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Learning from the Future Using Strategic Foresight

How to make robust strategy in times of deep uncertainty

Written by: J. Peter Scoblic
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How can we formulate strategy in the face of uncertainty?

That’s the fundamental question leaders must ask as they prepare for the future. And in the midst of a global pandemic, answering it has never felt more urgent.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, rapid technological change, growing economic interdependence, and mounting political instability had conspired to make the future increasingly murky. Uncertainty was so all-encompassing that to fully capture the dimensions of the problem, researchers had devised elaborate acronyms such as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous).

In response, many leaders sought refuge in the more predictable short term—a mechanism for coping with uncertainty that research has shown leaves billions of dollars of earnings on the table and millions of people needlessly unemployed. By the start of 2020, the sense of uncertainty was so pervasive that many executives were doubling down on efficiency at the expense of innovation, favoring the present at the expense of the future.

And then the pandemic hit.

Now the tyranny of the present is supreme. A lot of organizations have had no choice but to focus on surviving immediate threats. (There are no futurists in foxholes.) But many business and political discussions still demand farsightedness. The stakes are high, and decisions that leaders make now may have ramifications for years—or even decades. As they try to manage their way through the crisis, they need a way to link current moves to future outcomes.

So how best to proceed?

Strategic foresight—the history, theory, and practice of which I have spent years researching—offers a way forward. Its aim is not to predict the future but rather to make it possible to imagine multiple futures in creative ways that heighten our ability to sense, shape, and adapt to what happens in the years ahead. Strategic foresight doesn’t help us figure out what to think about the future. It helps us figure out how to think about it.

To be sure, a growing body of research has demonstrated that it is possible to make more-accurate predictions, even in chaotic fields like geopolitics. We should use those techniques to the extent we can. But when predictive tools reach their limits, we need to turn to strategic foresight, which takes the irreducible uncertainty of the future as a starting point. In that distinctive context, it helps leaders make better decisions.

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