II. Key Personal Practice Challenges: Ways to Improve Our Work
Recall the Three “Cardinal Sins” of Foresight:
- Not sufficiently discovering (predicting and protecting) our probable futures,
- Not sufficiently exploring (imagining and innovating) our possible futures, and
- Not sufficiently envisioning (strategizing and planning) our preferable futures.
Using and balancing these three fundamental processes is how societies, organizations, and individuals stay adaptive in a complex world. In Chapter 11, we’ll defend this claim in a prescientific model, Evo Devo Foresight. Evo devo thinking is where I think our field will eventually go, as our complexity sciences continue to develop in coming years. For now, consider the following:
- Probability, or what we will call developmental processes, is commonly found in convergence- and consistency-oriented activities like theoretical science, forecasting, engineering, security, and sustainability.
- Possibility, or what we will also call evolutionary processes, is commonly found in divergence- and diversity-oriented activities like experimental science, design, art, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and innovation.
- Preference, or what we will also call evo devo processes, is common in ethical, empathic, and community-oriented activities like visioning, strategy, planning, management, politics, and leadership.
Remember also the Four Foresight Skills:
- Learning (the Preparation)
- Anticipation (the Probable)
- Innovation (the Possible)
- Strategy (the Preferable)
Learning appropriately about our past and present is key preparation to the three primary foresight types. We can call learning and the Three Ps together the Four Ps. They are the four core foresight skills. In this Guide, we’ll refer to the Four Ps rather than the Three Ps whenever we think it is important to focus on foresight skills, rather than on foresight types.
Finally, remember the Four Action Skills:
5. Execution (Doing)
6. Influence (Selling)
7. Relating (Relationships)
8. Reviewing (Feedback)
As we will see, these action skills are also key to strategic foresight practice, as they are the way we tie our foresight work to successful, adaptive action.
Let me now you ask a few questions. Feel free to write out your brief responses to them:
Do any of these three processes (foresight types) seem less important to you than the others?
Are you less willing to use, or less skilled, in practicing any of them for yourself? In your organization?
If you recognize that one or more of these process is a current “weak area” for you, do you have a plan for how to improve it?
How will you know when you are using each of these skills appropriately in any context, for yourself and on your teams?
Fortunately, society has experts in all three of our primary foresight types today. Unfortunately, each individual rarely gets an education that requires them to understand the work of these experts, and to build a strong competency in all three foresight types. Probability thinking is particularly poorly taught in our modern institutions.
Seventy years ago, in the 1950s’ it was possibility thinking that was particularly poorly taught in our schools and universities. Our physicists and engineers assumed, incorrectly, that all of the world was technically predictable. Today, we’ve swung much too far to the opposite pole. We think all the world is a random system, and ignore the systemic predictability of many societal processes. We also fail to count them and teach historical trends, and to learn the conditions under which trends predictably end, or bend.
Again, ensuring that we have a strong natural ability to think and act in each of the Three Ps, and ideas, intuition and models for how to balance them, and when to shift from using one to the other, is not explicitly found in any educational program today (other than 4Us). Models for how to use and balance these are of course far more an art (set of intuitions, arguments, and philosophies) than a science today. Nevertheless, we must make or best efforts, based on where we are. Today, we are all still pioneers in Three P’s thinking and application, even though Alvin Toffler introduced this model to us almost fifty years ago.
To that end, this section will introduce some key personal practice challenges, that we all commonly face as we develop foresight for ourselves, our teams, and our clients. In Chapter 12 (Visions and Challenges) we’ll introduce some key community practice challenges as well. Those are challenges that our profession faces as it seeks to raise its visibility with our clients.
Think of these eight as a starter set of particularly important personal challenges in applying the Three Ps, or more accurately, the Four Ps (including the learning step), at least in Western industrialized and democratic societies like America, where I mostly practice. Other societies will surely have a different starter set of commonly faced problems. If you and your teams are weak in any of these, I think the quality and impact of your foresight work will suffer. In my view, based on fifteen years of professional practice to date, we can be foresight professionals, but not yet foresight leaders until we are aware of and continually working on each of these challenges. They begin as personal challenges, issues we must master for ourselves, but they are also challenges for our teams, organizations, and societies.
