Strategy, Foresight, & the Future

Strategic planning statistics, according to Forbes, show somewhere between 3% and 30% success rate, that is, 70–97% of executives say their strategies fail successful implementation. The reasons behind the lack of success are varied. Forbes continues by claiming four fatal flaws, in order of importance: (1) Failing to hold one another accountable; (2) Getting too complicated; (3) Reluctance to address big issues; and (4) Belief that a budget is a plan.

Poor execution is one reason strategic planning fails; however, aligning the health and well-being of the organizational culture to the strategic plan has been shown to be a bigger issue. Harvard Business Review states, “culture and leadership are inextricably linked.” How do leaders first understand culture before completing their strategic plan, much less implementation of that plan? 

Organizational Culture

The simplest definition of organizational culture is, “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done” (Strategy+Business). Others explain culture along two dimensions: (1) How people interact (independent to interdependence), and (2) How people respond to change (stability to flexibility) (Harvard Business Review). These two dimensions create cultures of results and authority (stable and independent), enjoyment and learning (flexible and independent), safety and order (stable and interdependent), or purpose and caring (flexible and interdependent).

Cummings & Worley (pp. 520-521) describe four elements of corporate culture, pictured as concentric circles:

  1. Artifacts (outside circle which are visible symbols of the deeper levels of culture, and include members’ behaviors, clothing, and language; and the organization’s structures, systems, procedures, and physical aspects, such as décor, space arrangements, and noise levels.
  2. Norms guide how members should behave in certain situations. These are unwritten rules of behavior inferred from seeing how members behave and interact.
  3. Values are about what ought to be in organizations. They tell members what is important in the organization and what deserves their attention.
  4. Basic assumptions address how to solve organizational problems. These basic assumptions tell members how to perceive, think, and feel about things. They are nonconfrontable and nondebatable assumptions about relating to the environment and about human nature, human activity, and human relationships.

By first naming the elements of our corporate culture now and how we want corporate culture to change in the future, we can better align our strategic plans with a higher possibility of successful implementation. However, for best alignment, we must also adopt the process of strategic foresight.

Strategic Foresight

ValuePenguin ranked the fifty most dangerous highways in America, with US Route 93 in Arizona taking first  and Interstate 5 in California taking fourth place with most fatal accidents occurring in Los Angeles County. Traveling I-5 all too often, the status of driving has become clear – if drivers only look in the rear-view mirror, they will end up in a crash. If they only look ahead to where they are going, they will not notice the motorcycle passing between lanes beside them, or the flashing red lights behind them.

Think of strategic foresight like driving a car. The physical automobile is the present while the road ahead is the future. The rearview mirror stands for the past. Many organizations tend to look in the rearview mirror constantly, trying to remake the past in the present. Other organizations only see the future, ignoring their roots to guide them from the past through the present into the future. The safest drivers first plan where they are going by at least putting the destination in a GPS. Excellent drivers look around their immediate surroundings, briefly glancing into the car’s mirrors while moving forward along the road ahead. It is the same with leadership. Past, present, and future must guide the leader and the organization.

The Foresight Process

Executives embrace foresight for the purpose of improved decision-making, for creating sustainable development, innovation, and to reduce business risk. The methodologies vary, but the standard commonly used in complex systems for strategic foresight is taught by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, and includes the following processes: Framing, Scanning, Forecasting, Visioning, Planning, and Acting (CPSHR). Framing would be reaching back to the past and setting a frame or scope around the present project. Scanning the environment focuses on searching for trends and patterns both internal and external to the organization in the present. Forecasting, Visioning, Planning, and Acting all look to the future based on the past and present research, including scenario planning in the planning stage.

Critical Thinking

Organizations that embrace foresight methods, including insights to create scenarios (verbal images), and doing scenario planning, have focused on improving their critical thinking skills. At the core, thinking critically is the ability to examine one’s own behaviors, norms, values, and assumptions, (elements of organizational culture), and learning to change behaviors, norms, values, or assumptions as new information is gained to support new ways of thinking and behaving (see Zarvana for help to improve critical thinking skills).