> Essays > Leadership > Libraries | Public Health | Universities | Policy

Dr. Wendy L. Schultz, Infinite Futures (copyright © 1997)
Workshop presented at the request and with the assistance of Ayesha Dost (NHS), 10 November 1997

Part of the King's Fund European Symposium, "Health Futures: Tools to Create Tomorrow's Health System,"
London, 10-11 November 1997

The Foresight Fan: Systemic Approaches to Foresight


Welcome to the workshop on systemic approaches to foresight. Many of the workshops available to you during the two days of this conference focus on one foresight technique, walking you through specific steps and example applications.

This workshop will, we hope, help you apply the various foresight techniques as they should be applied: not singly, but in concert. Foresight requires futures-focussed thinking: a worldview which consistently looks at the long-range options, that considers alternative possible futures which may confront our goals, and that helps to articulate goals within the framework of a vision which describes the future we most want to create. The futures-focussed worldview sees past, present, and our possible futures as created by interlocking systems. What we have prepared for your use today is a mnemonic device that helps you consider your critical decisions in the context of those interlocking systems, using a systemic foresight approach.

My name is Wendy Schultz, and I am currently a visiting Professor with the Master's program in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston - Clear Lake; prior to that, I spent fifteen years working with the Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies.

Our agenda for the next two hours is fairly simple: participant introductions; followed by about forty-five minutes of presentation, in which Ayesha and I will discuss the "Foresight Fan," and how it can help you design your foresight approach and use appropriate methods; after which, we will break up into small working groups, which will work for forty minutes or so to create a foresight project for a critical issue using the "Foresight Fan;" ending with about twenty to thirty minutes for reporting back and questions.

First, introductions -- we would like to get to know who you are, by spending a few minutes having each of you introduce yourselves briefly. Tell us your name, your organizational affiliation, and -- in one sentence! -- the critical question to which you would most like to apply foresight.

Thank you.

The Foresight Fan

We want to focus on two sets of systems in this presentation: the set of systems that make up the internal and external environments in which we work and plan, and the set of method systems that make up foresight.

When we are teaching futures research and foresight, we first emphasise the concept of alternative futures: the idea that "the future" cannot be predicted, but alternative futures may be imagined, explored, and assessed for plausibility and probability. These alternative futures arise out of the trends of change and emerging issues we can observe in the present; we can explore them by extrapolating the extent of their growth as well as their potential impacts on various systems in the macroenvironment.

Foresight thus begins with the identification -- and monitoring! -- of trends of change and emerging issues. Insuring that we are considering all possible sources of change requires a "360-degree view:" we must consider changes insocietal and individual systems; in ourtechnological systems; in oureconomic systems; in theenvironmental and natural systems; and in political and regulatory systems.

Changes in each of these systems in the macro environment will affect the local working environment of your profession, the internal environment of your organization, and any decisions and actions you take with regard to your critical issue.

The figure above graphically portrays how the impacts of trends and emerging issues in various systems move inward to structure the opportunities and constraints affecting the critical decision issue.

For effective change management, practitioners today may choose among an array of foresight methods and techniques. These can be loosely grouped according to the five primary activities of foresight and futures thinking:

  • identifying and monitoring change;
  • considering and critiquing the impacts of change;
  • imagining alternative possible futures;
  • visioning preferred futures;
  • planning, team-building, and implementing desired change.

Identifying and monitoring change involves assessment of patterns of change in the past as well as collecting baseline data on current conditions. These efforts provide a context within which you can look for ongoing cycles, trends, or emerging issues of change, such as technological innovations or value shifts or climatological aberrations.

Considering and critiquing the impacts of change means assessing both the effects that cascade from ongoing change throughout our macro environment, and also evaluating what impacts those effects have on us: how will our day-to-day life change? who has been newly advantaged or disadvantaged by the advent of change? what trade-offs might we face as a result of change?

