Every generation portrays itself as living in ‘extraordinary times’ marked by dangers and opportunities. It goes without saying that certain leadership qualities may be more effective than others during such times. This blog on the importance of strategic foresight kicks off a series of blogs dedicated to exploring key competencies and skills needed for leaders to be effective in meeting the challenges and demands of today. These blogs are based on my rich discussions with hundreds of current and past government executives, who join me each week for informative, insightful, and in-depth conversations on The Business of Government Hour.
Overcoming the “Tyranny of the Present”
In a 2011 article for The Business of Government magazine, Power, Security, and Leadership in the 21st Century, I wrote: “Leaders are responsible for envisioning, shaping, and safeguarding the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty.” This is no small feat and made increasingly difficult in the 21st century where rapid, unforeseen change seems to be the only constant. That insight is as true today as it was then and maybe even more so.
Envisioning, shaping, and safeguarding the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty describes strategic foresight. It is about making better and more informed decisions about the future in the present. Foresight prompts forward thinking, but is not about predicting the future. It’s about anticipating likelihoods. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) motto – Semper Paratus – ‘always ready” expresses the underlying importance foresight plays in mission execution. In fact, then USCG Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, USCG (Ret) put a finer point on it when he explained to me on The Business of Government Hour that leaders need to transcend what he called the “tyranny of the present,” looking beyond the annual budget cycles. He admonished leaders to “lift your head up, look over the horizon, and see where you’re going…and anticipate what might happen…”
Strategic Foresight and the U.S. Coast Guard
Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss how the U.S. Coast Guard uses foresight to inform its strategic priorities with Coast Guard Commander Eric Popiel. He is Evergreen Program Manager and the officer assigned to lead the Coast Guard’s Strategic Foresight Initiative. Popiel works within an office charged with looking at emerging and future issues and challenges around the globe that have the potential to impact the Coast Guard’s mission set and operating environment. The Evergreen Program’s mission, according to Popiel is to establish a strategically agile Coast Guard prepared to manage a complex and fast-changing environment. “Our mission is to position the Coast Guard to navigate challenges and harness opportunities by developing the foresight mindset in our workforce, teaching people how to practice disciplined foresight and identifying those long-term trends that will impact the Coast Guard in the future,” explains Popiel.
The critical piece to all of this is that they must inform the key decision-makers and best inform the policy-makers. Identifying strategic challenges early and linking them to future capability gaps which can be linked to budget helps the Coast Guard get ahead of the curve and position the service advantageously. “We are currently working on the Coast Guard Force Planning Construct and formulating ideas and strategies on the future of the Maritime Transportation System in addition to our work on the future of the Arctic and our Cybersecurity strategy,” notes Popiel. The Evergreen Program identified the cyber domain as a strategic imperative and helped prompt senior leadership to convene a task force to write its cyber strategy. Popiel admits the Coast Guard has been going to the poles long before Evergreen existed, but “I think that identifying the region as a strategic imperative based on long-term trends was critical to ensuring that the Coast Guard develop an Arctic Strategy.
The future is unpredictable and unknowable and therefore uncertain. According to Popiel, the Evergreen can expose senior leaders to different futures and allow them to grapple with the challenges that these scenarios present. It helps them to remove themselves from the “tyranny of the present” and operate in a world outside their typical environment. “Thinking about a future ten, twenty, or even thirty years out is by definition over the horizon. I think it exposes them to uncertainty and helps them to formulate answers to some of the “what if” problems these scenarios present,” Popiel explains. This thought process alone is helpful and expands a leaders aperture to not just include what is happening, but what could happen. It allows them to weigh the pros and cons of alternative scenarios, assess different courses of action, and therefore make better investment choices with limited resources.
As my colleague, John Kamensky noted foresight is more than just a process: it is a mindset. A mindset that realizes that the future can be different than the present or the past, but also recognizes that leaders who leverage foresight take seriously the past and the present so to inform the future. Kamensky also provides a cogent description of the current approach to strategic foresight within the U.S. federal government pointing out that individual agencies are taking the lead and working together. Three years ago, foresight professionals from around the federal government began meeting informally to share among themselves their insights and methods. Commander Popiel story illustrates the use of strategic foresight within a single federal agency. He admits that while this is still a grass-roots movement within the U.S. federal government he really thinks it is beginning to attract the attention of higher level leadership in many organizations. “I’m optimistic,” notes Popiel, “that we can continue to make a difference and institutionalize foresight within the federal government.”
Andy Hines and Peter Bishop in their book, Thinking about the Future, identify six critical steps to develop foresight as a competencies. They are:
- Framing looks to clarify what are critical priorities for your agency’s mission and works to avoid focusing on too many issues, or the wrong issues.
- Scanning focuses you to look beyond the horizon to identify the trends that may possibly impact your way forward while they are still on the horizon.
- Forecasting involves scenario planning looking towards the future to serve the present by crafting “what if” scenarios and alternative futures
- Visioning requires developing and committing to a preferred future. Considering the implications suggested by past, present, and alternative futures and making a choice of preferred future and committing to act on it.
- Planning takes serious the inevitable gap between a current state and where you want to be. It enables you to bridge that chasm by developing specific objectives and strategies that get you to that desired end.
- Acting means implementing your plan to realize that desired future. It is pairing up your goals and the present state with strategies, options, tactics, and actions and turning your vision that is informed by foresight into a reality.
Recognizing strategic foresight as a core leadership competencies is critical. As Robert Greenleaf declares foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. Honing this skill may help leaders to:
- Think about the future intelligently
- Grasp the impact of an uncertain future
- Make present decisions aligned with future outcomes
- Enter the future prepared, not surprised