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Susan Cox-Smith


Partner, Executive Producer

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Building ‘futuring’ capacity in teams and organisations

It’s time for HR to move beyond the crystal ball.

‘Futuring’ is the field of using systemic processes for thinking about, picturing possible outcomes and planning for the future.  

In the current highly uncertain world, knowledge of futuring, foresight, and related practices is currently being sought by teams and organisations impacted by both internal and external uncertainties. Of course, understanding approaches for breaking through the noise and stagnant discourse around the future landscape is one step toward addressing these uncertainties.

Responsibility for future proofing, future shaping, or future-mindedness has become one of many new job requirements in our modern economies.

These approaches can’t be effective, however, without the most important ingredient: people who embrace a futuring mindset and have a willingness to consider multiple possibilities and outcomes.

The future in businesses and the business of the future

Two notable shifts mark the current moment in organisational use of foresight. The first was the move of strategic foresight practices from boardrooms and strategic planning departments into groups where product, service, or policy are designed.

The second was that a growing number of global big brands began to notice the value of mapping potential futures as a way of anticipating shifts in consumer needs. The emergence and spread of new business models, for mapping opportunities or risks, emerged as a way of mainstreaming the next wave of technologies being promised. This was a positive development that introduced a whole new menu of tools and practices, and encouraged non-experts to use these tools for exploring futures on their own.

We are all futurists now

Inside many companies, agencies and organisations, including government and non-governmental entities, there are a growing number of people who are charged with maintaining an awareness of the future through monitoring issues that are happening in their market, sector, or part of the world. Responsibility for future proofing, future shaping, or future-mindedness has become one of many new job requirements in our modern economies.

Today, organisations are required to become leaner and more competitive, and gird against disruption, whether this comes from a new competitive entrant out of left field, a rapid shift in values, or an unexpectedly mutating trend.

On any given day, a cursory scan of LinkedIn reveals job descriptions for roles ranging from product development, marketing, strategic analysis, human resources, engineering, events management, architecture, and more, all laced with requirements for a ‘futurist mindset’, maintaining a ‘futurist view’, or being an ‘internal seer’.

Over the past few decades strategic decision-making has devolved from an exclusive (and generally small) executive cadre at the top of companies, to the customer-facing front lines. This has driven a mandate that a wide range of workers be at least aware of factors that might impact their organisation’s future, even if it is only notionally.

Quantitative versus qualitative

Conflict sometimes emerges between teams or organisations that are driven by a culture steeped in sciences, mathematics, engineering, or law, and futuring tools that are qualitative by their very nature. The need to reduce futures to quantitative probabilities alone creates clashes with the more open nature of the futuring process, and can often miss the value of structured exploration and provocation as a form of gap analysis.

Some organisations are so steeped in their own analytics and big data that they reject out of hand the possibility that past performance and large current state data sets can’t provide the sole basis for describing a highly certain future.

Given the huge investment that many organisations are making in data and artificial intelligence for all manner of predictive forecasting, some may believe that investment in employees with futuring capabilities is unnecessary.

Smart leaders understand that quantitative forecasting coupled with a better sense of change—a qualitative knowledge that comes through confidence, practice and awareness—can set the stage for more resilient outcomes. If organisations could ‘data’ their way out of uncertainty, we would be living in a much more stable environment today.

Staffing for different futures now

As ever, success comes down to people, not analytics. Hiring with agile mindsets and diverse experience in mind is a critical place to start when future-proofing an organisation. Does your team have the knowledge, experience, availability, and temperament that a complex, uncertain future requires? This isn’t just who has the longest chain of letters after their name, nor is it necessarily about ‘culture fit’.

Chances are that if everyone in your organisation looks, sounds, and thinks like you, you’re hobbling that team’s ability to produce their best work when circumstances change. Monocultures can only speak to monocultures: they can’t speak to the multiplicity of possible futures that are unfolding at any one time across a variety of contexts.

As with all the best things, a little friction is necessary: it’s the grit that makes the pearl.

Different backgrounds, genders, life experiences, work experiences, skills and outlooks can bring that necessary friction and, most critically, perspectives. You don’t want ‘yes’ people.

Optimally, you want teams of ‘what If?’ people — curious, critical-minded ‘scouts’ who have a sense of the known unknowns, and can see past the surface of any given issue and look for what a company or industry often can not or chooses not to see about itself or the landscape ahead.

Building a futuring capacity within an organisation requires not just curious minds and good communication skills; it also requires creative understanding of future possibilities large and small.

 Interested in this topic? ‘How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange‘ (Kogan Page) is now available to purchase.

Author Profile Picture
Susan Cox-Smith

Partner, Executive Producer

Read more from Susan Cox-Smith
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