Book Review of Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future

Strategic Foresight: Learning form the Future by Patricia Lustig, Triarchy Press (2015), 177pp., £15.00,

Partly because of the recent number of widely unpredicted events, Foresight (and Forecasting) have been subjected to considerable criticism over the past year. This book needs to be widely read especially by those sceptical about the value of the tools and techniques that can improve our thinking about this critical area.

There is no doubt that we can all improve our learning over these issues, and Patricia Lustig provides a readable and relevant guide based on 38 years of experience in organisations from a wide variety of different sectors and organisational size) on how we can all become more effective through greater systematic thinking about the future, as well as exploring the toolkit of a number of different techniques to support this process. In the end, the debate should be about the rigour of our process of thinking about the future, rather than whether or not any particular forecast happens to be correct, although, of course, we are also interested in producing more reliable expectations of the future, as a way to improve the quality of our decision-making today.

The book should help all decision-makers to more effectively shape the future of their organisations. It is about imaging possible futures, assessing the implications, learning from past errors, as well as developing more robust, stress-tested, strategies, as a basis for more effective decision-making. It is always important to recognise that, while change might well be a necessary condition for progress, it is rarely a sufficient condition.

The author rightly argues that using scenarios and other techniques, can help assess trends in the present environment, as well as the impact of relevant weak signals. In addition, there is also the vitally important issue of how to incorporate these views of the future into organisational strategy and organisational decision-making processes – at all levels.

All decision-making involves implicit, or explicit, assumptions about the future. The critical role of the tools and techniques as the vehicle for making this process more explicit, cannot be over-emphasised; this is the way our learning processes can become more effective (p 52/53). Mistakes, or errors, are opportunities for learning about how to do things better in the future. It is this aspect that is often the main area of weakness in many organisations and the book makes an invaluable contribution to improving our processes – if read and used effectively. In these rapidly changing times we all need as much help we can get. Again, as the author (rightly) argues ‘Strategic Foresight can be learned’ but, perhaps, the author could have given even greater emphasis to this critically important dimension, as few organisations manage to undertake it successfully.

It is a minor criticism the learning dimension doesn’t get as much attention as I believe is justified. Although the word Learning is mentioned in the title, it appears the word/topic doesn’t merit sufficient importance to get listed in the index?

The general introduction (rightly) argues that Foresight and Forecasting are NOT predictions, they are (simply?) ways of exploring possible futures – often in areas where it isn’t easy to add meaningful probabilities. (However, as mentioned earlier, anyone involved in the prediction business will do so at their peril if they too are not aware of, and effectively use, the tools and techniques covered in this book.)

The book is well structured into ten chapters, that can be used as a 10 point ‘futures toolbox’. It starts by exploring: ‘What is Strategic Foresight?’ Quoting ForTech: ‘Foresight involves constructively bringing awareness of long-term challenges and opportunities into more immediate decision-making. Foresight can be used as to provide valuable inputs to strategy … as well as to mobilise collective strategic action.’ The approach taken is ‘action-orientated’, ‘open to alternative futures’ and ‘participatory’. The second chapter starts the critical sense-making journey.

Other chapters explore the future ‘as a foreign country’, which includes consideration of the Ladder of Inference (p58) – which need to include reference to the importance of feedback loops at all levels. Chapter 5 covers the use of environmental scanning and the value of the Three Horizon technique, as well as the need to identify the possible implications of Wild Cards. Later chapters cover ‘Mapping and Exploration of the Systems,’ including Future Wheels; together with Systems Thinking, and ‘messes and wicked problems’; Casual Layered Analysis, examination of different paradigms. Chapter 9 discusses the VERGE Framework (p139), as well as the benefits of Appreciate Inquiry. The final Chapter ‘Flexing your Foresight Muscles’, attempts to bring it all together within the organisational decision-making context.

Overall, my enthusiasm for the book is, marginally, qualified by a couple of other points. First there is scope for an additional chapter (section) on why Foresight doesn’t get done effectively in so many organisations.  (i.e.: Arrogance at the top; lack of trust; bureaucratic inertia etc.) This would particularly include more about the organisational problems involved in trying to turn better ‘Futures’ thinking into more effective organisational strategy and decision-making. Secondly, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the (new?) information and there is scope for more attention on ‘mistakes’ to avoid. The questions (p159/60), and exercises (such as the one on p43) are invaluable starting points.

This is a book that needs to be read by all decision-makers in government, education and non-profit organisations, as well as those in business, irrespective of whether they are established multinationals or dot-com start-ups. It is also an ideal framework as a starting-point for a series of 10 lectures on a relevant post-graduate course. Although not the prime market, the book is full of relevant material for individual decision making about our personal lives. The book provides a sound basis for improving the quality of organisational decision-making, and we (organisationally or individually) need all the help we can get.

Dr Bruce Lloyd spent over 20 years in industry and finance before joining the academic world a decade ago to help establish the Management Centre at what is now London South Bank University.  He is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at London South Bank University.