The covid-19 pandemic shocked the world and generated high levels of economic, political, and social uncertainty. And for many people, the virus compounded the growing sense of uncertainty they already felt in their lives as a result of automation, geopolitical tensions, and widening inequalities.
With the many sudden changes that covid-19 has brought, planning for the future can feel impossible. Even short-term decisions—What will we do this weekend? Should I send my kids to school?—now require us to process a broad set of data and considerations. Trying to envision life months or a couple of years down the road may seem futile or even foolish.
When faced with high degrees of uncertainty, we tend to worry about all that might happen, and often do so in an unstructured manner. This kind of worry can spur knee-jerk reactions and inhibit sound decision-making, which is especially problematic in the middle of a global crisis when so much is at stake.
Strategic foresight offers an alternative to unproductive worry. It’s a way of thinking that uses alternative futures to guide the decisions we make today. This tool can help us better anticipate possible circumstances and—importantly—adapt when those circumstances threaten our ability to achieve our goals.
Strategic foresight can be a powerful tool to help you understand and evaluate your options even when the future seems very unclear. I use this practice every day in my work, and I believe it can also help people navigate their personal and professional lives during the pandemic.
The good news is, we often practise foresight without even realizing it. You’re doing it, for example, every time you leave the house and decide whether or not to grab an umbrella. But we can make a more explicit effort to think ahead in times of greater uncertainty, or when we’re feeling particularly anxious about what’s to come.
Here’s how to start applying this practice in your own life:
Clarify your goals. Defining a vision is a crucial first step, and an especially productive one for those of us who suddenly find our work or mission in peril. A vision can be a preferred future, a desired outcome, or just an idea of what you need to sustain yourself through a difficult time.
For example, in the face of economic instability brought on by covid-19, your vision may be financial sustainability—or even just survival—over the coming months and years. This might translate to a goal of earning enough income to support yourself and your loved ones.
Consider what futures you might face. Develop scenarios to explore the future world in which your decisions will play out. Scenarios are plausible futures that are strategically relevant and structurally different. They include elements from the past that carry forward, such as existing trends and established commitments, along with new components, such as business models, technologies, or value systems that may soon emerge.
To continue our example, you could create scenarios that consider different shapes for the eventual economic recovery—taking into account what jobs might disappear, change, or bloom, as well as factors like whether and how much government support might be available, if you were to need it.
Identify the implications. Once you have your scenarios, answer these questions: What threats would you face in each? What challenges or opportunities would emerge? Which of your strengths and weaknesses do these scenarios highlight? What new questions do they raise for you? Be systematic, answering each question for each scenario.
In our example, your implications may relate to the value of your assets and the economic opportunities that would be available to you in different scenarios.
Make your assumptions explicit and examine their validity. Our planning assumptions are often implicit, which makes it hard to examine or challenge them. Make them explicit by writing them down, and then sort your assumptions into three categories: those that are credible and should guide your planning; those that should be researched further; and those that are unlikely to become reality.
In our example, counting on being able to return to your pre-covid life might be a dangerous assumption. Your job might change, or not come back at all, even once covid-19 is under control. Automation might have made your job redundant, or digital alternatives to the product or service your company produced might have become the new normal.
Review your options, plans, and decisions. Start to devise your plan of action. What will you do when you arrive in an alternative future? What could you do now that would make you more resilient to possible challenges? What skills or capabilities can you start building? What small investments can you make today, to avoid having to invent solutions when you find yourself in a world very different from the current one?
Strategic foresight helps us look beyond the current situation to what might follow, and figure out how we can prepare for that. For example, you might consider training for a skill that will be valuable in the future—and ideally, choose one that would hold its value in multiple future scenarios.
Monitor and adapt. Establish a system to monitor early warning signs that signal which of your possible futures is actually emerging. This allows you to adapt your course of action as early as possible, or pursue the best options for yourself.
For example, interest rates, employment rates in your industry, consumer and corporate confidence scores, and the availability of covid-19 treatments or vaccines could all be potential early warning signs for which of your possible futures is most likely to play out.
As you put these techniques into practice, it’s best to try to adopt a strategic foresight mindset:
Accept uncertainty as the norm. Forecasting has value, but prudent people and organizations do not bet everything on having things turn out as expected. Instead, they prepare for a wide range of plausible scenarios to avoid finding themselves in situations that they are unprepared to manage, or where they need to invent solutions and implement them at the same time.
Be humble about your ability to manage in the moment. Thoughts like “We’ll handle it when it happens,” or “This is only temporary, and things will get back to normal soon,” are common examples of wishful thinking.
Take off the blinders. The covid-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the world can change. Such massive disruptions are not as rare as we would like to think. Disruptive change can seem as though it appears suddenly and without warning, but the threat was probably there all along. We may have downplayed its potential magnitude or discounted its odds. Cultivating a broader perspective about what might happen in the future will prompt you to revisit your own deeply held assumptions.
Be brave. Keep all relevant plausible scenarios on the table, whether you like them or not, even if they scare you. Too often, we ignore scenarios that we judge to be low in probability but high in impact, especially if they seem difficult to prepare for.
Keep an eye open for opportunities. In times of high uncertainty and crisis, we tend to revert to playing defense, and focus on what might go wrong. Dedicating some attention to the positive circumstances that could emerge from a crisis can help you identify new opportunities.
Recognize the emotional journey. Engaging with scenarios can challenge your assumptions and at times feel like a threat to your knowledge and expertise. Strengthening your strategic foresight muscle, however, will build your capacity to be decisive despite uncertainty and discomfort—and ultimately, to become more “future fit.”
Give it action. Link your reflections about the future to actual decision-making and actions. Strategic foresight is there to enable you to make better-informed choices, and to reflect on the future in an action-oriented manner. So be ready to make changes based on what you learn.
Kristel Van der Elst is CEO of the Global Foresight Group, director general at Policy Horizons Canada, a special advisor to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, and a fellow at the Center for Strategic Foresight of the US Government Accountability Office. She is a visiting professor at the College of Europe, and the former head of strategic foresight at the World Economic Forum.