Avoid These Common Mistakes in Your Foresight Practice
We asked three of IFTF’s senior staff members: “What's a common mistake you see from rookie foresight practitioners?”
One critical mistake made by rookie practitioners is what I call the ‘show me the numbers’ syndrome, or seeking out definitive quantitative data.
Historical trends, quantitatively measured, are critical to forecasting the future. The growth of metric tons of carbon in the atmosphere warns us of accelerating risks from climate change. A global drop in government transparency scores presages a growth in political corruption. But quantitative trends tell us only half of the future story.
They don’t anticipate the impacts of right-now innovation, of fundamental shifts in the way people are just now, today, beginning to think and act.
We have two main strategies for uncovering these innovations and forecasting their impact over the next decade: signal scanning and ethnographic foresight. Both of these methods reveal small, early shifts that are difficult to quantify—even as our policy makers and foresight clients demand that we 'show them the numbers.'
The response to these demands is to point to the studies of diffusion of innovation, especially Everett Rogers's studies of adoption of new technologies. Rogers identified five successive groups of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. We can use signals and ethnographic interviews to discover what innovators and early adopters are up to and answer the question: What does the next decade look like if these lead actors become early or late majorities?
To answer this question, we don’t look for the biggest, most obvious signals. We look for small signals with potentially big impacts as they scale. We don’t look for representative samples of people to interview. Instead we talk to the lead actors who are inventing new solutions, joining new movements, or suffering disproportionately, for example, from a new pandemic virus like COVID-19. These signals and actors help us understand the underlying drivers, the deeply personal desires, and the unanticipated ways people are inventing their own futures. This understanding, in turns, helps us form broad hypotheses about the future.
Ultimately, all forecasts are hypotheses about the future. We can eventually use focus groups and representative survey samples and trends tracking to gather quantitative assessments of these hypotheses. But if we don’t start with the qualitative research, focused on lead actors, we’ll likely miss the big, world-changing hypotheses.
A common mistake with new practitioners is the dismissal of external factors as being irrelevant to their mission.
Annie Duke's wonderful new book How to Decide has a lot of useful tools. I think one of the more valuable tools for foresight practitioners, and one that illustrates a key challenge for beginners in foresight, is her use of backcasting. For any goal you might want to work your way back from, she asks you to identify what, within your control, could make you more likely to succeed. She also asks you to identify what, in your external environment, might cause you to succeed (or fail).
Duke is a former professional poker player so she describes these external factors as luck—because, in her world, a hand with a 95 percent chance of winning still loses sometimes, and getting better requires an ability to accept that sometimes you're the victim of bad luck or the beneficiary of good fortune.
But the real world isn't poker—and the external factors that shape our lives aren't pure luck. Foresight provides a way to think systematically about these external factors and turn them from luck into something that, while we still can't control, we can at least influence, work with, and hopefully take advantage of.
I've seen this distinction challenge a lot of people who are new to foresight, for a variety of different reasons. A lot of new practitioners hope that foresight will provide better tools to manage what we can already control—essentially project management tools to create more precision and certainty over a longer horizon. Or they come with a mission in mind—and are so committed to that mission that analyzing the external factors in the environment almost seems like a distraction from pursuing their goals.
The shift that new practitioners struggle with is this: Foresight can help with longer-term project management, pursuing a mission, and other long-term goals. But it does so by helping us look outside of ourselves and better understand the influences that we don't pay attention to but that are critical to shaping our long-term outcomes.
A common mistake is thinking that you need to know it all in order to create productive visions of the future. Foresight is less about getting it exactly right and more about asking good questions and considering alternative possibilities. Just the act of asking these questions, of questioning why you have the assumptions you have, and seeking out alternative points of view will help move you and your own point of view forward.
Also, a lot of people think that you’re supposed to “get it right” in the first go round and that they should be able to craft a great forecast on their own. WRONG. So, so wrong. Good foresight is a collective act. It’s testing ideas. It’s throwing something out there (based on drivers and signals of change) and starting a conversation. The final deliverables and outputs you find on IFTF’s website, in an IFTF presentation, or in an IFTF training—these have gone through a LOT of thought. Many, many revisions. Butting heads and tweaking angles. And it may well have started as something completely different to where it eventually landed. So please, don’t be trapped by the idea of needing to “get it right” before you share an idea or expecting others to “get it right” on their own. Just jump in!
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