Most organizational leaders have dreams and fantasies about the future of their organizations and the part they want to play in that future. Most picture themselves and their organizations more successful than present reality, yet idle dreaming by itself will not help them to reach that future state of success.

Organizational effectiveness is increased when the stakeholders (those members who perceive themselves as having a vested interest in both the organization’s present and future well-being) take responsibility for the future through a process that involves reflection, analysis, dialog, planning, and action. One of the first challenges that the responsible future-oriented leader faces when facing the future, is what approach to take.

Four Approaches to Futuring

There are four different approaches to consider in facing the future:

  1. First is the most common approach called the reactive approach. Simply put, this is the approach of focusing only on what is happening now by utilizing common, historical learned solutions without really having to think about them. This “stimulus response” approach has the advantage of being very quick and the disadvantage of being limited to what already is known and tried. Marshall McLuan, a Canadian communication writer describes this approach as driving an automobile using only the rear-view mirror.
  2. The second approach is the responsive approach, which like the reactive approach focuses on the immediate future. The difference in this approach is that before a response is made, alternative solutions are considered. This pause between the need, opportunity, or problem and the response, allows the leader to creatively consider alternative options including some of which have never been considered before. This approach is really the approach of creative problem-solving.
  3. The third approach is the proactive approach, which focuses on the emerging future and the unfolding events and trends. Studying the trends of today, and projecting what is likely to happen tomorrow if these trends continue and increase, allows one to anticipate and plan for the future before it arrives. This allows the organizational leader to make strategic decisions before he or she has to.
  4. The fourth and final approach is the least common, yet oldest approach to futuring. This inventive approach creates the future by envisioning what is seen to be possible at some future date, including the visionary pathway of how a person and/or organization was able to realize their vision. To the extent that this vision and its related milestones are believed, it then becomes a meaningful guide for planning and decision-making.

All approaches are important and necessary if an organization is going to both survive in the present while thriving in the future. What is critical is a commitment to all approaches including taking the time necessary to develop a vision of the future.

Strategic Futuring

This is a facilitated method of envisioning the future that can involve an unlimited number of stakeholders who desire to be a part of building a shared vision. The process includes:

  1. Envisioning a future state, which is then translated into a vision statement;
  2. Envisioning the critical events and decisions that enabled the vision to unfold, which are then articulated into visionary milestone goal statements;
  3. Translating the vision and visionary statements into strategic, operational, and individual plans; and,
  4. Developing both a process of, and commitment to ongoing vision development as the basis for planning and implementation.

Strategic Futuring is based upon the work of Elise Boulding, a sociologist from Dartmouth College who during her career became very interested as to why various groups of people persisted and thrived over time, while others ceased to exist. Her study revealed one common denominator: Those groups that were able to develop a shared vision of themselves thriving in the future, and were committed to it persisted, while those who did not see themselves in the future tended to disappear over time. Those who thrived over time were those who treated their vision of the future as fact more than hope. Their belief guided both conscious and unconscious decisions in such a way that the results of these decisions, large and small, over time created the opportunity for the vision to become reality.

Most organizations today have either lived beyond or lost their original visions and as a result are just trying to survive in a totally reactionary mode, while living in the midst of an increasingly challenging and diverse world. The challenge for today’s leaders is to create a new vision for their organizations. They don’t have to start totally anew, but if they are to successfully lead their organizations into an ever-changing future, they must invite all those who have a vested interest in the organization’s future well being to create a shared vision of the future. It is this ongoing renewed vision that will enable the organization to not only survive change, but thrive as a result. It will enable organizations to move beyond just reacting to problems and challenges to a place where problems and challenges are looked at in terms of how they can serve the organizational vision. In so doing, vision joins strategy and culture together to achieve organizational success.

Guest post by: Raymond P. Rood, Human Technologies International – Glendora, California