What is Strategic Foresight?

Applying foresight to strategy development, perhaps the most dominant use of foresight today.

What is Strategic Foresight?

Definition

Strategic foresight might be the most commonly used term when it comes to thinking about how organisations use foresight. For me, the term means that our foresight capacities are being applied to strategy development to expand and deepen how we understand the range of possible organisational futures. A similar term is ‘corporate foresight’ which describes the context in which foresight is being used. Usage of this term is often confused and sometimes, strategic foresight is confused with Futures Studies itself, though this is not unusual in a field that has confused terminology as the norm.

Richard Slaughter defines strategic foresight as:

the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view and to use the insights arising in organisationally useful ways; for example: to detect adverse conditions, guide policy, shape strategy; to explore new markets, products and services. It represents a fusion of futures methods with those of strategic management.

He is writing about the capacity here - that is, the capacity to imagine futures for an organisation and use insights gained from that exploration in strategy development. The foresight matters as much as the strategy.

Foresight Applied

Strategic foresight is an example of our foresight capacities being applied in a specific context. When it’s used as an adjective though, the emphasis is often placed on the activity (strategy) and not also building foresight capacities as the primary frame for process design. The activity alone won’t generate new perspectives and new actions though unless foresight has first been ‘activated’ in meaningful ways at some point during the strategy development process. And, while I have no empirical evidence of this, it does seem that strategic foresight risks becoming more like strategic planning than an applied foresight exercise - I began to think about this when I saw this definition on Wikipedia:

Strategic foresight is a planning-oriented discipline related to futures studies. In a business context, a more action-oriented approach has become well known as corporate foresight.

The outcomes of using strategic foresight certainly inform planning, but it is quite a distinct approach that is not just another way to do planning. We have to unlearn what we think strategic planning is by first recognising two things:

  • strategy is about our futures, about choosing between the multiple futures that are always available to us in the present; and
  • strategic planning results in the articulation of what you will do today to get to a preferred future, and that plan can be formulaic in nature, or it can reflect deep thinking about what the futures needs from the organisation.

I now incorporate strategic planning into what I call ‘strategy development’ which puts the focus on the process rather than the outcome.

When I was using strategic foresight approaches in my practice, I used this frame to define four phases involved in the process and make clear the difference between the temporal orientation of strategy and planning.

Four stage strategy development process

This process starts in the external environment, not within the organisation, and involves time for thinking about futures as an integral phase. Strategic planning is certainly critical to the process, but it is not the process. When we confuse strategy - which is about exploring possible futures - and planning - which is about defining actions to be taken in the present -less attention is paid to the thinking that’s involved and more on the plan.  An internet search will provide you with many books and guides about doing strategic foresight, including mine. A recent publication - A Strategic Foresight Primer - by Angela Wilkson will give you a good overview of how strategic foresight is used, including success factors and methods.

When applying foresight in a strategy context, we must first remember that it is a cognitive, strategic thinking capacity. It is about nurturing the ability to take a forward view to balance historical and present views and to integrate past-present-future to develop effective strategy today. Done well, it allows people to identify change that matters early, assess implications for their organisations, and develop adaptive, proactive responses. Using foresight expands perceptions of today which in turn allows us to identify new strategic options. It strengthens an organisation’s futures orientation which allows it to develop a long-term temporal perspective to inform decision making and action today.

Finally, René Rohrbeck and Menes Entingue Kum in their article Corporate foresight and its impact of firm performance: A longitudinal analysis report on their research on the performance of organisations that use corporate foresight and found that the futures orientation that emerges from its long term use is an indicator for those organisations outperforming their competitors. They have also devised a measurement scale to compare organisational performance.

My Perspective

Why should we take the time to infuse foresight into current strategy approaches? Primarily because the future will not be more of the same or business as usual, tweaked around the edges. Intuitively we recognise this because we know change is all around us. We owe it to ourselves and to those who follow us to understand as best we can the shape of possible futures that might emerge before we make strategic decisions today. The aim is to anticipate futures in new ways even though the shape of those futures is not yet fully formed.