Ask yourself how you presently fare with them. Are you engaging them well? Are you neglecting any? Are there any we’ve missed? In life, there’s a saying that half the battle is figuring out the right questions to ask, and the right fights to be engaged in. These are a starter set of the right fights, in my view. As you read these, remember that foresight is too important an activity, for ourselves and our societies, to delegate entirely to others. Experts and specialists can be of great help, but foresight practice belongs to all of us.
Foresight is a way of feeling, thinking, and acting toward the future that every one of us deserves to get much better at, so we can greatly improve our ability to make a better world. In a world of increasing specialization, some things always remain our individual responsibilities, if we wish to remain successful in a complex, accelerating world. Adaptive foresight, and specifically the Three Ps, are among those things.
Some Unfortunate Trends in Three P’s Practice
Over the last thirty years, many of our leading communities of self-declared futurists and foresight practitioners have slowly but increasingly drifted away from doing probabilistic foresight work. At the same time, ever more groups of forecasters, planners, intelligence professionals, risk managers, economists, investors, scientists, and many others have taken the lead in anticipating various aspects of the future in probabilistic terms. Many of these groups don’t currently consider themselves part of the global foresight community, even though the Three P’s model makes it clear that they are doing essential foresight work. That is an unfortunate trend, and it is the subject of our first three challenge sections, Valuing Probabilistic Foresight, Being Quantitative and Scientific, and Seeing Hard and Soft Trends.
At the same time, a number of self-declared futurists and foresight practitioners have also turned away from doing preference (aka normative) foresight, abdicating such work to groups like social critics, philosophers, policymakers, and politicians. A surprising number of modern foresight professionals are reluctant to bring their own values and judgments into foresight work, instead preferring to leave such processes to their client alone. This is another unfortunate trend, one we will discuss in the practice challenge sections Making Critical Judgments, Sorting Weeble and Other Stories, and Creating Progress Stories (motivating, broadly-accepted visions).
A few modern futurists and foresighters see their work exclusively as possibility foresight, in the same realm occupied by science fiction authors, entertainers, and artists. That is another unfortunate trend. Our field has developed a number of useful tools in this space, including scenarios and cross impact analysis. But other than our discussion on better seeing soft trends (which partly depends on possibility foresight) we won’t discuss anything else in this type as a common practice challenge. Most foresight professionals are already too focused on this type of foresight for their own good. It’s time for us to put our attention back on the other two practice types, and restore the balance.
Still others practitioners see their main work as keeping track of and making sense of new events, which is also the role of intelligence communities. In recent years, the faster change goes, we’ve seen more organizations hiring “futurists” specifically to keep track of new change (horizon scanning and weak signals analysis). That may now be the most common job description for an organizational futurist. When this analytical work includes probability and preference foresight, it is Three P’s balanced, but very often it doesn’t. It can simply be novelty finding and trend hunting, a small, possibility-oriented subset of practice that is just one of the many benefits that strategic foresight can offer to organizations,
It is excellent that there are many flavors of futurist and foresight professional We each must choose specialties of practice, and we each have our natural preferences for practice. But don’t let the specializations of any futurist, or of any group of foresight professionals, convince you that they represent the whole of our field. They don’t. It is Three P’s foresight work that makes us adaptive, and that is a much broader and more balanced practice than any of these particular flavors of futurism and foresight practice.
We’ll close this section with a discussion of two general practice challenges, Maintaining Intelligent Optimism and Building Strong Relationships, that are often difficult for modern foresight professionals, and yet are key to effective practice. We’ll cover more personal practice challenges in Chapter 2 (Personal Foresight) and in more personal and community practice challenges in Chapter 12 (Visions and Challenges), when we conclude the Guide with a review of common practice biases, mistakes, and problematic social roles. Let’s turn now to our starter set.