How Failure Generated a No-Fail Foresight System

Understand some of the challenges you face as a foresight practitioner and how the three-part system helps you overcome them.

My Story

I’m standing in front of General Manager Jurien's desk, ready to go back to work. As I turn to the door, Jurien blurts, “Do yourself a favor and go into politics.”

He did not appreciate our discussion on the company’s future. My eyebrows flew up. I remember thinking: what in the world is wrong with swapping ideas on what’s happening around us?”

So, I left not just Jurien’s room but the company altogether and began working as an independent consultant. Although I had no clue about the best method, I took on a strategy development project for a company's top 50 managers.

Not the Best Model

It's the first workshop. The managers can’t seem to fill out the proven Big 5 strategy model. You probably know the model: the one that looks like a Greek temple? With the roof representing the vision and the pillars representing the strategies to get there.

I throw every tactic I know at them, but to no avail.

After the workshop, I send them a copy of that insightful HBR article about marketing myopia. It’s an evergreen article for a reason, but I still get no response.

I’m getting desperate for something that will open their eyes to the changes in their customers’ needs.

Shoot. What am I to do?

Strategy In Action

Workshop two: I take them on a walk in the nearby mall. “Let’s go and see strategy in action,” I say. I have them standing in a corner with a good view of the shopping public. It’s bustling.

One of them points at a store he likes. When I ask why, he says: “Somehow it speaks to me”. The others help analyze what’s good and bad about the store. At the first lapse in their analysis, I quickly interject: “I wonder why nobody stops to get into that store”. And suddenly, the discussion moves from tactics to customer insights, how customers change, and strategy.

The client loved what the mall safari did for strategic insight. And I loved it too, because I saw eyes sparkling from the rush of joint discovery and wanting more. And watching that happen in a team is the best part of my job.

No matter how rewarding the safari was, it was still far from a reliable system for effective foresight.

And then I failed.

Fail, and Fail Again

My next project is to deliver an organization from bankruptcy. I have to either get things moving again or close the doors and do damage control. Accountant Henry shows me how bad it is, but I believe in the organization’s purpose. So, I take a chance with the staff and involve them foresight on my very first day.

After weeks of cleaning up the organization, the economy plummets.

It’s 2008, and Lehman’s has fallen.

Henry tells me that we are mere months away from having to close the doors. We must act now.

I show Henry’s spreadsheets to the team. You know how a burning platform really gets the energy going? That's exactly what happened here. Everyone, critics and fans, jumps in, and we draft a simple, straightforward strategy.

The next morning, we go to work with new determination.

And fail.

The final day is one of cleaning out. The last employee and I drink tea, surrounded by empty cabinets and fat trash bags. The thing that’s burning in our chest isn’t the hot tea.

As usual, I use the evening traffic jam to reflect.

  • Good strategy, check.
  • Involved, committed people, check.
  • Effect on performance … zero.

What was missing?

Here’s what I learned

Fast forward to the summer. I’m sitting at my desk and absently stroke my dog’s ears. The book is gripping, and I underline:

“First, never underestimate the power of inertia.”

Don’t I know it.

“Second, that power can be harnessed.”

Wait, what?


The book’s authors, Thaler and Sunstein, explain how changing the default behavior is the answer to inertia. Make new behavior the easy option, they say.

I click on the new foresight project I’m designing. The dog is forgotten as I rapidly type a new third section titled “New-Normal Practice.”

Six months in and we’re evaluating the project. Especially the evaluation of the effects of the project on the larger organization has my attention. They say:

“Our DNA is to follow and work conscientiously. But the project has taught us to explore and discuss the changes around us. Curiosity and creativity is bubbling up in the entire organization, because everybody wants to know what we did and if they can join!”

Fast-forward a few years and I call the client to catch up. He says:

“We’re still using the bottom-up approach, and we’ve doubled our performance.”

The three goals that changed everything

Ever since my foresight projects have had three goals.

  1. Strategy Safari. First is to deliver sound strategic foresight by designing whatever safari-like experience fits the client.
  2. Inclusion. Second is inclusion: to include a significant share of the stakeholders in the debate for commitment to foresight’s role in decision-making.
  3. Drill. Third is drill practice: to ingrain critical new skills by practicing, explaining, and rewarding new behavior from the start.

The three goals mean that, when the project is done, the organization will have plenty of people who are sensitive to change, committed to the strategy, and strong in execution.

And the Rest is History

Meanwhile, I’ve earned my Ph.D. in managerial foresight. I’ve discovered that you need different types of expertise to see change coming and interpret it correctly.

So now, my experiential design has an academic grounding, has been published in journals like Futures, and has even won the best paper award. I get to research the futures of early-stage technologies and teach foresight masterclasses at various universities.


Which brings me to you

If you want concerns about (the effects of) emerging technologies to stop and your organization to start taking action, book the masterclass for your team.

Before you know it, your organization will be more open to change and finding ways to deal with, and profit from change, and like-minded colleagues will replenish your enthusiasm and energy!