Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight

Phil Hadridge (Co‐Founder, idenk Ltd, Cambridge, UK)

Foresight

ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 22 February 2008

1208

Citation

Hadridge, P. (2008), "Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight", Foresight, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 79-80. https://doi.org/10.1108/14636680810856044

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Planning is an unnatural process. It is much more fun just to do something. That way failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression (John Harvey‐Jones, British business leader).

Successful futures work addresses and even embraces anxiety and negative emotions as Harvey Jones identifies. It makes the assumed, the ignored and the air‐brushed discussable. I was pleased to be sent Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight to review a few months ago. The list of contributors to this weighty resource, edited by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop for the consultancy Social Technologies, is impressive[1]. Whilst it is hard to find somewhere to buy it (it is on Amazon.com now, but not.co.uk for example) it has a content and cast pedigree that makes its value seem undeniable. The major sections on framing, scanning, forecasting, visioning, planning and acting link to fundamental business and social interests in moving from fresh thinking to getting things done: managing the journey from inspiration to implementation. According to the blurb it is intended to be invaluable to executives and indispensable to analysts with a “highly scannable and personable style”. The content is sound. If you flick randomly though it you come across helpful section after helpful page: know the audience, choosing forecasting tools, forming alternatives.

And yet. And yet … when skimming then reading this dictionary of ideas I was left underwhelmed. Why? It took me a while to work it out. I am a visual learner. I am attracted to futures for the way that insight and ideas are frequently manipulated in a physical and visual way: with grids, hexagons, Post‐it notes, electronic whiteboards. Complexity is handled and simplified by the use of colour, imagery, sound, story and shape. In my experience, clients find the sort of “campaign room meets think tank” environment that successful futures work embodies and constructs both helpful and energising. And yet. And yet … this is a book with not one diagram in sight. It has merely two tables. That is it. The rest is text. This must have required some effort, given my knowledge of some of the characters involved in this enterprise! The world is becoming increasingly sensory, as the current formats for newspapers, phone screens and Web 2.0 sites show. The popularity of Edward Tufte's approach to the visual presentation of information demonstrates a passion for beauty in presenting data in a range of academic settings[2]. But, you wouldn't guess that from Thinking about the Future – with a format more at home in a mid‐twentieth century management tome.

As the editor of foresight knows, I was reluctant to be too critical of this major and, for me, limiting feature. It is not appreciative of a resource with much that is useful and insightful. And it betrays my bias. I am a fan of visual approaches, but I realise from the work of Howard Gardener that there are a multitude of intelligences[3]. Whilst I believe that many find the big picture, multi‐sensory approaches of futures work that connects our heads, heart and hands deeply helpful, maybe this book was showing me how I might be wrong. Using the framework of therapist and management thinker John Heron[4], I was keen to avoid the risk of clobbering the editors and contributors of Thinking about the Future with my prejudices.

So why write now? Why step out from, as Heron would say, pussy‐footing around the subject? Well, I was sent a complementary book from colleagues in the UK National Health Service. Thinking Differently is from the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement. It is also hard to get hold of[5]. But the authors have been served proud by their imaginations and their designers. It is a remarkably different book of similar wordage. It is spiral bound at the top. It has colour‐coded tabs and pages of different lengths. As well as an overview of the concepts of creativity and innovation, it has three sections on tools to help you start well, generate ideas and select which ones to focus on to make a difference. It is grounded on case studies and has reference appendices. The content is helpful and parts are original. However, what marks it out is that visually Thinking Differently is stunning. It has a totally fresh format. It has white space and a clear visually logical flow that maximises the insight shared. If a public sector organisation can do this – admittedly one that learns from leaders like IDEO and the British Design Council – how much more should others be able to do?

There is competition between methods for helping leaders and their teams move through curiosity, creativity, convergence to completion. Futures, creativity, design science, marketing, business planning and a host of other approaches vie in opposition as much as in synergy – their adherents (and consultants) favouring what they like and can do. Presentational style is one of the distinguishing features of these pitches. It is a shame to see futures and foresight undersold in Thinking about the Future by a failure to bring in best practice from the field of design and publishing, to bring to life what is already a highly visual discipline.

If, as the starting quote shows, thinking about the future is fundamentally about anxiety (and ambition), so too, I discover, is book reviewing! Satisfaction is a function of expectation. I expected far more of the first book. The second under‐promised, but over‐delivered. This is a lesson for all of us in academia, social enterprises or business as we present our methods for insight, breakthrough and action.

Notes

Andy Hines manages the consulting practice at Social Technologies, and also serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston MS Program in Futures Studies. Dr Peter Bishop is an Associate Professor of Strategic Foresight and Coordinator of the MS Program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston.

John Heron, The Complete Facilitator's Handbook, Kogan Page, London, 1999.

See www.institute.nhs.uk/building_capability/new_model_for_transforming_the_nhs/thinking_differently.html. At the time of writing plans for making Thinking Differently had yet to be finalised. However, interest may be registered at: institute@prologue.nhs.uk

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