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How to use strategic foresight to stay ahead of the curve

May 9, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is strategic foresight? 

4 benefits of strategic foresight

Strategic foresight vs. strategic planning

How to use strategic foresight to stay competitive

We live in a fast-changing world. 

Often, it feels like rapid change. Unplanned. And perhaps, even chaotic. Now more than ever, the social, political, and economic environments shape organizational responses.

Think of all our world has experienced in just the past two years. A global pandemic, social and political unrest, war, the rise of remote work, grief, loss, uncertainty, and more. 

And while it may feel like so many circumstances and events are out of your control, it’s possible to build future-mindedness. It’s possible to be strategic. And it’s possible that your organization can navigate uncertainty with confidence. That’s where strategic foresight comes into play. 

In fact, according to our research, adopting a future-minded mindset works. Future-minded leaders who practice pragmatism and optimism and envision future events have higher-performing teams. Combine future-minded leaders with strategic foresight. The result? Your business — and people — come out on top.

In this article, you’ll learn about strategic foresight. You’ll also learn why strategic foresight is beneficial to your organization — and how to use it to keep a step ahead. 

What is strategic foresight? 

First, let’s define what strategic foresight means. 

When we think about what strategic foresight means, it’s about iterative exploration. An organization can assess, shape, and adapt to what happens in the world around us.

Strategic foresight is also called future studies. It’s a foresight process that adopts a futures thinking that looks at possible futures and scenario planning. Futurists are often able to think through alternative futures.

At BetterUp, we like to think future-mindedness and strategic foresight go hand-in-hand. It’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts. For an organization to practice strategic foresight, its leaders need to be future-minded. 

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What strategic foresight is not

If you’re looking for a magic crystal ball into the future, let’s take a pause. Strategic foresight does not predict the future. It’s essential to understand what strategic foresight isn’t, especially as you plan for your organizational performance.  

It’s not definitive. It’s not set in stone. It’s not bound to a specific result or desired outcome. Strategic foresight should be treated as a living, breathing organism. It’s a malleable, evolving, and iterative strategic process. 

And strategic foresight alone won’t help to plan strategically. If you think about strategic foresight as a whole pie, there are ingredients needed to plan holistically. We’ll talk about the differences between strategic foresight and strategic planning later. 

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4 benefits of strategic foresight

So, you might be wondering why it’s important to use strategic foresight for your organization. On its face, strategic foresight can seem nebulous. Does it actually work? What’s the point of strategic foresight? What are the benefits? 

We’ve compiled four benefits of strategic foresight to consider. 

  • It can help your company become more resilient to external environmental factors. We know from our data that future-minded leaders produce more resilient teams. So, when crises like the COVID-19 pandemic erupt, it’s important to make sure your teams are well-equipped to weather the highs and lows of life.

    Through practicing strategic foresight, leaders consider what worse-case scenarios the organization may face. For example, let’s say the global economy is on the cusp of an economic downturn. With strategic foresight, business leaders will have pulled a number of levers. From workforce management to resource planning, it’s important to think ahead. 
  • It makes your organization more competitive. Strategic foresight can help to strengthen your organization’s competitive advantage. If your organization can think through potential pitfalls that may come ahead and plan, you’ll be better positioned for success. 
  • It can improve the employee experience (and employee satisfaction). When things don’t go well for business, things often don’t go well for employees, either. If an environmental event or circumstance impacts your business, it’s likely to negatively impact your employees.

    In order to deliver a remarkable employee experience, companies need to adopt strategic foresight. The employee experience hinges on the ability to adapt. Because crises like COVID-19 can happen in a split second, the employee experience is ever-evolving
  • It empowers learning and employee development. Strategic foresight forces innovation. It requires out-of-the-box thinking to envision what the future holds. Learning and development are pre-requisites for strategic foresight. Without learning, strategic foresight wouldn’t be possible.

    When organizations promote learning pathways, they’re also challenging the workforce to think creatively. Strategic foresight empowers employees to continue to learn and challenge themselves.

    And that learning and professional development happen in a variety of ways. For example, your employees can learn to stay agile with coaching. Maybe your company offers a suite of learning options, like asynchronous learning and workshops.