Imagining alternative possible futures follows naturally from the extrapolation of trends and the consideration of the long-term effects and empacts of emerging issues of change. Scenario building and analysis serves two purposes in foresight. One, scenarios of alternative futures allow us to explore possibilities and uncertainties so that we may create contingency plans for the surprises the future might fling our way. Two, exploring alternative possible futures heightens the creativity and flexibility with which we imagine our preferred future: understanding potential alternatives helps us create richer visions.

Visioning preferred futures -- creating models in our minds of the ideal future we would like to create -- is the first step in transformational planning and in leadership. It requires careful explicit articulation of our long-term ideals and goals, and the values that contribute to them. The act of visioning is an excellent start to team building and community building.

Planning, team-building, and implementing desired change requires, first of all, a commitment to act. A corollary is a commitment from the highest levels of the organization to champion actions which contribute to creating the vision, and supporting the team in finding the resources to implement the plan which will create their preferred future.

These five separate activities are interrelated: data and actions flow from one to the next, and they are most effective when performed in concert, progressively, and continuously. Once the team has devised the strategies to create the vision, they must monitor their progress, which in turn means monitoring the changes they are deliberately creating, and monitoring emerging issues of change which might either accelerate or constrain the plans they have made. Thus the five activities link back to create a full circle of foresight activities, an infinite loop.

Furthermore, as practitioners we assume that the more stakeholders you involve in all parts of the process, the more support you will garner for your vision and any actions required by the plan to create it. Thus team building via participatory processes, while mentioned explicitly only in the fifth activity, actually can -- and should -- occur throughout your foresight activities.

An array of research approaches, statistical techniques, and group processes exist to support foresight efforts. Often the difficulty is choosing among them, and applying them, in a coherent and systematic fashion. This workshop sorts a variety of documented tools (see Dost, Foresight in Health, Parts I and II, NHS Executive, Leeds) according to both their placement on a continuum from "hard" quantitative techniques to "softer" qualitative and group process techniques, and to their specific usefulness within each of the five foresight activities. Some of the tools may be useful across several of the foresight activities -- this workshop merely presents an initial roadmap to assist your first foresight projects, with the understanding that as you become more comfortable with foresight in general and these techniques in particular, you will find creative ways to apply them.

Foresight is often called upon with regard to a particular critical issue. Visualising our five key activities with regard to the critical issue-and operating systems map we considered earlier produces the following:

We can now use each "rib" of the foresight fan as a sort category for our research tools and techniques. The axis or pivot point of our foresight fan remains the critical issue or question; next we review the tools available for each foresight activity vis-a-vis the data available and the number of stakeholders we wish to involve in the process; and finally, we allocate our time, staff, and research resources among the methods we have chosen within each foresight activities.

Due to space limitations, this merely exemplifies the basic idea of the foresight fan -- over the next thirty minutes we shall briefly review the different methods available for use within each "rib" or basic foresight activity; compare them and offer some criteria for choosing among them; and finally present three case studies of project design using the fan, one from outside the health field and two from within it.

Mental Models and Skills Required

Foresight -- or futures thinking -- is, first and foremost, a transdisciplinary, systems-science-based approach to considering alternative possible futures and planning to create a preferred future.

The systems perspective is second only to the emphasis on thinking about the future. Changes occur as new properties and possibilities emerge from the complex systems of the natural environment, of society, and of our technologies. Those changes cascade outward to affect other systems; our responses are themselves changes which create answering waves which ripple back through all the systems. Technological innovations, new policies, programs, and regulations, or changed societal values can act as strange attractors triggering emergence of chaotic dynamics within systems. Using systems approaches such as the models provided by studies of punctuated equilibrium, complex systems, and chaotic systems, helps us consider both problems AND prospective policies wholistically.

