While thinking about the future may sound like a nebulous process, there is no shortage of tools available to assist. The most valuable will help bring to the fore new and surprising perspectives, and reveal a more balanced and accurate picture of the present as well as lead to new significant insights about the future.
As you may know, Institute for the Future (IFTF) structures the foresight process around the Prepare – Foresight – Insight – Action cycle with four distinct phases:
IFTF offers several tools for each step of the process that will help you think about the future in a more systematic way. But, given the large number of tools available, how does one pick the right tools to use?
There is no single right or wrong answer, but here is some criteria that may help in making a tool selection.
Criteria for Choosing a Tool
“Which tools to use?” is one of those annoying questions where the only right answer is an unhelpful “it depends.” Luckily, we can dig a little deeper, and consider some key guiding questions:
What are you trying to achieve? It should be obvious, but it often isn’t. Different tools are good for different things. Some tools are more useful for creating a shared sense of future or even present reality; others are good for opening minds to different perspectives in general; yet others are more granular in their style and can yield more action-oriented outcomes.
For example, Orient to the Future is a simple, quick tool that will help develop a shared view of the inherent diversity of any group and build understanding of different perspectives. Look Back to Look Forward is useful for putting things into historical perspective and can, depending on the issue, powerfully illustrate how fast or how slow some changes happen.
What are the customer and team preferences? As with any work, it pays to know both your audience and the people involved in the project. Some audiences are more comfortable with the kind of out-of-the-box thinking often required by foresight work; others can be more constrained in their thinking initially. Knowing both your team and your customer allows you to, for example, start with ‘lighter’ tools that are easier to grasp, and then progress onto more challenging ones.
For example, many strategy organizations are comfortable with scenarios. Working with them, using either the IFTF tool of Envision Alternative Futures or the more involved Oxford Scenario Planning Approach can provide a comfortable starting point into foresight work.
How much time do you have? Available time is a critically important factor to consider. Some foresight tools, like Orient to the Future and Flip the Future (also known as 100 Ways Anything Could Be Different in the Future), can yield useful insights in as little as 15 to 30 minutes; some others will need a minimum of several hours to employ usefully. It is worth mapping out the available time and not rushing through things; picking fewer tools but going through them in a calm, contemplating fashion is more valuable than trying to pack too much into the available hours or days.
Some tools are also quite flexible in terms of their time requirements. For example, Create Artifacts from the Future can be done in an hour and produce tangible outcomes, but making a high-quality physical artifact envisioned in the exercise can take days or even weeks.
What works well together? It often pays to look at the tools not just in isolation, but in combination. Different stages of the foresight process will need different tools, and some of these tools work better together than others. Some tools may yield an output that naturally flows as an input into the next phase; such tools work well paired up.
For example, the IFTF tool Map Cross-Impacts usually requires drivers as a starting point, so should be preceded by the use of the Identify Drivers of Change tool. On the other hand, if your intention is to specifically identify new opportunities, using tools like Draw Out Consequences, also known as the Futures Wheel, and Ride Two Curves can be a powerful combination.
Embedding Tools into Your Organization
There are some tools, particularly those relating to signal scanning and identifying drivers or trends, that work best as continuous activities rather than just a singular workshop activity.
While it is often necessary to use these tools in a workshop setting as well, for organizations more mature in their foresight journey, these activities must be embedded into the organization as a broadly available, default “business as usual”-activity that over time builds into a database of readily usable drivers and signals. (Here are some practical tips for searching for signals.) To get the best benefit out of these tools, they need to be mainstreamed into the organizational structure or processes as part of the role of a foresight practitioner or a community of practice.
IFTF’s continually developing collection of foresight tools is a practical, coherent collection of resources covering the entire foresight journey. It is, however, not the only game in town. Stanford University, for example, provides a playbook of foresight tools, as does the United Nations Development Programme. I would encourage you to have a quick look at what’s available and discover what sparks your interest.
Don't Forget to Have Fun!
Finally, don’t forget to have fun! If you don’t like a particular tool, pick something else.
Particularly in an interactive group setting, there is nothing worse than a project lead or a facilitator who doesn’t believe or enjoy using his or her own toolkit! While foresight projects are challenging by nature, they are not supposed to be drudgery – they are supposed to be fun and provocative and make you think.
*Key of IFTF Tools Mentioned
Orient to the Future
Get a group of people into a futures mindset by physically orienting your bodies to future possibilities
A clear sense of different participants’ attitudes and assumptions about the future
Look Back to Look Forward
Bring historical context to your foresight
A timeline looking at least twice as far back as you are looking forward, with a sense of how change cycles and builds
Identify Drivers of Change
Frame foresight research in the context of many kinds of change—social and technological, economic and environmental, political and cultural
A set of drivers you can use to guide signal gathering and build forecasts
Flip the Future
Wake up your imagination with upside down worlds
A list of flipped facts and how they could be true
Draw Out Consequences
Develop a clear sense of implications of signals, forecasts, or scenarios
Wheels of cause-and-effect that reveal patterns and long-term futures
Envision Alternative Futures
Ensure your foresight accounts for the wild variation that history demonstrates is feasible
Alternative futures scenarios describing a range of possibilities
Create Artifacts from the Future
Move toward designing new products and experiences, or simply create a striking visual representation of a future
Images or prototypes of scenes, objects, and situations that may arise in the future
Ride Two Curves
Map what’s declining and what’s emerging—side by side
Strategies to scale the second curve at the right pace
Create a shared understanding of how foresight impacts an organization, community, or industry
A map of impacts and intersections between future change and present-day structures
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