Nathan/ How do you describe the value of strategic foresight to leaders and when they should and shouldn’t employ it?

Radha/ Imagine having a set of tools, frameworks, and methodologies that can put you in a place where you have some agency and ownership over the future. And, you don’t have to resign to the future happening to you. You’re not chasing the market, you’re not, just guessing what’s happening. We can scan for signals of change. We can build our own point of view. We can build visions of futures that are preferable for us and work towards them. And we can do that along the way while diminishing blind spots and gaps. When you bring that to a CEO, they’re usually pretty open to having a conversation. So, that is often where I start: “How do you ensure that you don’t have to resign to the future happening to you, with agency ownership and understand where you have accountability, over a particular future?”

Nathan/ That’s probably the most concise definition I’ve ever heard.

Radha/ It’s taken years to come to, but once you land on that, you don’t let it go. Oftentimes, the language we use to talk about the future can be alienating to folks who don’t operate in the foresight space. And, we see that across critical design, speculative design, anything under the umbrella of “future studies.” For people who have an MBA or marketing degree or any business degree, for that matter, Foresight doesn’t always make sense. But, when we talk about foresight, this is what we actually mean: “How can you understand the uncertainty that’s taking place in your immediate environment—your business, your industry, your customers, your employees, and the external environment, and the global drivers of change?” Then, “How do you capitalize on that change in a meaningful way?”

A lot of foresight and future studies work can feel like science fiction to folks and, oftentimes, the outcomes of foresight work tends to end up in marketing and communication strategies, which isn’t terrible but doesn’t realize it’s true, potential impact. Often, this comes down to the positioning of a foresight team within an organization. At Autodesk, it was critical that we didn’t sit in the Mar/Comms group, but that we sat instead in the research group and that we reported directly to the CTO. Even at Arup, foresight is positioned directly with leadership, working in the most strategic parts of the company to drive forward long-term strategy.

When you can link foresight and strategy, that’s where it has the most value. If you go in asking to build visions of the future, that’s not where the value lies, honestly. To me, scenarios and visions of the future are prototypes. It’s like how we build architectural models. It’s a tool for you to see what a possible future might look like for you to pull it apart and repack it in some way. It’s not the final outcome. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the scenarios end-up being the final outcome. And that’s what people think foresight is. So, I always talk about scenarios as prototypes.

Nathan/ It sounds like you’re basically suggesting that the journey is at least as much of the value as the thing that comes out of the journey. Putting people in that space—especially leaders—to consider things they haven’t seen or don’t usually consider is half the value, if not more.

Radha/ Exactly. I place strategic foresight on a continuum between provocation and planning or science fiction and strategy. Foresight will pull from or be inspired by or build visions that feel science fiction. They’re provocations. But, the real work and the real value of foresight is being the mechanism that delivers you back into implementation, planning, and strategy. If you only focus on the cool part and you don’t focus on what do you do about it, you’ve ignored your agency. That’s where you lose a lot of folks.

Nathan/ What are those pieces that aren’t just about the vision—the more pragmatic pieces that have immediate value to a company?

Radha/ At Autodesk, it was like taking a scenario, going to the industry strategy groups, saying, “What do you now do about this? If this is what executive leadership is saying is our vision, how do we actually help you backcast and build a roadmap toward realizing these things? How does it impact your strategic realization and strategic intent?” Then, we take that to product development and ask, “How does this impact the tools in the tech?” We do this with clients of Arup, too, which is to say, “If this is your 10 year vision on climate action, what does that actually mean for your business?” Let’s run this through a futures wheel. Let’s run this through a visioning and road mapping exercise.

We work toward getting them to a place where they can translate the change that we’re seeing in the environment and determining what they need to do to have control over that change. And, for the things they don’t have control over, is it a matter of upskilling our people in some way? Is it a matter of partnering with folks who do it better or acquiring someone who does it better? Is it a matter of building something internally to address the change?

Nathan/ With climate change, a lot of the things that drop out of that are things that leaders don’t have direct control over because it’s global. Many of those things are about working with people outside of the company—government, partners, NGOs, etc. How willing do you find leaders to prioritize working with partners on the outside factors?

Radha/ It depends on the company. Some clients just assume they can build and respond internally. They’ve got the resources. And, then, there are organizations that are decide to invest more in graduates and folks coming into the workforce who they’re helping to upskill in these new issues. And, then, there are great organizations who want to partner with others because they see that network making them stronger.

Nathan/ I imagine that you can tell those different kinds of companies in the first conversation. What are the “tells” that  help you understand where companies are going to end up?

Radha/ Often, you can tell by how a company has operated in the past. Do they have and value partners already? Do they fight legislation or work to great better operating rules for everyone? If they make a lot of acquisitions, often, they’re not going to be open to partnering. Acquisitions are how they want to grow. Then, there’s companies where everything is heavily branded by their company belief system. It’s a top-down model and you see little ground up or grassroots work. Many of those just want to figure it out internally.

There are two models of foresight. One is coming from the outside, as a consultant. And, the other approach is to embed yourself inside of an organization. I almost prefer the second because, then, you can really ensure that there are resources, time, and effort being invested in bringing these things to fruition. When you come into a company as a consultant, you can only go as far as the scope allows you to. You don’t usually have the opportunity to come back to a client and ask “Hey, how did that thing go? Did you actually do it?” We do have some clients that we have trusted relationships with that span years.

