At SAMI, we work with colleagues in the foresight community through training (whether in our courses or through our advanced “Cohort” action learning team) and within our client engagements. One of the questions we hear most often is, “how do we engage, influence and encourage our senior teams to take futures work seriously?”
It is an understandable point. It often seems as if the rise of strategic foresight as a discipline, and its increasing use by organisations such as HM Government or the European Commission, is rarely matched either in industry or within governments themselves. It sometimes seems as if foresight is a box-ticking exercise – one of those classic consultant engagements where the job is completed, the report presented, and it is then carefully placed somewhere on a shelf and not referred to again.
This frustrates us as much as it frustrates our colleagues. Foresight and futures thinking, with its unique combination of horizon scanning, collaborative workshops, scenario creation and wind tunnelling, provides a structured, effective way of minimising future risk and developing future opportunities. Foresight enhances resilience and drives robust, reliable responses to problems – whether anticipated or not. Workshops provide a real way of engaging staff at all levels of an organisation with the future of that organisation, giving them an opportunity to play a part in creating that future and increasing their commitment and engagement.
We know all this. So why is it so difficult to persuade senior managers to act on the results of foresight work?
Here’s a tick list of ideas we know works – and what doesn’t.
What doesn’t work
Assuming that the benefits of the exercise are self-evident. Even if foresight practitioners understand the value of foresight, there’s no guarantee we have explained it clearly enough.
Prioritising the future problem at the expense of the current crisis. Managers have enough to deal with in the day to day. They rarely have the mental space to look ahead, and if they do, it is within a short time horizon.
Failing to understand the motivations of the client. Why are they doing this? Is it a nice-to-have? Are they ticking a box? Or are they looking for thoughtful, considered, transformational work? And if they are, what result do they want from it, and what will it contribute to?
Speaking to the client in your language, not theirs. Foresight has jargon, as do clients. Mapping their language to our terminology is key in getting them to understand what impact our work could have on them. This can be especially difficult in organisations with a highly developed, inward-looking workplace culture, where the language they use between themselves can have concrete meanings.
Understand that the company and the people within it have motivations. Find out what they are. Hersh Shefrin’s work on behavioural economics is valuable here. It was Schefrin who boiled the motivation of investors down to two factors: greed and fear. While this is too blunt and may appear too cynical to use directly with a client, it’s a useful frame.
Schefrin’s two key motivators (and it’s worth saying many argue with him, for instance, here, here, and here) can be reframed as “What would the client get out of this (personally and as a company)?” and “What does the client avoid by doing this (both personally and as a company)?”. Foresight can give companies a first-player advantage in innovation and avoid the pitfalls of unexpected crises. It can provide senior managers with the kudos of finding something new and remove the fear of being caught by unforeseen events.
What needs are met by futures work? Maslow’s “A Theory of Human Motivation” is still discussed seventy-nine years after publication because it works. Indeed, we could argue that Schefrin’s “fear” maps to Maslow’s second tier, “safety needs”, and his “greed” maps to Tier 4, “esteem”.
The trick with Maslow is to understand that people’s (and organisations’) needs are frequently those things they try hardest to hide. Managers fear they will appear weak by expressing those needs – so it is up to us, in finding ways to reach them, to attempt to understand those needs from the outside. It’s not always easy, and assuming someone wants one need when they want another can lead to real crossed wires.
Foresight works. René Rohrbeck is Professor of Strategy and director of the chair on “Foresight, Innovation and Transformation” at the EDHEC Business School, France. His work on the effectiveness of foresight provides the hard financial underpinning to the effectiveness of futures thinking. Future preparedness leads to 200% higher growth, 33% higher profit, and makes a company 44% more likely to be an outperformer. His benchmarking report, published out of the School of Business and Social Sciences at Aarhus University, shows that futures thinking is “a factor strongly influencing mid-term future firm performance”.
Seek to understand the client and their motivations. Importantly, seek to understand both the client organisation and the key individuals within it. Meet those needs in language the client understands. And make the business benefits explicit.
This is the sort of subject we discuss at our Cohort. If you’d like to be part of it, let us know. And if we’ve identified hurdles here that resonate with you, and your organisation, let us know as well – we’d love to work with you, in ways you understand and that meet your needs.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.
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