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Strategic Foresight: Look to the Future to Plan Today

by Dr Jay Gary, June 15, 2010

Recently the president of a Christian university was asked, “Where is Christian Higher Education going over the next 15 years?” Without skipping a beat, he replied, “I don’t know — but that’s what keeps me up at night!” The president then added, “I know one thing. It will not look like what we have now. We just can’t afford to continue to do what we are doing!”

“All of us in ministry now are asking the financial questions,” admits Steve Doggett, director of international ministries with Converge Worldwide, “yet what we are really are trying to figure out is ‘Where is God is going?'” To answer this question for your own organization will require you to move from strategic planning to strategic foresight, and then back again.

Strategic foresight is a new name for a core practice that leadership teams use to learn about the shifting forces shaping their ministry landscape 3 to 10 years out. It engages them in critical thinking and ‘what if’ debates. It takes a team beyond budget or policy assessment to allow open learning and strategic conversations to craft a long-term adaptive strategy.

Australian educator Richard Slaughter defines foresight as “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view and to use the insights arising in organizationally useful ways.”

Useful ways in a faith context might mean to leverage outreach through strategic alliances, act proactively in light of demographic changes, reach new generations through a diverse team, reinvent aging institutions with new stakeholders, or engage the community through private-public partnerships.

To put it another way, strategic planning projects your past programs into the future. By contrast, strategic foresight allows you to stand in the future, and then look back at your present with new eyes. You end up with a more adaptable strategy, matched to a longer, deeper and broader view of your organization’s future. Here are two ways to cultivate long-term foresight to strengthen your strategic plans.

Let Horizon Scanning Undergird your SWOT Analysis

A great way to test your strategy over time is to create a formal horizon scanning program with both senior and middle managers in your organization. Most leaders are familiar with formal SWOT analysis, where an organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses are weighed against possible future conditions, framed as opportunities or threats. A SWOT analysis let’s you assess where you presently are as an organization. But a SWOT analysis is only as good as your strategic assumptions.

James Dewar, author of Assumption-Based Planning notes that unwelcome surprises in the life of any organization can often be traced to the failure of an assumption that had been forgotten or wasn’t anticipated. Every ministry plan is undergird by a dozen or more unnamed strategic assumptions. A strategic assumption is like a leg on your kitchen table. If that leg wobbles or collapses your plan is compromised.

Horizon scanning can test your strategic assumptions. It is an early warning system. Scanning generates a strategic conversation comprised of data, trends and ideas that could potentially impact your ministry’s viability. Managers document an “insight” in a standard template, and then comment on how it either confirms or disconfirms the shelf-life of your present strategic assumptions.

In noting how each new event or insight can shed light, Adam Gordon, author of Future Savvy instructs scanners to ask, “Does this fit a pattern? Is this suggestive of a trend? Is this part of a bigger phenomenon, a growth or decline of significance that will change…what is required of organizations in order to be successful?”

As president of One Mission Society, USA, David Long sets his mission’s long-term direction. When asked what strategic decisions are shaping One Mission’s new decade, he first mentioned internationalization, or how the various OMS sending countries related to each other, and second, globalization, or the rise of the church in the global south.

A horizon scanning program in Long’s context would gather insights from cross-cultural research, technology, communications, social entrepreneurship and NGO alliances, and consider whether new models of partnership would be viable at the global, regional and local level. When a robust strategic conversation is built through continuous scanning, decision makers have a solid basis to insure that their structure is serving strategy, rather than the other way around.

Create an Issues Management Program

In addition to horizon scanning, another way to cultivate strategic foresight is to start an issues management program. We live in a day of 24-hour news cycles, fed by scandals, product recalls, natural disasters, and legislative reversals. In this hyper modern context, a nonprofit’s stability landscape can change overnight. Unless your organization is future-ready your brand equity can plummet.
Strategic issues management is a pro-active process that builds on horizon scanning.

Rather than weigh trends against strategic assumptions, an issues management program monitors and manages a set of issues that will likely surface over the next 10 years to challenge or constrain the organization. Emerging issues are often more in flux, due to fluid levels of subjective uncertainty, while established trends normally have some degree of objective certainty.

The recent story of American missionaries in Haiti, arrested on charges of kidnapping, became an issue for both their home church in Idaho as well as the U.S. State Department. Whether the legal grounds for arrest were solid or not, this incident called into question whether missionaries were protecting or plundering the Haitian people. What started out as a local incident became an international debate on adoption, child smuggling and organized crime. This demanded an immediate response from other relief and development agencies. Non-profits who dealt with international child services had to reassure their stakeholders of their ethical policies.

Rather than be subject to winds of change, Christian organizations can get ahead of these likely changes, and handle them pro-actively. An issues management program allows an organization to sort anywhere from 30 to 60 issues into three categories: category 1 issues to manage, category 2 issues to maintain, and category 3 issues to monitor. Category 1 issues demand the most attention, as they have not been adequately addressed through policy or training. As sticky wickets, they must be framed, assessed and evaluated in terms of strategic options. Category 2 issues are maintained through new policy and risk mitigation strategies. Category 3 issues are monitored to see if their perceptual, legal, or liability parameters have changed, elevating them to policy action.

Recently I worked with three doctoral students to conduct an Emerging Issues Audit among the top leadership at Regent University. Together with the director of Institutional Research, we identified 75 scanning categories relevant to the future of higher education. Out of those categories we pinpointed 15 issues that might disrupt the educational landscape by 2020. These included: mobile technology, artificial intelligence tutors, genetic enhancements of students, for-profit Christian university competitors, Hispanics demographic growth, global youth/student bulge, or changing workforce competencies in a molecular economy, to name a few.

The initial Issues Audit helped Regent University: (a) benchmark their leadership’s starting perception of these issues, (b) gauge where they felt existing policies and strategies could adapt to address them, and (c) inquire into the degree to which they should and could address each issue from now until 2020.

Leading from the Future

Our world is rapidly changing to the point where traditional planning based on budgets and program review is no longer sufficient in itself to propel your organization into the future. Scanning the horizon and reframing issues are but two ways to turn from static strategic planning to dynamic strategic foresight. Some non-profits are turning to scenario planning to further stress test their plans.

The important thing is to begin the journey upstream to spawn long-term creativity and innovation, rather than just target near-term downstream results. This may not cure you losing sleep over whether your business model is future ready, but at least you will generate a way for your strategic team to make the journey with you.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years Jay has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

This article first appeared in: Gary, J. E. (2010, Summer). Strategic foresight: Looking to the future to plan today. Outcomes Magazine, 34(2), 26-27.

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