Canadian academic and thought leader Henry Mintzberg, in a 1994 article published on the Harvard Business Review, defined the differences between strategic planning and strategic thinking in a powerful, well-known statement:
“Strategic planning isn’t strategic thinking. One is analysis, and the other is synthesis.”
In perspective, Mintzberg proposes a notion of strategy based on intuition and creativity, complementary to the then fashionable notion of strategy as planning. While his definition was often disregarded, in this era and age, where change is unpredictable and rapid, creativity and intuition are becoming the dominant logic of the strategic process, which is far less analytical. But this differentiation is important because it also allows for an understanding of the rising importance of foresight in management.
Foresight as an exploration of possible vectors and options is part of strategic thinking: it allows for a more intuitive, disruptive and scenario-based “what-if” analysis. As a matter of facts the foresight process provides tools to answer three fundamental questions:
1. What seems to be happening? An attempt to identify the critical relevant vectors, through trend analysis, cross-impact matrices, and similar analytical techniques.
2. What is really happening? It builds on interpreting the data set from the previous step, de-cluttering the data to identify real vectors. A typical technique used to answer this question is system thinking.
3. What might happen? This question deals with developing the types of future that are the focus of the analysis.
The above framework is also based on an important distinction between foresight and planning. While in planning we tend to make a hypothesis on the base of best, most likely and worst case scenarios, in foresight one deals with an array of future scenarios, which are the result of a combination of creative and cognitive processes. In foresight, the typical futures that are considered, include:
• Possible Future – including all future scenarios that might happen, independently of how likely they are to happen. In this set, we have futures built around knowledge, which is not yet readily available: wormholes might be key to time travel, and while they are theoretically possible – and consistent with the general theory of relativity – we have not proven yet their practical existence.
• Plausible Future – encompassing all futures that could Those are future scenarios based on the current knowledge as opposed to future knowledge. So for example, those are scenarios based on the current level of development of Artificial Intelligence and not an AI with synthesis ability and near a singularity point.
• Probable Future – including only futures, which are likely to happen, based on current trends.
• Business as usual – the future scenarios based on the current present
• Preferable Future – referring to a set of futures, which are probable or plausible yet preferred, so they belong to an emotional domain, not necessarily to a cognitive one.
Wildcards and Black Swans are usually low probability scenarios, which are either Possible, Plausible of Probable. Nevertheless, they are high impact scenarios, also known as boundary-spanning futures.
In conclusion, thinking creatively about the future is a critical step in preparing any strategic exercise. Especially when landscape changes are creating more and more hyper-turbulence: in those cases, the foresight process helps to distinguish what we think is happening, from what is really happening, and how those vectors might be shaping the landscape in which we are operating.