaluate the likelihood and impact of each.

Keep in mind, trends we see today often don’t change the future as much or as quickly as we might expect.

4. Revisit your assumptions.

When faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, revisit long-held assumptions. These could be referencing your chosen business model, customer preferences or technological capabilities.

An example of a changing assumption might be your product’s or service’s reliance on dense urbanization. How might business models be affected by a shift to more widely dispersed and less densely populated urban centers?

5. Plan for different scenarios.

Scenario planning acknowledges that decisions must be made amid ambiguity and complexity. Start by selecting the main drivers of your issue. Look at a range of possibilities for how the future might play out, including which is most likely to happen. Consider extreme cases. Reflect on which of these future states you hope comes to fruition.

To evaluate strategic alternatives, look for decisions that work in every scenario. Determine which actions have the biggest payoff but are only valid in a limited number of the scenarios. Similarly, address risks, how likely they are to come to fruition in each scenario and how their impact changes in each. Define actions that can be taken to close the gap between your most probable future state and your preferred future state.

In the simplest form, a 2-by-2 matrix can be used to explore opposite extremes of two variables and describe what the world looks like in each resulting quadrant.

6. See the big picture.

When you consider your trends, assumptions and scenarios, be sure to take a holistic view. We often default to linear pathways when considering technology developments and business assumptions. But nothing happens in isolation. Multiple trends or events could play off of each other to magnify or minimize the impact they might have.

As a separate exercise, go back to your trends and assumptions to review how several elements might combine to aid your momentum or block your way. Include items from different categories such as a technology development, an economic change and a societal shift.

Once you have explored using these tools, develop a plan of action. Gather stakeholders and discuss options. Identify sign posts. It is more efficient to have difficult conversations while you have time to plan and research, rather than wait until urgent, reactionary measures are necessary.

In the midst of an unpredictable situation, decisions feel risky and paralyzing. No one can know what happens next. But you can turn the uncertainty into strategic advantage by shaping the future into your preferred future. And foresight methodology can help.

About the author: Marna Kagele is a Boeing Technical Fellow in systems engineering and strategic foresight.