The Perils of Case Studies

Some thoughts on the value - or lack of it - of case studies. And why using foresight can't be reduced to a single case.

The Perils of Case Studies

This post is in three parts and it's a long read. Just so you know.

Part 1
I am becoming a follower of the learning by doing approach. In a past life, I believed I learned best by reading and reflecting. If I wanted to see a practical example, I would try it in practice at work (or more realistically, I'd inflict it on my staff), or I would seek out an example sourced from an internet search. It never occurred to me to ask my teachers for a case study or an example - as far as I can remember anyway. I always thought that it was my job to work out how to use the process. I thought then and still do that any process needs to be applied in context to test its validity and usefulness.

Whenever I did a presentation or worked with small groups doing training in foresight methods, I was usually asked for a case study or an example. I usually resist, and then the people in the room resist back. The last time this happened, their resistance was strong and one person said something like well, in my MBA classes, we work through case studies and it's a good way to learn. I replied with something like the MBA is a different beast to foresight and what works there doesn't necessarily automatically apply here. She left the class early, so she might not have appreciated that dismissal of her viewpoint! Another time I was berated by a senior bank official for not providing examples because that, she asserted with much confidence, was how adults learned. Hmmm. Maybe.

On the one hand, MBA case studies seem to assume that using an example from 'real life' will give you an approach to use in practice. This assumes there's a single right way to do something in particular contexts; it assumes there's a high degree of certainty in what actions should be chosen and what outcomes will then result. And perhaps because the MBA is about doing business today this may be true and may explain the formulaic outcomes that are usually achieved.

On the other hand, using foresight is about engaging with such uncertainty that it usually produces those wicked strategic problems that have no easy answers, arising from contexts that may never have happened before. There is no rule book for unique situations (the Chaos area in the Cynefin Framework) - what was reasonable before is no longer reasonable or useful when you are facing the unknown. So I explain foresight processes and ask people with me in the room to think about how they can apply those processes in their organisational contexts. People seem not to like this. They want a template, a set of heuristics that they can use 'off the shelf'. They want to skip the thinking step.

Learning to use foresight needs practice. No doubt I believe that because it's how I learned about foresight, how to design processes that were effective, how to talk to people about it, how to communicate outcomes, how to present a case for the value of using foresight in strategic processes. Every organisation I've worked with has received a tailored approach to some degree; I don't think I've done the same exact foresight process ever. And I'm still learning - there's no best practice guidelines that can just be applied in every case, no matter what the books and papers tell you.

It's not the foresight process that matters in the long run. It's what people in the organisation do with it. It's how you design the process to gain commitment to using it, to encourage many and deep strategic conversations, to challenge now unhelpful assumptions about work and organisations in the future, and to move beyond used futures to find the new and novel futures that we can't yet see. Only you can do that based on your knowledge of your organisation today. It's why external consultants come in and run a process which usually but not always produces little that is new. Now I know that very serious business schools have built their curriculum around case studies but foresight is not just about business. It's about new ways of thinking about futures that are imagined, not specified based on a template. They are more than assuming the present will define our futures, or locking thinking into pre-defined parameters.

I look forward to the day when someone comes to me and says: I've been learning about foresight, I think it will be valuable in our organisation for these reasons. These are our strategic issues, this is our context, and here's the process I've designed. What do you think? That will be a sign that foresight is being treated seriously in organisations.

Part 2
I wrote a post recently (Part 1) about how much I didn't like being asked for #foresight case studies and examples. Then I had a conversation on a listserv where I was told that people have a right to know that foresight 'works' before they sign on the dotted line. Okay, but why I ask? What is wrong with testing it, doing a pilot in context? No, a case study please. And then, to my chagrin, to get a book chapter published, I had to write two case studies. I couldn't escape the formula this time. Never again.

We all know that foresight is a cognitive capacity. Running a good foresight process needs to not only produce good outcomes but must also shift ways of thinking about the future to ensure outcomes are 'sticky'. My issue with case studies is that they focus more on the outcomes = proof of value and not as much about mind shifts = proof of value.

The latter is not easily assessed though and therein lies the problem, particularly for organisations still obsessed with data and evidence to inform decision making. I always say that if someone's brain hurts when using foresight then I have achieved one of my KPIs. It's a felt KPI though, not a measurable KPI, and I rely not on data but on the person telling me about their experience.

