Futures and horizons

Do you believe that you are now owning the last car you will buy?  Maybe that sounds improbable, but a piece on the UK’s BBC website argues the case quite well, saying ‘The central idea is pretty simple: Self-driving electric vehicles organised into an Uber-style network will be able to offer such cheap transport that you’ll very quickly – we’re talking perhaps a decade – decide you don’t need a car anymore.’

Someone sent me the article knowing that I was facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference in November on OD&D and Change Skills to Drive New Business Models, and integral to the workshop is the idea that to help our organisations adapt into the future, we, OD & D practitioners, must keep future focused and develop horizon scanning skills.

Although there’s some overlap and debate between the terms futures, foresight and horizon scanning within the research/academic literature, in general, discussions of futures and foresight provide ‘a conceptual framework for a number of forward-looking approaches to informed decision making that includes long term considerations.’ (FAO 2013).

Keeping future focused is tricky but Philip Tetlock, in his book Superforecasting, reassuringly tells us:

  • The future can indeed be foreseen, at least in the near term. An analogy is weather forecasting – you may feel confident that you’ll need an umbrella this Thursday, but not that you will or won’t need one at a point in 2023.
  • Some people are much better at it than others.  The ‘foxes’ who ‘know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery”, are much better at forecasting than the ‘hedgehogs’ those who know one big thing, and ‘aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, and display bristly impatience with those who do not get it.
  • Forecasting is not a divine gift, but a skill that can be practised and improved. Tetlock offers an, online course,  Superforecasting Fundamentals that I’m tempted by but will stop myself registering (as I’m practicing paring down the amount of stuff I do).

An alternate to the course is the excellent resource The Futures Toolkit, ‘designed primarily as a resource for those who are new to futures thinking but should also prove useful to more experienced practitioners’.  It introduces futures thinking and offers a toolset ‘for gathering intelligence about the future, exploring the dynamics of change, describing what the future might be like’…

One of the tools in the kit is horizon scanning an approach used to identify early warnings of  potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities, from the immediate up to 12 months away to explore how these trends and developments may combine and play out and what organisational impact they may have ‘allowing for better preparedness and the incorporation of mitigation and exploitation into … decision making processes.’  (What is Horizon Scanning, 2016).

Because horizon scanning is more about early warnings i.e. short term forecasting it can be used to help answer a question Tetlock asks:  ‘Is it a worse error to fail to try to predict the potentially predictable or to waste our time trying to predict the unpredictable?’ Consistent and continuous horizon scanning can stop the error of failing to predict the predictable, and what you do predict is likely to be more accurate if you are a fox thinker than a hedgehog thinker.

But we can’t stop at only looking at early warnings.  What about longer-term forecasting?  An extension of the single horizon scanning model is the Three Horizons model described as ‘a simple, intuitive way to encourage a conversation about the challenges in the present, our aspirations for the future and the kinds of innovation we might need in order to address both at the same time’.

  • The first horizon ‘describes the current way of doing things, and the way we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to.’
  • The third horizon is the future [long way out] system.  It is those new ways of living and working that will bring new patterns in existence.  It is transformative.
  • The second horizon is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibilities of the third horizon’.

Knowing what horizon scanning is, and how it links to futures/forecasting is one thing – knowing what horizons to scan and how to scan them is another.   How do you actually horizon scan?   I do it via five main paths:

  • Scanning a range of magazines, journals, and newspapers for general coverage. The ones I skim read have changed over the years, but I find I’m still consistently and thoroughly reading The Economist, New Scientist, and The Atlantic.
  • Subscribing to daily/weekly email newsletters for focused coverage again I get several – some examples:
    • Tech: MIT Tech Review, Geekwire,  Information Week in Review
    • Science:  Science Daily
    • Business: Strategy+ Business, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review
    • Innovation:  Stanford Social Innovation Review, Open Data Institute
  • Looking at blogs and other info on specialised websites.  I have a lot bookmarked (I must pare them down) but I find I look most at the long now which has thought provoking blogs, as does the Practical Ethics blog – the latest is ‘should vegans avoid almonds and avocados?’  Workplace insight has info on workplace trends, and shaping tomorrow which is an ‘AI-driven, systems thinking model that delivers strategic foresight and anticipatory thinking in real-time’.  The big consultancies track ‘megatrends’ in various ways, See PWC’s example here.
  • Reading reports and surveys from various sources – think tanks, professional bodies, government and public sector organisations.
  • Talking to people and going to events – if you’re in the UK the Royal Society of Arts has excellent events – which are often livestreamed or available as web and pod casts if you can’t get to the event itself.

What happens with this scanning activity?  The idea is to apply it into your organisation design thinking.  For example, suppose we won’t need to own a car anymore in ten years (and the early warnings are pretty evident on this)?  What impact will that have on insurance providers?  Car manufacturers? Car maintenance outlets?  Car retailers?  Organisational benefits – if you offer a car as one or offer mileage payments?  Commutes to work?  People who drive cars for a living?  Software developers?  It’s likely that the reach of self-driving cars will extend to all organisations.  How could/should you start factoring it into your design work now?

My view is that horizon scanning is an essential skill for organisation designers.  Do you agree, if so how do you do it? Let me know.

Image: Economist, Unclouded vision