Also, let us emphasise what might be obvious to some: data-intensive methods require not only statistical sophistication and computer literacy, they are often expensive in terms of staff time as regards data collection and verification. On the other hand, the "soft" methods also have some essential requirements in terms of active listening skills, group process and facilitation skills, and team-building skills. They can be equally expensive in terms of staff and stakeholder time engaged in the ongoing process. In either case, the first true requirement of any successful foresight effort is the presence of a foresight project or process champion at the upper levels of management.

Identifying and Extrapolating Trends of Change

First we must recognize current patterns of change, and anticipate potential change on the horizon. The "hard" tools used in foresight for identifying change all involve statistical techniques for identifying rates of change and patterns of change in data on various sectors of the micro or macro environments.

[Ayesha talks here about Time Series Analysis [II.7], Multivariate Data Analysis [II.17], Life-table Methods [II.18], Data Envelope Analysis [II.39], etc.]

"Softer" techniques are similar to content analysis: trained teams of readers scan a wide variety of news sources for information suggesting shifts in values, lifestyles, and environmental patterns, or new inventions or regulatory regimes or policies. The database created is thus anecdotal rather than statistical, but often depict potential effects and social
impacts more richly than statistics alone could. This technique of looking across a wide variety of disciplines, professions, activities, and news sources for symptoms of change is called "environmental scanning" [II.40]. A particular subset of it is "emerging issues analysis" [II.50] in which scanners search for the beginnings of trends on the fringes of social issues, in scientific theories challenging current paradigms, and other unpopular places.

Two group approaches to scanning include, first, the DELPHI technique [II.49], which polls groups of experts to elicit their opinions as to what the emerging issues of change are, and how quickly they are in fact emerging; and second, QUEST [II.44], which uses "in-house" expertise in the agency, organization, or community involved, asking participants what they think the most critical issues of change are, based on their own knowledge of current events. It uses structured brainstorming to elicit the soft data.

Considering and Critiquing the Impacts of Change

Ethical change management requires considering and critiquing the impacts of change -- evaluating how both unintended and intended changes affect the people, structures, and systems around us. As trend extrapolation, alternative futures, preferred futures, and planned change strategies all imply change, critique must occur as an adjunct to each of the other four critical foresight activities. As might be imagined, several useful approaches to this critical activity begin with a systems science perspective.

[Ayesha talks about Whole Systems Thinking, or SSM & Rich Pictures, or Learning Organizations.]

Other potential approaches include assembling groups of stakeholders and repesentatives of those communities potentially affected, and engaging in Listening Exercises [II.51] to determine how the groups most likely to be affected by change evaluate the impacts of given changes on their lives. If you have established a Learning Organization culture within your agency, organization, or community, listening exercises would simply be part of your ongoing processes.

Another approach to elicit and evaluate potential effects of change is Inayatullah's Causal Layered Analysis [Web], a post-structural approach which deconstructs the language and symbol sets used to describe a given change, working down from the "litany" of cliches commonly used with regard to the critical issue, through the social causes -- including economic, cultural, and political factors -- past the worldview and cultural structures that support the existence of the critical issue, until reaching the deepest symbolic level, of metaphor and myth. This is a formal structuring of the same sort of critiques informally accomplished by viewing change and the critical issue through the lenses of Multiple Ethical and Philosophical Paradigms.

Imagining Alternative Possible Futures

Having identified both current trends of change, and emerging issues which will potentially drive change, and having critiqued their potential impacts, foresight next requires that we extrapolate those trends and emerging issues to create scenarios of alternative possible futures. These scenarios answer the question, "what if?" They help us explore the conditions we might face in the future, the range of opportunities and threats. The various mathematical techniques of extrapolation provide a support that connects the first rib of our foresight fan -- identifying change -- through the second rib to the third rib -- imagining alternative futures.

Qualitatively, many of the simulation models, systems models, and stochastic models provide trend extrapolation output which highlight the boundaries of alternative futures.

[Ayesha discusses models, decision making under uncertainty, and morphological analysis.]