Success in this work for me comes not only from demonstrating that a process has been run well and good and valuable outcomes have been achieved, although I acknowledge that these kinds of success measures are what is required in some places. Success for me also comes from seeing the glimmer in someone's eyes when the foresight light bulb goes on, when I know that person 'gets' it, when I know then that their thinking has changed and that they will never think in the same way about the future again. That's a felt KPI.

But not many people would be satisfied with felt KPIs in the conventional strategy world. People with open minds who can think beyond data to understand the value of challenging assumptions and beliefs that may not be relevant or useful in the future are rare. Even rarer are people who are ready to take a leap of faith, recognising that the value of foresight is only apparent in hindsight. And who are ready to give foresight the time it needs to embed and for value to emerge. Who appreciate the long term view alongside the short term imperatives. Who wants to think differently all the time, not just during one project.

Foresight processes and on their own aren't guaranteed to generate a shift in how people think about futures. Good processes on any scale can demonstrate that valuable outcomes can emerge from foresight work. But is there a guarantee that good outcomes will be sustainable without that shift in thinking? I don't know the answer to that yet, but more and more I think the field needs to be viewing proof not only in terms of case studies and best practice but also in terms of felt KPIs, that demonstrate intangible shifts in thinking. Both are needed to give the impact of foresight its longevity.

Part 3
I talk to many people about the value of strategic foresight - what it is, why it matters and how to use it in practice. Some  people immediately 'get it', others don't and don't want to, and others ask me questions like 'what other companies use this approach?' or 'can you provide some case studies?' Readers will know that I have just a tiny aversion to providing case studies because the best way to know if foresight approaches will work for you is to use them. I am referring here to those requests for examples of organisations using foresight. It's probably one of the most frequent questions I get asked when I talk about foresight.

I realise that when people ask me this question they are asking for proof that foresight 'works'. The thinking underpinning that question is 'if it works for one company, it will work for me' or 'I can't recommend this without case studies to back it up'. And that's what we do today. Trust benchmarking implicitly, ask for evidence that something works before we do it, accept it to be so, before we are willing to spend time and resources using that approach. Thinking that if it worked for something else using that process, it will work for me.

And that's fair enough if you are mired in evidence-based decision making. Unfortunately, there's a flaw in that thinking.

Ultimately case studies are about the past, a snapshot of what someone did at a particular point in time with a particular set of tools. Because the approach described worked once for someone in their organisation at that time doesn't mean it will work for you in your context now or in two years time.

Learning about what worked in one organisation at one point in time with a case study helps people understand what was relevant when that organisation used foresight, and that approach may or may not be relevant for the future. The case study doesn't have universal value forever.

Instead of case studies, I can tell you about the most commonly used foresight methods, when to use foresight approaches and when not to bother, which tools might work best in your context. But I can't give you proof that using foresight will work absolutely in your organisation, for your people, with your wicked problems, every time.

So ask me not where has this worked before so that you have proof. Ask me instead how can this work for us? That tells me you are looking for insight, not a template.

The world around us is shifting with velocity. The way we did something two years ago probably can't be replicated exactly today and will probably be irrelevant in two years time, not only because the world has changed but because there will be different people in the room.

Foresight is a cognitive capacity. First and foremost, it's a state of mind. Foresight is about thinking before taking action. It's about developing insight about what our futures might bring to our organisations. It's about using this insight to reframe your understanding of the present, and the options you might have now. Using a foresight process won't be successful if there isn't a corresponding shift in thinking about how to use the outcomes of that process (Part 2).

Without the thinking shift, you can adapt the same process someone else used and not have useful outcomes. The value of foresight comes from people shifting how they think about futures and working together to become futures ready.

How successful using foresight will be at your organisation, therefore, depends not on how successful it was at another company but on the ability of your people to recognise and surface their foresight capacity and apply that capacity to thinking collectively about their organisation's future.

Once there is a critical mass of people in the organisation who 'get it', that sense of spinning the wheels and going nowhere, of being subsumed in busyness, of being too busy to think, of never seeming to get any closer to a goal will begin to lift. Being futures ready gives you a long term context for decision making today.

If you find yourself saying I don't get foresight, you have two choices really: (i) recognise this is an opportunity to explore creativity, vision and innovation on the way to becoming futures ready, or (ii) push back and stay with conventional strategic planning and its formulaic approaches that gets you a plan that fails when it meets any future.

That's enough on case studies.