CONSULT UNUSUAL SOURCES, PEOPLE, AND PLACES–INCLUDING OUTLIERS, COMPLAINERS, AND TROUBLEMAKERS

One important function of strategic foresight is the opening of the future. The inclusion of different perspectives is one way to assure this opening. Analysts should look for competent people inside and outside who bring a different way of thinking to the table.

Key steps

The selection of these participants should be done with care. Not every unusual or non-obvious individual qualifies. In the first place, they should be selected based on their authority in a particular domain. They should not bring “just another perspective,” but a well-studied and well-articulated different view. The other participants should feel challenged by the ideas they bring in. This sense of challenge can result either from a deeper view of closely related subjects or from a subject that functions by analogy.

The world of business and decision-making favors the rational and bottom-line approach to gathering information. Prusak ( 1998 ) suggests that the higher up in the organization a presentation goes, the blander it becomes. Consulting unusual sources is a way to refresh the information flow by tapping into edgy or offbeat sources that challenge prevailing norms. In fact, many of today’s norms were yesterday’s novel and unusual ideas. The kinds of sources and approaches to look for and identify include:
• Sources at the edge of the organization–Find those in the organization who may be cynical or complaining, but have tried something different, and talk to them to see what they are thinking, reading, and doing.
• Sources outside the organization–Interview young people. Meet with teachers, designers, artists, economists, movers and shakers of the broader society. For example, observing and interviewing tribal elders has been used as a means of raising public interest in traditional storytelling.
• Sources inside and outside the industry–Interview leaders, regulators, politicians, activists, etc., and understand their motivations. Ask them who is doing the thinking at the leading edge.

The approaches for this activity will vary according to the analyst’s ability and willingness to invest time in it. One can go onsite and observe, interview, and then collate the learned insights into a meaningful output. It is helpful to have a partner to make sure all the insights are captured. It is not always easy to consult the outliers–they are typically in that position because they are not easy to deal with. Analysts may need to employ tact and diplomacy if they are to gain anything useful from these encounters.

Benefits

Much as yesterday’s fringe becomes tomorrow’s mainstream, an organization’s edge may someday become its center. Some industries, such telecommunications, transport, and retail, have gone through a dusk-and-dawn shift in the past ten years and are seeing their edges become mainstream while the tried-and-true formulas of the past crumble. Companies including Nokia, Sony, and Casio are redefining themselves and coming up with whole new ways of viewing the role of the industry in our everyday lives. They have incorporated their “edge” into their strategic and tactical behaviors.

Example

The World Water Vision exercise ( Cosgrove, 1998 ) is an example of a global strategic foresight program (1998 – 2000) that used outsiders’ perspectives to show the importance of using a wide scope to understand the world’s water challenges. To initiate several sub-exercises, expert panels were devised blending water and non-water experts. The panels discussed potential institutional shifts and developments in ICT, biotechnology, and energy–four topics very rarely considered among water professionals.

The panels were organized early in the process on a temporary basis of one or two days each. Their output, four small reports highlighting some major ideas, was fed into the overall exercise in order to serve two objectives. On the one hand, the reports made clear the relevance of the four non-water topics for water professionals. On the other, they showed the relevance of a long-term perspective, by elaborating future possibilities and potential long-term developments. As such, they helped to overcome initial skepticism about the value of using remarkable persons and strategic foresight to expand and extend the debate.

Further reading

Collins, J. and Porras, J. (1997). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: Harper Business.
Cosgrove, W.J. and Rijsberman, F.R. (2000) World Water Vision: Making Water Everybody’s Business. London: Earthscan/James & James.
Kleiner, A. (1996). The Age of Heretics. New York: Currency Doubleday.
Marsh, N., McAllum, M. and Purcell, D. (2002). Strategic Foresight: The Power of Standing in the Future. Melbourne: Crown Content.
Prusak, L., ed. (1997). Knowledge in Organizations. St. Louis, MO: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Steinbock, D. (2001). The Nokia Revolution: Success Factors of an Extraordinary Company. New York: AMACOM.

This vignette [1 of 6 I wrote] first appeared in “Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight”, edited by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, published in 2006

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