Sixteen years ago, Rene Rohrbeck was working as a technology strategist. His manager asked him to identify the important forces transforming their industry — and not just technology trends. Realizing this was a project that would benefit from a wide variety of perspectives, he reached out to colleagues in corporate strategy, acquisition, and R&D. They didn’t have the answers, so he sought out colleagues at other companies with the same query. Again, no answers. Ultimately, he learned that corporate teams tasked to consider mid- and long-term forecasts were the most responsive of the people he interviewed. But even so, they were not proactive. Thus began Rene’s journey into studying how corporations made decisions about the future and what organizations with long-term success had in common, which is an integrated, continual practice of perceiving change, translating change into insight, and acting accordingly.

At IFTF’s March 12, 2020 IFTF Foresight Talks webinar, director of IFTF Vantage research Bradley Kreit interviewed Rene about his insights into what makes a successful, foresightful organization. The whole webinar is well worth a listen, but here are a few highlights from the talk:

Key decision makers must participate in the foresight process

Rohrbeck’s research shows that on average, top management teams spend only 3% of their time looking ahead. Many organizations have futurists come in, bring new signals and insight, and “open their horizons.” But after the foresight consultants leave, leaders rarely make time to fully digest and apply what’s been given to them before they’re back to business as usual. Rohrbeck emphasizes the importance of incorporating organizational knowledge and employees’ experiences into the foresight process. An organization and its people have just as much to contribute to the foresight process as foresight tools and methods.

“With foresight we not only challenge the knowledge about a market, an industry, we challenge the way we internally take decisions, make strategy, [and] prioritize our innovation spending...”

Make foresight tangible

Top management is often wary of futures thinking because it seems too abstract. That’s why it’s important to make foresight tangible, and therefore actionable. Rohrbeck noted that companies like Bosch have long used future scenarios as a kind of “mental common ground.” If the company has a decision immediately in front of them, like whether to build a new factory, it uses scenarios to assess potential risks.

Tie foresight to real, near-term decisions

For newcomers to foresight, Rohrbeck suggests looking for imminent decisions where there’s already lots of interest, such as new investments or betting on the next big tech. Start where you will have direct, concrete impact.

Embed foresight into the organization

Simply using foresight does not guarantee success. “Institutionalization” is about changing daily mindsets and habits — you can’t develop foresight entirely through one-off, ad hoc projects. Rohrbeck’s research uncovered three key practices of foresightful organizations:

  1. Perceiving: Detect changes by identifying signals of change and trends, looking everywhere from sales channels to suppliers
  2. Prospecting: Make sense of those changes; start translating, discussing, and internalizing signals as an organization,
  3. Probing: Act on insights gained by prospecting, mainly through experimentation.
“A lot of value can be destroyed if you’re not prepared for what’s coming your way.”

Rorhbeck notes that nine out of ten foresight projects do not reach their full potential because people don’t fully understand how to leverage them beyond the first decision they’re tasked with.

For more, check out Rohrbeck’s white paper, "Making Organizations Fit to Drive Desirable Futures", demonstrating the link between a firm’s future preparedness and its financial performance. You can also watch the webinar recording to see IFTF’s entire conversation with Rene Rohrbeck.

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