In addition, a variety of tools approach exploration of possible futures through narrative. Scenario Identification [Web] identifies, collects, and content analyzes existent scenarios of alternative futures in the social environment. Scenario Incasting [Web] is a participatory technique which allows groups to extrapolate specific details relevant to an identified critical issue, given an array of more general alternative scenarios.

Several approaches exist to help researchers and work groups build scenarios suitable to their planning needs: the "Serious Futures" approach of DEMOS [Web] assumes exhaustive research into the critical issue's context, and then uses a complex Issues Matrix [II.43] to generate alternative scenarios; the Schwartz-GBN [Web] model maximizes the scenarios' relevance to the issue by limiting the change drivers to those with greatest potential impact on the issue; the Schultz-Manoa [Web] model maximizes the degree of difference from present-day conditions by using at least three trends to stimulate expansive brainstorming; and Causal Layered Analysis maximizes the mythical and metaphorical depth of the scenarios produced via a post-structuralist approach.

But no matter what the approach, the goal is the exploration and critical evaluation of possible conditions that might obtain, across an array of different futures, with regard to the critical issue.

Visioning Preferred Futures

Visioning is the normative aspect of foresight; it is the keystone of planning; it is the heart of leadership. As Clem Bezold puts it, scenarios are futures for the head; visions are futures for the heart. Scenarios answer the question, "what if?" and visions answer the question, "what do we most want?" More specifically, most communities, organizations, companies, or agencies, are asking, "what is the best that we can be?"

Thus all true visioning techniques are qualitative and participatory. Senge points out, in The Fifth Discipline and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook [pp. 312-326] that the level of participation within a company or organization will depend upon the levels of leadership, direction-setting, and learning capacity within the organization as a whole. As those levels increase, a leader may go from "telling" employees the vision ["We've got to do this. It's our vision. Be excited about it, or reconsider your vision for your career here."], to "selling" employees the vision ["We have the best answer. Let's see if we can get you to buy in."], to "testing" the vision with employees ["What excites you about this vision? What doesn't?"], to "consulting" with employees about the vision ["What vision do members recommend that we adopt?"], to "co-creating" the vision, in true learning organizations ["Let's create the future we individually and collectively want."]. This perspective reflects very pragmatically the realities of what you might actually be able to do in your organization.

However, if you think your colleagues are ready to act like a learning organization, a number of workshop approaches exist to co-creating vision. Weisbord and Janoff's Future Search Conferences [II.56 and Web] have proven popular in communities, and have also been widely used in the U.S.A. for corporate visioning and planning. A use warning: Future Search requires that all participants in the process not only be stakeholders, but stakeholders who have an established history with the organization endeavoring to create the vision.

Warren Ziegler's community visioning technique is quite straightforward, has no particular requirements with regard to participants, and is perhaps most notable because Elise Boulding has adapted it to create the "Imaging the Future as a World Without Weapons" Workshop, a three-day visioning process specifically tailored for peace activists. Robert Jungk and Norbert Mullert developed their "Future Workshops" visioning approach specifically for marginalized and disempowered communities which had the desire and energy to create positive change. As it tackles the challenge of choosing practical strategies for communities with practically no resources, it is in many ways the ideal pragmatic approach for any present-day government agency.

All well-designed vision workshops contain several common elements. For example, most contain a catharsis exercise, or statement of worst fears for the future. Second, most approach articulating the vision in stages, perhaps beginning by brainstorming general characteristics of a preferred future. Third, most workshops give participants time to fully articulate their individual visions for the organization, and then merge the individual visions either into common vision themes, or a common vision statement. Finally, almost all end with a "mini-plan," some brainstorming on goals and objectives, allies and stakeholders, and initial strategies.