    No matter how you promote learning in your organization, challenge your employees to stay on their edge. At BetterUp, we adopt “work to learn” and “stay on your edge” as two key high-impact behaviors. It helps our workforce stay agile and innovative, especially amid uncertainty and change. 

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Strategic foresight vs. strategic planning

It’s common that strategic foresight and strategic planning are coupled together. But these two phrases and practices aren’t synonymous. Here are some key differences to note. 

Let’s think of strategic planning as a tool in the toolbox that is strategic foresight. Here are some key characteristics of strategic planning

  • Strategic planning maps to desired goals, outcomes, and results 
  • Strategic planning requires a concrete budget, staffing, and finance needs 
  • Strategic planning challenges organizations to adopt key objectives and key results 
  • Strategic planning looks at industry and customer trends (i.e. what’s already happening in the market) 

An example of strategic foresight and strategic planning 

I like to think about strategic planning as a pillar of strategic foresight. For example, let’s say you run a restaurant. Before COVID-19, you did not have an online ordering system or curbside pickup.

But as part of your strategic foresight, you’ve selected a software system that has the capacity to do online orders. You might not have planned for a global pandemic. But thinking about the future, you know that things like DoorDash and other online ordering were on the rise. You considered the possibility of earning revenue from online ordering. 

As COVID-19 unfolded across the globe, you decided to pull this lever. You put together a strategic plan to execute your online ordering and curbside pickup system.

You evaluated competitors and other restaurants who are doing the same in response to the pandemic. You took a closer look at your workforce management and staffing needs. You evaluated your budget, forecasted for the future, and determined where your financial resources were needed most.

As a result of your strategic foresight, you were able to put into place a strategic plan. The plan itself is different from your strategic foresight. The plan is a thread and actionable goal that results from strategic foresight. 

How to use strategic foresight to stay competitive

Strategic foresight can be used to stay competitive in the marketplace. Here are four ways you can use strategic foresight to keep your business a step ahead. 

  • Use coaching to help your employees foster a future-minded growth mindset. With coaching, you can empower your leaders to become future-minded. BetterUp can help your employees practice optimism and pragmatism.

    Virtual coaching can help your employees navigate change and uncertainty. According to our data, coaching lowers stress and increases resilience. Learn how WarnerMedia has adopted coaching to help with strategic foresight. 
  • Offer professional development and learning opportunities. Keep your employees challenged. We know employees want learning and growth opportunities. They want to take charge of their careers — and part of that comes with creating career development pathways internally.

    Career mobility, learning, and development all go hand-in-hand. To be able to stay competitive in today’s talent marketplace, organizations need to promote learning. 
  • Practice imagination and innovation. At BetterUp, we encourage employees to practice imagination. It’s one of our key high-impact behaviors. No matter how creative or out-of-the-box an idea is, there is no bad idea.

    Foster creativity and innovation where possible. Encourage and recognize employees for their innovative thinking. 
  • Encourage cross-functional collaboration and communication. Collaboration across teams is critical to organizational success. When it comes to strategic foresight, collaboration and internal communication are lynchpins to future-mindedness.

    How are you encouraging cross-functional collaboration and communication? Are teams working together to think strategically about the future? How are you fostering communities of learning?

    Are stakeholders using foresight methods to plan for probable futures? What partnerships can you encourage in the planning process? How are your employees working together to think through plausible futures and future scenarios? 

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Start using strategic foresight 

The preferred future often doesn’t happen. And there are plenty of methodologies to adopt that can help predict probable futures. But even the best planners need to adopt horizon scanning to help put strategic foresight into practice. 

Different futures and different outcomes require drivers of change. Without decision-makers who are drivers of change, strategic foresight dissolves into strategic planning. It takes a long-term look at what the future holds, not a short term. 

How are you fostering future-minded leaders in your organization? What biases can you break around change and uncertainty? How are you gathering inputs and metrics around foresight methods?

With BetterUp, your workforce can thrive in change and uncertainty. Consider the role personalized coaching can have in your strategic foresight plans.

woman-hops-stepping-stones-in-space-download-future-minded-leader-report

Published May 9, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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