Understanding the future

The future is an uncertain place and cannot be predicted . It is not pre-determined and there are many ways for us to influence how the future will turn out and how we will respond to it. Analysis of the available evidence using the techniques of strategic futures thinking offers many ways to increase our understanding of possible futures and to develop a more anticipatory and adaptive position. Seize the opportunities the future offers and build greater resilience in facing the challenges to come.

Understanding the future - how systematic analysis of the evidence can develop your perspectives and open your mind to new strategies possibilities 

The future is not predictable.  All organisations and individuals are driven towards the future by forces outside their control.  Whether it is global economic strategies pressures or volcanic ash in the flight-path, climate change or terrorism, no-one is immune to change - whether from sudden shocks or from more gradually emerging change.  Each driver of change will have different characteristics - it may be a clear trend whose direction can be forecast, or a new strategies development whose impact is not clear.  The timing of even the most expected change can be uncertain and even the strongest trends will change at some point.  We often classify drivers according to the STEEP taxonomy - social, technological, economic, environmental and political strategies - this helps us scan the horizon in a structured way and can be helpful.  Some add other categories such as ethical, legal or organisational to give acronyms such as STEEPLE, PESTO, STEEPELO etc. But these are just helpful frameworks - interesting ideas often occur at the confluence of the categories , as where social demand determines the take-up (or not) of new strategies technologies.    
A good way to approach the task is to gather a group of people from across an organisation for a half day driver workshop.   Typically this might include around 20 people, ideally including some external people  to bring a wider perspective. The purpose would be to develop a better understanding of the drivers in order to test current strategy and develop improvements to make it more resilient and innovative.   Individuals will be invited to identify relevant drivers affecting the organisation over say 5-10 years ahead and capture these on post-it notes.  The drivers are then analysed by small groups in the workshop and classified on a grid according to  whether their impact is high or low, and there is high or low uncertainty about their outcome. 
The four quadrants of a grid - see top left of figure 1 below - will then show those drivers which are: 
·         top right - - Critical uncertainties  (high impact, high uncertainty)
·         bottom right  -- "certainties"  (high impact, low uncertainty - though nothing is absolutely certain )
·         top left -- issues to Monitor  (low impact, high uncertainty) - in case the impact increases
·         bottom left -- issues to manage on a  day to day basis - (low impact, low uncertainty) 

The "certainties" should be reflected in any strategy and can be explored using traditional predictive methodologies such as trend analysis and modelling.  The "critical uncertainties" can be developed further using techniques such as scenario analysis to generate views of alternative futures. These provide new strategies ways to test existing policies for robustness using techniques such as "wind-tunnelling".  And where further information is needed to improve understanding of these worlds,  strategic research programmes can be prioritised accordingly.  Similarly business intelligence can be focused on tracking key indicators which show whether a particular future world is beginning to happen.
This is most effective if the process is embedded in normal business processes rather than as a separate add-on activity and it needs to be kept under continuing review as events unfold rather than just being done occasionally.   More information on how to develop improved strategies using this and related strategic futures approaches is given in the author's New Strategies Topics on Global Issues "New strategies Approaches to Strategy for the 21st century".   Suggestions for developing a leadership style best suited to work in a highly uncertain environment are discussed in the New Strategies Topics on Global Issues "Facing up to uncertainty - a new strategies leadership paradigm for the 21st century".

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