Scouting the Future

How can leaders neutralize decision-making paralysis in the face of a complex and ever changing context? When it comes to complexity and change, we are in a class five white water rapid. Unexpected events happen so rapidly that we often feel our raft is about to flip. white-water-rafting-1

Just think of the massive changes we have experienced from

  • Societal changes* (attitudes towards same-sex marriage, aging populations of the Western Nations, Japan, and China)* to
  • Technological advances (the mobile internet, UAV’s (think flying robots)*, to the new
  • Economic realities of the last 5 years, to
  • Environmental issues (think the damage of ecosystems like the Amazon), to the constantly changing
  • Political landscapes of the middle east.

As leaders are often in the midst of the fray and focused on keeping operations going, they can often times lose sight of the bigger picture, or the macro-environment. And so, change comes at them without warning.

In white water rafting, there is a rule of thumb we follow when we are unsure of what lies down river. We say, “When in doubt, scout.” One of the tools that we use to help leaders develop greater mental agility for decision-making is called environmental or “horizon” scanning. It’s a way of looking down river, a way of “scouting the future”.

A lot of you will feel lost at about this point. You have so much going on in the present. For guidance you look to the past for precedents or for successful models that have worked. Who has time for the future?

Well, if you work in an industry in which nothing changes, then what worked in the past may work for you now. But in this universe, what worked in the past is no guarantee of success in the present much less the future, because change is coming. In fact, one of the greatest obstacles you will face as you encounter tomorrow’s questions will be yesterday’s answers.

Take a look at the “changes” described in the first paragraph above. They conform to an acronym, STEEP, often used by futurists. The domains of Society, Technology, Environment, Economics, and Politics give the scanner the starting points for scouting the future. For a quick visual on scouting the future, here’s a short Prezi on the steps we take in using the “Horizon” Scanning tool.

By scanning the STEEP domains for signals of change, a leader readies himself for change through enhancing an alertness to change. The changes at this macro-level may be years in coming, if they come at all. And this is the point: to be aware that change is coming, even if we are not sure which change, is a superpower developed by those with a “futures orientation” (plural intended). It can help create pliability and cultivate mental agility in the face of complexity and uncertainty.


Let’s say this another way. The reason to scout the future is not to predict the future. In fact, it is proverbial among futurists that “the future cannot be predicted”. The reason to scout the future for signals of change is to enhance one’s ability to make decisions in light of the fact that the future cannot be predicted.

Horizon Scanning can happen in at least 3 layers:

Layer 1: inside my company) Layer 2: inside my industry ) Layer 3: outside in the macro-environment)

Layer 3 contains the changes that are happening that will, sooner or later, be impacting you and your business. Lift up your eyes and scan the horizon.

What do you think?

Processing Questions:
How are you and your team “scouting the future” in layers 1, 2, and 3?
What are you doing to create a “future-orientation” among your team?
What tools and/or practices would help you increase you future readiness?

* Thanks to those of you who attended M2011 and M2012 who saw how the topics we covered (UAV’s, Sex with Robots, How to Create Culture and Social Change) have been all over the news in 2013.


4 responses to “Scouting the Future”

  1. I think this would make a great M conversation (Maybe June?).

  2. love this alex. i think there is an element of using the young to inform us to foresight as well. granted, the emerging generation can certainly grasp on to temporary things. but sometimes there is truth and an – like you put it in the presi – emerging or weak signal.

    i think there are lots of valid examples of this.

    1. So true, Tony. The young are definitely a source of information that can shape and frame what we might anticipate.

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