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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

Foresight Déjà Vu?

I was kindly invited to the launch of a new "global initiative" on Friday afternoon at the Finsbury Square offices of Grant Thornton, in London. Led by Patricia Lustig, "Unlocking Foresight"  is a new Community Interest Company (CIC or social enterprise), with the lofty aim to unlock the potential of strategic foresight for the benefit of business, government and society.

As I looked around the room at the 30 or so folks who had gathered for the launch, I was struck by a very strong sense of déjà vu . Not only were there a significant number of very familiar faces, but I couldn't help but hark back to another initiative I was involved with, albeit nearly 15 years ago.

The Corporate Foresight Gathering started as an informal network of foresight and strategy practitioners who wanted to create a forum to share best practice, away from 3rd party intermediaries and "dreaded consultants". From my (somewhat hazy) memory, the first Gathering was hosted by Pitney Bowes in New York in March 2001, an event I sadly missed due to a prior commitment. The second, which was held in Stockholm in 2002 courtesy of Ericsson, I had the good fortune to attend. It was an enormously empowering, liberating and enjoyable experience. Why so? Looking back, it was so reassuring that there were others out there like me; battling to apply foresight tools, practices and ideas in a large corporate organisation; seeking the (severely limited) attention of senior management; looking to make a strategic difference; wanting your work to have meaning.

It was indeed a cathartic experience, but also a very insightful one. I learned about new techniques, different tools and processes. We discussed how to create impact, how to grab the attention of senior decision makers, how to really make a difference. I like to think I was genuinely better at my job (as a scenario strategist at Morgan Stanley at the time) after attending the event. In fact, I found the Gathering so energising that (possibly after a glass or two of wine at an excellent closing dinner!) I volunteered to host the following year's meeting at Morgan Stanley's offices in London.

As April 2003 rapidly approached, I became increasingly nervous that I had bitten off more that I could chew. We now had serious interest from nearly 60 organisations that they wanted to attend. Not only the original founding members, but also from a range of large global corporates, from Coca Cola to Ford, from IBM to BT, Deutsche Telekom, to Nestle, Shell to Unilever, and so the list went on. With only a small team to help at Morgan, I sensibly reached out to my friends at Outsights, the futures-focused London-based consultancy. Richard O'Brien in particular, was a life saver in helping to both design and deliver a very successful event.

Having just dug out a copy of the agenda from the 2003 Gathering, I can see that we engaged in a rich mixture of insights from keynote speakers, including Geoff Mulgan (then Head of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and now CEO of NESTA) and David Ure, a Board Member at Reuters, along with interactive group debates on how to apply foresight theory to create impact in practice. This matched the chosen theme of the event, namely "Foresight to Insight and Insight to Action".

The Corporate Foresight Gathering continued to meet annually for another 2 or 3 years, including being hosted by Reuters in New York and Deutsche Telekom in Berlin. Inevitably members, both organisations and individuals, came and went, the centres of energy shifted and the agendas (at least notionally) evolved. However, the momentum of this informal group did stall. After 2005, the annual Gatherings no longer took place. While small fragmented groups continued to meet in key locations (e.g. London), the broader global strategic agenda seemed to dissipate. As I reflect on why this happened, the lessons may be pertinent to Patricia and her colleagues as they embark on their new venture.

Firstly, the Gathering was an informal network, there was no infrastructure or dedicated supporting organisation. The event materials (a few PowerPoint slides and an Excel spreadsheet of previous attendees' names) were passed from one volunteering host to the next. This relied on the good will (alcohol induced or not) of various practitioners to pick up the baton and run with it. At this point, I would like to tip my hat to the generosity of spirit and time from my fellow hosts from over the years, Luis Jimenez, Magnus Karlsson, Susan Taylor-Martin, Chris Luebkeman and Anja Kober*. There is of course a natural limit to goodwill and time, which became more pressing as the Gathering became larger, more complex and challenging to host. Fortunately the Unlocking Foresight team appear not to be falling into this trap, they have created a dedicated organisation, with appropriate online repositories to store and share data, content and insight.

Secondly, while the host, venue and notional agendas were all different from year to year, the actual discussions were remarkably the same. Somewhat inevitably (given that sector-specific content was not relevant) conversations gravitated back to how to create value with foresight in our respective organisations. The conclusions were pretty consistent:

1: The need for senior sponsorship, buy-in and ideally personal engagement. This engenders ownership, the allocation of appropriate resource (time and budget) and perhaps most importantly, the executive action to follow through on any new insights generated.

2: The correct framing of foresight initiatives. Yes, as foresight practitioners we need to stretch an organisation (and its executives) away from the here and now but we also need to remain relevant. If you are not helping to solve or shed light on the issues that senior decision-makers really care about, their attention span will flounder (as will your prospects as a foresight practitioner in that organisation!).

3: Strong process with a high degree of simplicity. Inevitably successful foresight practice needs to help simplify the complex, without losing meaning or insight.

4: Correctly staffed, small groups can act as a catalyst for change. You don't need huge budgets, to build empires or absorb large amounts of corporate resource to be successful. You do need large amounts of energy, creativity, the ability to network (internally and externally) and communicate effectively, rallying others to your cause.

5: External challenge and diversity is essential to build a credible view of the future and counter-balance a strong corporate culture, often wedded to the present and built upon past success. This can be provided by a combination of consultants, research firms, academics, market partners and even customers!

The Gatherings also noted a number of ongoing challenges for wanna-be successful foresight organisations:

  • Organisational independence: Often there is no natural home for a foresight team in an organisation. Maintaining independence and political neutrality needs to be balanced with remaining visible and relevant.

  • Value metrics: Inevitably foresight work is longer-term in focus and any impact or results can be hard to attribute directly to specific initiatives, vs. "good luck" or external events.

  • Resources:  While as mentioned above, foresight teams don't need to be large, they do need to consume the time and attention of others, which get's back to the very existential challenge that foresight professionals face.

While I wish the Unlocking Foresight team every success, they have an important mission, I suspect that they will also face the challenge of keeping the debate "fresh", maintaining relevance and demonstrating they they offer real value for money. In a world where there are an increasing number of fora for foresight professional to share expertise (including LinkedIn's own Global Foresight Forum) the competition for attention and resource will only intensify.

*Please forgive me if my feeble memory hasn't recalled all the hosts of the Gatherings over the years

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