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Selecting Futures Research Methodologies

by Louis van der Merwe - Centre for Innovative Leadership (CIL)

 

“The future will be occupied by Leadership, Organisations and Nations who think most clearly about the future and then base their decisions and actions on this learning.”

 

1. Introduction

There are key principles that enable futurists to select the technique(s) that best fits with the futures research at hand. Effective selection and sustainable use of methodologies should be guided by: (i) Clear Purpose, ‘Focusing Question’ that the research must shed light on, (ii) Matching the technique with the context within which it will be used, (iii) Ensuring consistency between the methodology, the competence of the practitioner and the worldview of the practitioner, (iv) Strategic conversation quality determines robust strategy and rapid execution, (v) Respecting some key caveats about working with the future.

 

2. Learning as the Competitive Advantage

‘Learning faster than competitors’, the basis of the idea of a ‘Learning Organisation’ was coined by Arie de Geusi ii and popularised by Peter Senge of MITiii in the Fifth Discipline Field Book and other books. The seminal words; ‘learning faster than competitors being the ultimate competitive advantage’, remain true and useful today to leadership at all levels.

 

3. Strategic Conversation as ensuring FIT with the future

Conversations about the future have challenged humans since ancient times. While the fascination simply to ‘know’ what the future holds is great, the most important purpose is to ensure FIT with the future. This Darwinian perspective was first described in1982.iv

FIT entails identifying both risks and opportunities that will confront leadership and devising strategies to deal effectively with both. When there is no FIT you or your organisation or even your country, go out of business or become less competitive. When you do FIT you, your organisation etc. will prosper and grow. This process of ensuring FIT requires leadership of continuous change and transformation.

 

4. Resilience and continuous disruptive change

Resilience is embodied in the capacity to effectively adapt to discontinuities in the future environment and self-correct. Leadership should build physical and mental infrastructure to deal with continuous disruptive change.

 

5. The Millennium Project and Futures Research Methodologies

The comprehensive Millennium Project catalogue of Futures Research Methodologies Version 3.0 describes the various techniques available with which to explore the future. In all cases the comprehensive descriptions of the techniques are by authorities.

The practitioner’s competence and worldview or set of assumptions about the nature of the future environment will determine specific selections. If the assumption is that the future is fixed then what is needed is powerful tools for analysis and prediction. Pierre Wack, co-founder of the Scenario Planning field warns us that ’predictions let us down precisely when we need them most’.

 

6. Predictions and assumptions about the future

There exists, a ‘Prediction Confidence Horizon’ within which we can reliably predict. However, beyond this horizon we need a method that is more useful in a constantly changing, complex interconnected environment and that can penetrate beyond the ten year future and stretch the minds of decision-makers beyond what can be called ‘the official future’ a narrow future supported by leadership .

Because the future is constantly changing and emergent, other techniques such as scenarios and systems thinking will be preferred. In this worldview it is probably safer to assume that there will be a need to change direction and self-correct and learn and adjust.

Rapidly increasing, disruptive change is a constant in our environment. Together with increasing complexity and interconnectedness amongst forces that drive the future, this makes determining the future difficult if not impossible and unknowable. The future also has no ‘facts’. A view of the future usually draws on assumptions and inference from the past.

 

7. Scenario-based Strategy as an inclusive conversation

A continuous ‘strategic conversation’ is a key determinant which enables constant sharing of perspectives on the future as it emerges.

Scenario-based strategy integrates systemic thinking and conversation quality and enables leadership to deal with continuous, disruptive change. Scenarios-based strategy enables leadership and decision-makers to get the future ‘approximately right’ as opposed to ‘precisely wrong’ with forecasts beyond the forecasting confidence horizon. It is within the portfolio of scenarios that the plausible pathways into the future are contained. By testing our strategy or options across all scenarios we build our sensitivity to more than one plausible future and will therefore recognise the future that is unfolding because we have ‘rehearsed the future in advance’. By doing this testing we will have a more robust strategy and above all can act in alignment, before others, that have not done this learning.

 

8. Selecting an appropriate Research Methodology

Preference should be given to futures techniques which are inclusive and conversation-driven to lead naturally to effective action and leadership of change processes. The specific method called Systems Dynamics invented by Forrester of MIT is one of the most effective ways of cutting through to the underpinning structures as well as modelling the dynamics that carry us beyond the ten year time frame.v vi[Refs. 5&6]

The World Economic Forum provides a list of Top Ten dynamics that might play in the 2015 period, gathered from more than 1,500 participants and following a Delphi-like process.

 

World Economic Forum Top 10 Global Trends of 2015vii

1. Deepening income inequality
2. Persistent jobless growth
3. Lack of leadership
4. Rising geostrategic competition
5. Weakening of representative democracy
6. Rising pollution in the developing world
7. Increasing occurrence of severe weather events
8. Intensifying nationalism
9. Increasing water stress
10. Growing importance of health in the economy
11. Immigration in focus: an overlooked trend?
12. Regional Challenges

 

Consider using these Global Trends to assess the relative usefulness of a selection of the methodologies and list the plusses (+) and negatives (-) for each? Some trends that are seen as local to Southern Africa are actually part of global trends. In addition trends that are absent from this list are the Ebola pandemic and the rising tide of Terror attacks and the levels of casualties that go with both these trends.

To summarize, the overarching purpose of all Futures Research Methodologies is to enable better decisions today as a result of the learning that takes place with using the methodology.

 

Louis van der Merwe
Educator and Consultant

Managing Partner: Centre for Innovative Leadership (CIL)

Read more about Louis and his view on being a futurist

 

 

i De Geus A. (1988) Planning as Learning, Harvard Business Review (HBR)
ii De Geus A. (1997) The Living Company, Harvard University Press
iii Senge et al (1992) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Nicolas Breahley
iv Christensen, Andrews, Bower, Hamermesh and Porter (1982) Business Policy: Text and Cases. 5th ed. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin
v Van der Merwe L. Essay 1: Future global issue identification method, Systems Dynamics (SD) in Global Agenda Council publication On the futures of strategic foresight Edited by Ramirez, Bentham et al, WEF
vi Centre for Innovative Leadership (CIL) Web: http://www.cil.net/
vii See also: http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/

 

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