In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman refers to the parts of our brain, where he suggests there are two competing intelligence at play.
He specifies one area affiliated to “system 1” which is known to be an area relying on speed in decision making and on emotion in information perceiving. System 1 is based largely on our instinct and intuition unconsciously stored by past experiences that are often rapidly available to memory. The second area is affiliated to “system 2” which is known to be an area for slow and deliberate decision making and more rational in information perceiving. This area takes in information based on our conscious appraisal of current events, and our stored episodic long-term memories, which are slowly available to memory. Why do we care?
Well, today’s world presents us, business leaders, a particularly exciting time to understand how we process information because, throughout history, we never have had the unpredictability of economics nor the pace of change as we experience today. We have never had as many tools and opportunities available to greatly improve our lives, our teams, our organizations, and our world. Yet, at the same time, we never had such a growing number of problems, competing priorities and desires. We never experienced the volatility, ambiguity and complexity in managing all of our tasks. It is no secret we all struggle to find the capacity to meet different demands in our roles and have a growing need to be able to think and decide more holistically.
There is one core human attribute that may be able to help us.
What is Foresight?
Foresight, in the simplest terms, can be considered an act of looking to and thinking about the future. This activity can involve amateur or professional, trained or untrained skills and it is one of the most critical to sustain performance and contribute to building positive environments.
Unfortunately, foresight is often undermined as it gets labeled as a prophecy, but it is neither prophecy nor prediction. It does not aim to predict the future – to unveil it as if it were predetermined – rather, it helps us build it. It invites us to consider the future as something that we can create and/or shape, rather than as something already decided.
From a scientific point of view, foresight holds two facets: a mental and sensory representation of things that are not yet present or a sense or feeling of what may be or what may come and a memory that connects the past and what we know to do with the future and what may be.
From a practical perspective, in the art of leading, it may be considered as a capacity for meta-analysis of past, present and future. For example, if we don’t understand our past, we may become ignorant to many of the probabilities and possibilities presented. At the same time, if we spend too much time in the past, we can easily lose sight. Similarly, if we aren’t sufficiently attentive to the present, we may walk by what needs most care today. At the same time, we must actively relate today’s experience to the past.
I often think the gateway to foresight is to keep an open heart. If we could carry a heart large enough to love, to accept and to care for life around us in all its detail, we would be proclaimed to see every instant as a gardener, never ceasing the discontinuity of our senses. We would underscore the act of attention in the experience of every instant, not frantically look for cognitive “real” evidence overriding consciousness; instead floating in a sincere, freedom of time.
Foresight in Play
The exercise of foresight practice starts with growing attention, becoming aware and engaging in predicting, creating, and leading our own realities. This is partially why mindfulness, a term some of us have come to despise have grown so large. Once we are able to build a basic competency at life-giving, we may then be offered the opportunity to help others, teams, organizations and communities better prepare for a better future. Being a foresight practitioner also relies heavily on activation of courage and some dancing in the dark. It requires us to lean into the unknown, actively engages in scenario planning and it relies heavily on our ability to hear others as they have intended to be heard.
Recognize the concept of ‘self-righteousness’ gets in our way a majority of the time. As leaders of our organizations, many of us struggle to show humility to say, “I don’t know,” “Tell me,” “I want to learn” or “I missed that, help me understand it better, please!” Not only our ignorance is often invisible to us and we don’t know how to unravel it, but we also have a huge discomfort around demonstrating the vulnerability. Often, we believe the story in our head that people will judge us, leading to damage of trust rather than relying on the scientific evidence that people rarely judge each other for admitting mistakes.
In an organizational context, foresight is different than strategic thinking – it is more imaginative and innovative, considering a variety of futures. There is an action-orientation in foresight, which strategic thinking doesn’t require, along with creating participatory ownership and consideration of a variety of alternatives.
We have been able to validate through our research that in environments, where leaders were reportedly connected to reality and employees could gauge their intuition in the process of decision making, organizations had a greater time experiencing agility as a whole. In contrast, in the absence of foresight exercise, we found organizations struggled to engage in scenario planning and to experience agility. In these environments, negligence was prominent, and employees reported everything being a surprise and change loses its strategic value.
The exercise of foresight has an immense impact on business outcomes, too. For example, Rohrbeck and Kum developed a model in 2018, looking to understand and assess the “future preparedness” (FP) of a firm. We found the make-up of FP to be highly correlated to the scientific makeup of foresight. With this formula, they matched mega-data from 2008 and performance in 2015. They found future-prepared firms outperformed the average by a 33% higher profitability, by a 200% in growth while firms with deficiencies face with a performance discount of 37% to 108%.
In some ways, this shouldn’t surprise us because when we can learn from the relevant past and anticipate (forecast and predict) the relevant probable future, imagine and experiment possibilities to analyze and plan, we would be better prepared for the future. Our priorities would actually be able to inform our strategy and by the virtue of remaining connected to reality and tapping our intuition, we would create an on-going opportunity to learn, innovate and re-strategize new information in the environment.
For example, I find in consulting with business leaders that when they have the time to make a prioritized task list every morning, and when they are conscious and self-controlled, they will also allow themselves space the reprioritize that list several times a day, as conditions change. Knowing when to stop writing and reordering priorities, to get back into action is an art, and we certainly get better at it with practice, but it is a possibility.
Foresight today may not be a science, and it may not fully become one, yet it remains a critical attribute in realizing the future of work and leadership.
As globalization continues to take the world by its ears and digitalization of platforms, data management, and business processes increase, we will most definitely move from today’s generic, data-poor, and ungrounded theoretical and methodological approaches to a more balanced blend of science, empiricism and art.
After all, as Carlo Rovelli, professor of physics and director of the Samy Maroun Research Center for Time, Space and the Quantum would say, “All reality is interaction;” and we are close enough to discover it.