Yesterday it was both my pleasure and privilege to present a Master Class on Foresight for Councils to the Annual Mayoral Leadership Conference in Victoria run by the Victorian Local Governance Association and Leadership Victoria. I say privilege because it was fantastic to see such a committed and enthusiastic group of people determined to maximise their learning and capacity to make a contribution to their communities in what must be one of the hardest but most important jobs in politics. This aligns with one of our principles of being engaged in work that helps others make a contribution to their community so it was a privilege in the strongest sense of the word. Here is a summary of what I presented with some additions based on some of their great questions. The structure of the presentation was to talk about some general principles and then to give the participants a taste of some tools they could use in their council activities. The title of presentation was Avoiding the Unknown Unknowns but from the outset I told them that this was an impossible aspiration. That we can get better at looking at what might surprise us but we will still have to react to surprises and there will always be crises to deal with. Foresight is essentially the process of helping people put together a few more pieces of the puzzle they face while recognising there will always be pieces missing The group as a whole were there to learn to think better about what might be happening in the future, to create new approaches to approaching planning and problem solving, and to look at how to open up their organisations and their communities to what the future might hold. The principles that we discussed around these objectives were: 1/ That we all have innate ability to think about the future. We cannot operate in the real world without that capacity. In such a simple process as crossing the road we have to project ourselves into the future by anticipating how fast cars are travelling and when they will arrive at our crossing point. However our brains evolved at a time when the sorts of threats and challenges we faced as human beings were nothing like the complex issues we face in today’s ever changing world. Our brains evolved in an environment where physical threats and challenges were the main issues and so the improving vision systems and pattern recognition systems that were successful in those environments won out. Our brains have not changed much since those times and so we need concepts and processes to augment the natural way in which our brains work. 2/ That getting people and organisations to think about different possible futures automatically increases the chances of spotting meaningful change. If our minds are already tuned to multiple possibilities we are more likely to see signals of change in the events, encounters, and reports that we see every day. 3/ That the use of as many diverse perspectives as possible in engaging in thinking about the future improves our chances of our organisations finding meaningful signs of change. We all have cognitive biases such as confirmation bias where we actively seek out people and information that confirms our “fantastic” decision making or recency bias where we privilege more recent information (see List of cognitive biases , Top 10 Thinking Traps Exposed — How to Foolproof Your Mind, Part I, or Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions for many more examples). These biases mean that we see the world in a certain way and when talking about future possibilities we favour some forward views of the world, discount some forward views, and downright ignore others. No matter how smart we are these biases affect us and it is very hard to get away from them as an individual. Therefore we need to involve people with diverse backgrounds, ages, training, cultures, etc when looking at what the future might hold because we all look at things a different way depending on those backgrounds. 4/ That context is really important. The decision theorist Gary Klein once said:
“Intuition is the use of patterns you have already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns”
Some of the really good decision makers I have seen in the past were great because they were great users of their intuition. They had built up a large library of problems they had seen and solutions that worked and they were able to pluck those out and apply them. That is the use of patterns you have already learned. It works fantastically well where the problems repeat themselves and we can re-apply solutions that worked. However we live in a world that is getting more complex and uncertain every year and therefore we encounter more and more novel problems as we move forward.The real skill here is differentiating between problems we are familiar with and applying old solutions to them, and recognising what are new problems and creating new solutions for them. One of the underlying skills in foresight is discovering and understanding the underlying patterns that are driving change. One of the practical applications of foresight is using that to create better decision making by understanding context. One of the best ways to look for ways the world might be changing and more new ideas on strategy is to look at other sectors, other cultures, other industries and other organisations. However the real skill is understanding the context in which those changes are happening and being able to apply that understanding to your context, not just blind copying.
5/ That time frames are really important when trying to get your organisation to rethink what the future might look like. One of the lessons that I have learnt in the practical application of foresight is to extend the time frame well beyond the current strategic plan time frame. This may seem fairly basic as we are talking about the future but it is really important. If we move the discussions beyond current plan time frames then it helps get past current embedded positions. The hardest thing to ask people to do is to go through a long strategic planning process and then six months later ask them to rethink what they have done. After people have spent months grappling with the issues, and fighting for their ideas and views to be represented in the plan and have resources allocated to those ideas they will always fight to preserve those entrenched positions. If you can take people 7-10 years in the future we move move partly beyond those problems and have more open discussions. We can then take any strategy ideas generated by that process back into the present to apply them. As a caveat here I am not a fan of these process being thought of as being 20 or 50 years in the future except in very specific cases because the time frames and too long and not relevant to people.
Later in the session I demonstrated our Trend Sheet Conversation process that utilises different perspectives in an organisation to discuss and prioritise trends and the impact they may have on the organisation. During that process I cautioned the group on being over reliant on trends. All trends are historical in nature as they are based on evidence of what has already happened. All trends change or break at some stage so creating pictures of the future that is reliant solely on project existing trends is a very risky process. To highlight that point I displayed the following picture of total vehicle miles traveled predictions from the US Department of Transport :
It appears that the projections ignored changes in what was really happening on the ground and continued to project previous growth trends into the future despite evidence to the contrary. This is a major issue if national road planning and spending is based on the projections. The post I have linked to above describes the process in more detail. One of the Mayors then asked a really good question which was how do you deal with this issue if trend projections are being presented to you by council officers or outside experts. This is part of a broader question of how elected councillors question and probe information that is presented to them by experts. My answer was in four parts: Firstly the experts need to be probed on the underlying components of the forecasts. What is driving the assumptions. A key approach here is to break down the numbers into their components. In the case above questions like what are younger drivers doing? what are the effects of increasing urbanisation on miles traveled? If those answers are not forthcoming then the understanding and expertise of the expert has to be called into question. People who really know their stuff will revel in good questions being asked. Secondly ask a series of “what if” questions. This can be phrased by stating something like “lets assume that is the most likely scenario but what happens if the trends change? This can be particularly useful if again the trends are broken down into their component parts. For example “what if young drivers change behaviour?’ or “what if urban densification in our area accelerates?”, or “what if petrol prices fall?” or “what if the demographic mix in our area changes?’This can be particularly useful in identifying risks that are present if the trend breaks or changes Thirdly create a single scenario that details all the things that must remain the same for the trend to remain unbroken. This is very similar to the first process above but can be done in much more creative and story-telling ways that may work better for communication. Fourthly studies show that experts can actually be the worst people for spotting changes in patterns and trends because they are so tied into the existing ways of thinking. Therefore bring alternative outside perspectives into the process of thinking about the trends. This is always useful. I wish the group luck in their leadership roles in their communities in the next year,. I continue to be inspired that there are great people willing to put up their hands and put in the hard work that our communities need Paul Higgins You can see the presentation at Embracing Uncertainty – Mayoral Conference Masterclass Jan 2015 A second blog post : Councils and Foresight – Critical Differences is now available If you want to see more of our work please go to Emergent Futures