Add Foresight to Your Vision

We hear a lot today about the power of vision. Leadership should not only point the way, but consider the unintended consequences of reaching even good visions. In 1932, science fiction writer and social prophet H.G. Wells, claimed that while vision had created the motorcar, it was lack of foresight that produced traffic jams. “All these new things . . . come crowding along; every one is fraught with consequences, and yet it is only after something has hit us hard that we set about dealing with it” (Wells, as cited in Slaughter, 1989, p. 3). Well’s statement challenges us today to examine our unchecked visions.

I can remember three times throughout my adulthood that the paradox of vision without foresight hit the U.S. hard: the 1973 Oil Embargo, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the Y2K crisis. The lesson for leaders is that good visions like the car or computer, progressive visions like nuclear energy or even faith-based visions cannot presume to stand on their own merits apart from considering their unintended consequences. The lesson here is that even when strategic leaders claim they have a measure of foresight–that in itself is not enough.

Since 2004 I have been teaching strategic foresight in the School of Business and Leadership at Regent University. When people hear that I created a masters degree on the future, they often assume that students ponder the high-tech inventions of 2050. To a degree, foresight professionals do master the skills of environmental scanning, competitive business intelligence, knowledge creation or benchmarking new technologies.

But contrary to popular perception, the study of the future is not an attempt to predict what will happen, but as Wells admonished, to consider what might happen, in order to take preventive and precautionary measures.

That is why there is a difference between visionary and anticipatory leaders. The first type of leaders calls us to a single vision of what should happen, the second may calls us to that, but also to what might happen.

This fits well with the concept of a leader as the servant of the wise organization that works for a triple bottom line of economic prosperity, ethical good and ecological recovery.

Only team foresight and corporate wisdom can overturn the often mentioned litany of project management, covering six phases: 1) initial enthusiasm, 2) disillusionment, 3) panic, 4) search for the guilty, 5) punishment of the innocent and 6) promotion of the non-participants.

Ireland and Hitt (1999) claim the “Great Leader” view of leadership is the problem. They find that “substantial numbers of CEOs have adopted the notion that strategic leadership responsibilities are theirs alone” (p. 45). These CEOs see their primary task as choosing a vision for their organization and carrying it out. The “Great Leader” model is still attractive in the religious and military sector, where unity of command is valued. While appropriate for the predictability of the past, today’s global economy prevents “single individuals from having all the insights necessary to chart a firm’s direction” (Ireland & Hitt, p. 45).

In contrast to the “Great Leader” model, according to Ireland and Hitt, we need a “Great Groups” model of leadership. Rather than centralize foresight in the judgment of the CEO, a great group sees the organization as a community where strategic leadership and the foresight function is distributed among diverse individuals “who share the responsibility to create a viable future for their firm” (Ireland & Hitt, p. 46).

Recently, I’ve taken a research interest in the work of a Swedish firm that is developing a “Foresight Style Assessment” tool that leaders can use to help their teams relate to change (Dian, 2003). This tool, based on innovation theory, proposes that people have a style preference for one of six roles with respect to change: Futurist, Activist, Opportunist, Flexist, Equilibrist or Reactionist. The Futurist is the long-term thinker who gets satisfaction in generating ideas. The Activist advocates the one best future they see, rather than generate conceptual options. The Opportunist is not bound to convictions but aims to capture prevailing wind or trend. The Flexist is a style player who is oriented to present relationships. The Equilibrist has an innate sense of the larger system and strives for balance and equity. The Reactionist acts against change and digs in their heels when they sense new directions might invalidate shared traditions.

The main lesson this tool teaches teams is that it is okay for people to address change from different vantage points. Not everyone has to be a Futurist, and there is even a positive role for the team Reactionist. Dian (2003) claims diversity in groups is vital–it can lead to a richer solution set. To that degree, great groups become great because they value all styles toward change.

That being established, what will future generations say about our vision? Will they say we had both the vision and foresight to redeem a runaway world? Or will they say we were captive to a consumption based economy that was reactive at worse, responsive at best? It is not enough, as leaders to develop a great vision for the future. Leaders need to assess the secondary and tertiary impacts of any great endeavor.

So, strategic foresight or the new strategic planning, as Mintzberg (1994) claims, does not boast it can determine the future, but settles for more modest aims, such as a) preparing for the inevitable, b) preempting the undesirable and c) controlling the controllable. As we move into the future, caution, not control needs to be the watchword. Anticipatory leaders should know better that vision without foresight lacks insight.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of PeakFutures.com, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he 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.

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