Fluent Visioning [Web], the approach I developed at the Hawai'i Research Center for Future Studies, contains these common steps to visioning. In addition, it includes three other activities: a review of current trends of change and emerging issues; a brief incasting exercise to explore alternative possible futures; and the specific inclusion of a "past successes" brainstorm to balance the "deepest fears" discussion (Weisbord and Janoff include similar balance by their lists of "proudest prouds" and "sorriest sorries"). We found in our visioning projects that exercising people's imaginations with an exploration of possibilities enriched their resulting vision.

Planning, Team-building, and Implementing Desired Change

Despite the fact that many visioning processes end with backcasting, an initial statement of stakeholders, allies, and resources, and a few suggested strategies, they by no means produce complete, workable plans. That happens afterwards, as a separate but related process. What visioning does do is contribute strongly to the creation of team spirit and a sense of community -- but even this must be nurtured by commitment and reward mechanisms for initiatives undertaken and goals achieved.

[Ayesha discusses Multi-Criteria Decision Making, Soft Systems, Cross-Impact, or Planning 'after' Scanning.]

Strategic Planning as developed by Ching at Hawai'i [Web] takes a compact, participatory approach to vision-centered planning: it explicitly explores emerging change in the external environment; considers changes the organization has experienced internally; allows space for participants to vision a preferred future and articulate a mission statement; reviews strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; identifies strategic issues and points of leverage; lists and prioritizes goals; and develops a detailed action plan for implementation. This participatory planning workshop seems to include a little bit of everything, but in fact focusses on issues of implementation: what, who, when, what resources, what obstacles, and how evaluated.

Monitoring Ongoing Change

Here the foresight process turns in upon itself in an upward spiral: as an organization or community begins the process of planned and intended change, it should monitor its own success in attempting to direct change, and also keep a weather eye open for change sweeping across the horizon. Thus the cycle begins again with the techniques to identify, observe, and track change.

Case Study: State of Hawai'i Office of State Planning

For a non-health-related example of using the foresight fan to design a complete foresight project, let me tell you the story of Hawai'i's state foresight project. First, it wasn't designed: it emerged in increments. Initially, it was an innovative environmental scanning project, involving various state officials as volunteer scanners, who would meet once a month to share scan results, discuss the potential emerging issues, and forward the most significant in a memo to the governor. The governors generally found this interesting, but weren't sure exactly what to do with the information.

So the scanning team came to the Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies and asked what else they could do with their scans. Build scenarios, we replied, for use in an integrated foresight/planning process. So they asked for training in scenario building -- a scenario building process that would let them incorporate consideration of issues strategic to Hawai'i's development, as identified by public commentary and focus groups. By this point they had a pretty good grasp of foresight, and decided that the consideration of possible futures could be followed by a visioning effort that at its best would culminate in benchmarking and goal-setting, as a precursor to actual policy-formulation by the governor.

So we helped them design, facilitate, and document a visioning process, that even included a wide variety of stakeholders from around the state, with some of the people who had been involved in the issues identification focus groups. It was a wonderful day -- exhausting, but productive -- and people left feeling really good about the dialogue in which they had participated.

Why was this an example of how NOT to build a foresight project? At the structural level, because -- despite the fact that they WERE the Office of State Planning -- they were missing a strong objectives identification, strategy formulation, and resource commitment activity. That is, they had failed to design implementation into their foresight project: the fifth rib was empty. Which of course meant the sixth rib never materialized.

Their other over-arching error was the failure to have identified an enthusiastic champion of the process. Many people at the upper levels of state government found the scanning reports interesting, but none thought of them as critical. The death knell was sounded at the last gubernatorial election, with the accession to office of a governor who declared outright that he didn't believe in planning. Needless to say, the Office of State Planning no longer exists as an entity within the Executive of the State of Hawai'i.

[Ayesha offers her case study.]


Think long-range; think in terms of systems; find a process champion; remember that team-building and group process skills are critical to ensure maximum stakeholder participation, which will in turn heighten stakeholder support for any resulting policies. Good luck.

> Essays > Leadership > Libraries | Public Health | Universities | Policy

15 January 2003. Email IF.
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