But, with others, you just can’t. Sometimes, all they want is the shiny horizon scan report that tells them what’s new and what’s coming. That’s as much as they’re willing to invest. There’s so much uncertainty in the business of uncertainty. When you asking folks with little understanding of foresight to invest time, money, and resources, it can feel like risk management or change management. A lot of it is like working with people to unlearn some of their preconceived notions of what foresight is and the value that it brings.

Foresight is not helpful for quick a solutions. It’s robust and it’s not great when you operate in silos. It requires diversity of thought, networked thinking, and divergent thinking. When something’s a trend, it’s already too late for foresight work. You’re already behind the curve. That’s when change management, risk management, design thinking, or some other process might be helpful. I think the shortest time horizon I’ve ever done on a foresight project was six months out and that was for the US elections. And that’s because there was so much uncertainty around the US elections. Foresight doesn’t really work when you’re just trying to come up with an operations strategy. And, you have to be open to collaboration and outside of you’re the vertical or industry that you operate in.

Nathan/ Any kind of plan is foresight, right? You’re making a plan for the future, whether it’s five minutes or five months from now. How do you determine the line where it’s too soon for foresight, too far, or just right?

Radha/ That line is whether you have enough lead time to actually act on the change you see. For me, from an organizational standpoint, the sweet spot is five to ten years but, typically, ten to get out of the familiar. The unfamiliar can help identify threats and opportunities. Of course, different types and scales of uncertainty require different lead times. But, the question I always ask myself is: “If we find change that is relevant to us, that we want to address, will we have enough time to address it?”

Nathan/ So, what are the tools that would be useful for ten to fifty years?

Radha/ That’s where you start to think about deep cultural change. You can push foresight, maybe, to fifteen years, but when you get to twenty years, the span or someone becoming an adult, it starts to feel like science fiction. I’ve noticed, time and time again, people start to disassociate with the actual implications of that time horizon and lose that sense of agency. At that point, it feels like a science fiction story that you’re just reading as opposed to a vision that you might be working towards.

Sohail Inayatullah’s tool for Causal Layered Analysis is great for that period after twenty years—it’s robust. It takes a lot of work to work through something like that. Then, you’re developing scenarios about paradigm shifts.

Nathan/ I bring this up because in public policy, if you’re in government, you have to look twenty to forty years into the future–especially with energy policy. In that time frame, people have a natural, impatience with science fictionHave you worked with government or public policy folks?

Radha/ I have, but the structures for policy making, themselves, need to be changed. It’s not about what policies we are creating but how are we creating them. This is especially true in tech policy where we super steep curve of technological advancement and the very slow progression of policy development and adoption. There’s such a great space of uncertainty between those two slopes that it almost feels like the policy work becomes ineffective. Yeah. We’re also starting to see new policy structures and new influencers who are subverting existing, conventional policy systems. It’s going to force a reckoning with like how policy is created, who creates it, and where policymaking happens.

Nathan/ It seems like design skills are really helpful for being a foresight strategist. Is that true? And, if so, which are the skills that are helpful and what are designers still missing?

Radha/ I can tell you what I hire for: folks who are well versed in systems thinking (which you learn in a lot of design programs, today), folks who are great with open-ended questions (which is, essentially, what a design brief is), folks who are great at synthesizing and coalescing lots of disparate data points. Even just coming from the perspective of an architect, you you’re thinking about multiple occupants, multiple use cases, etc. Then, there’s communication part, because your vision is only as good and effective as it is understood. So, then, you’re talking about like visual skills, written skills, and storytelling skills. All of these things are creative.

Also, all of these require somebody who is comfortable operating in the abstract, floating around the fringes, and sees the value in building paths that haven’t been built yet. I have found that designers and artists, often, tend to be the best at that. Then, when it comes time to build, we bring in more technical folks. But, to get out to that far future really requires folks who are great with uncertainty.

Nathan/ A lot of people get really excited when they encounter Foresight but it’s not for everyone. What kind of people or maybe what are the outlook or methods or perspectives of the people that just don’t excel here?

Radha/ This process is uncomfortable for many people. It’s ambiguous for much of it and it’s all unknown going into it. There are folks who are way better, and much more comfortable, with a formulaic approach and who often want to know the outcome before they start a process. Foresight isn’t a “two plus two always equals four” equation. So much of Foresight work only come together later. You don’t get to see the outputs for awhile and the synthesis is often surprising. Many people think it’s about prediction, which is entirely wrong. You’re visioning ten, fifteen, and sometimes more years into a possible future, to understand possible opportunities, not to assess whether it comes true or not. And, that’s uncomfortable for folks who need to know or need to see or need to have a tangible outcome to what they’re doing. Some of my architect friends tell me they could never do what I do because they’re used to seeing a building at the end of their work, and that’s their measure of success. In foresight, you don’t always get that measure of success. Sometimes you’re into a foresight process and find you have to abandon a particular path—for whatever reason. Perhaps, it’s just not of interest or it doesn’t yield meaningful insights. You have to be okay with that and learn to let it go. I don’t think I’ve done a single project where I’ve used the exact same process and that’s not always comfortable for people.

This interview is from A Whole New Strategy: Everything You Need To Think And Act More Strategically