In a bit of serendipity, there were three different articles published this week on futures and foresight work, detailing what a futures company concerns itself with and how these firms go about their work. Writing in Quartz, friend of Foresight Alliance Scott Smith detailed some of the reasons why the futures field has seen a surge of popular recognition in the business world. He states:

Short of world wars and oil embargoes, we haven’t until recently sensed every shake or shudder in another part of the world. But when a new smartphone or piece of code released in one country this morning can be in the hands of another by tonight, or supply chains are disrupted quickly by unexpected events, or a biological innovation can be knocked off quickly by semi-pros working in a closet, not only do business and governments look for advice, but societies also seek some kind of orientation.

Andrew Curry, of The Futures Company, blogging about an article on futures firms that ran in Fast Company, laid out his view of what makes  a good futures firm:

It Looks Outside Its Industry Firms that focus on only one industry may miss developments outside their purview that either could heavily impact your industry or provide new business approaches to follow.

It Can Work Both Fast & Slow “Culture operates at two speeds–fast and slow,” says Terry Young [of agency sparks & honey]. “Monitoring macro trends helps companies build an arsenal of content that is ready to adjust to emerging trends, memes, or breaking news.”

It Gets to the “So What” Make sure that whomever you are looking to for help can provide what you need to get to the “So Here’s What We Do Now.”

It Doesn’t Get Carried Away Remember how Segway was going to hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history? As Walker Smith says, “While your head is in the clouds you need to keep your feet on the ground.” (From a Futures Company perspective, the way you do that is to look at the 360 degree picture of how change happens – some layers of change, such as infrastructure or social behaviour, are slower than others.)

Taken together, Smith and Curry lay out a succinct argument of why foresight is needed, and who you should look to for help. I can add that Curry’s four qualifications are met by Foresight Alliance.

A slightly different piece by tech writer Veronique Greenwood in Aeon Magazine comes from a more personal point of view, as she discusses what it was like growing up in the home of a futurist. Her final paragraph is an encomium to those in the futures field:

That said, I would never want to be too far away from those who live and work perpetually in the vanguard, who have chosen that risky, Schrödinger’s Cat-like existence. Even after growing up with my mother and the remains of a hundred half-baked ideas, such people’s willingness to ride the wave, their foolhardiness and their bravery, still provokes awe in me. It’s not a thing I can profess to understand beyond a basic respect for their guts and their kind of crazy hope that the future will be weird. But that’s something I can get behind.


Image: Don McCullough, Flickr.

Image: @boetter (Flickr)

In a previous post (Brainstorming for Introverts, Part 1) I talked about the limitations of traditional group brainstorming, which has been shown to be less efficient in gathering ideas than having participants work individually. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, there are at least three problems with traditional brainstorming: “social loafing” (participants can let someone else carry the load), “production blocking” (only one participant talks at a time), and “evaluation apprehension” (participants don’t want to look dumb). In the earlier post I described a couple of processes that can be used with groups meeting face-to-face to allow all participants to generate ideas simultaneously and share them anonymously.

Now I’d like to propose two more process improvements that move beyond the face-to-face brainstorming session.

First, try online brainstorming. There are software tools that can be used for synchronous (everyone online at the same time) or asynchronous (work when it’s convenient for you) online idea generation, clustering, and prioritizing. In fact, there are online tools for pretty much anything you could do with a group in a room using flipcharts and sticky notes. At Foresight Alliance we’ve done online brainstorming both internally and with clients. Online brainstorming allows simultaneous generation and recording of ideas by all participants and it can provide complete anonymity to participants.

Second, consider processes that combine asynchronous and synchronous work—whether face-to-face or online. We often use such processes among the partners at Foresight Alliance. (We have the “advantage” that we are located in several cities on two continents, so face-to-face brainstorming is seldom an option.) For example, suppose we’ve gathered important trends for a client and we want to generate implications for the client’s organization. We might share the trend inventory with all of the partners and ask each person to come up with three to five key implications. One of us merges everyone’s implications into a single list that is circulated back to the partners (asynchronous process). Then we meet online using conference calling and screen sharing software. We review the merged list, combine similar items, add new implications that occur to us, and create a final list (synchronous process). Then one of us drops the list into a spreadsheet and distributes it for rating and ranking. The person who created the spreadsheet collates and summarizes the results (asynchronous). We may meet again online to discuss the top-rated items and reach final agreement (synchronous). This process allows us to work independently to generate and evaluate ideas, but also provides time for us to discuss them together, build off one another’s work, and reach consensus, while building team collaboration skills.

At Foresight Alliance we’re always looking for ways to work more effectively, both internally and with our clients. We recognize that client teams, like our own team, include both introverts and extroverts. When you want to gather ideas from a group of people, the extrovert’s instinct will be to have a team meeting. The introvert’s instinct will be for each team member to find a quiet place to think. It appears that a combination of both approaches may be the way to go.

Image: Fortune Live Media (Flickr)

I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (As an introvert myself, I found it refreshing and full of hope. We introverts have a lot to offer!) One of the topics that Cain deals with at some length is a question we’ve been pondering at Foresight Alliance. What’s the most effective way to gather ideas from a group of people, group them, prioritize them, and consider their implications? We face this need both internally and in processes we design and execute for our clients. Cain is concerned about this question because she observes that many highly creative introverts seem to prefer to work alone, and do their best work when they have the option of choosing a workplace free of interruptions.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of traditional brainstorming—the sort where you gather a group in a room, throw out a challenge (the “problem statement”) and then start collecting ideas from the group. The difficulty, as Susan Cain and many others point out, is that “group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.” That is, while group brainstorming can generate a lot of ideas, many studies have demonstrated that when people work individually they generate more ideas than they do when working as a group, ideas of equal or better quality. The exception is that online brainstorming, when well-managed, produces better results than individual ideation. (It should also be mentioned that face-to-face group brainstorming does yield a side benefit—it can help to build teamwork.)

According to Cain there are three primary reasons for the relative ineffectiveness of group brainstorming: “social loafing” (participants can let someone else carry the load), “production blocking” (only one participant talks at a time), and “evaluation apprehension” (participants don’t want to look dumb). Evaluation apprehension may be the most important of the three.

While I’m not ready to suggest a “killer process” that avoids all of these issues and is the one best way to gather and filter ideas, I have four suggestions for processes that improve on traditional brainstorming.

The first is a tweak. If you plan to do traditional group brainstorming, start with what my colleagues in the innovation group at Kraft Foods R&D used to call the “cranium drainium”—the brain dump. Give each participant a pad of sticky notes, present the problem statement, then ask participants to write down all of the ideas they can come up with, one idea per sticky note. Only after the writing slows or stops do you begin collecting ideas and sharing them with the group. You can organize the ideas as you collect them. (“Who’d like to share an idea?” [A volunteer reads an idea; facilitator places the corresponding sticky note on the wall.] “Okay, who has something similar to that idea or something related to it?” [Read and gather all related ideas.] “If we’re done with that topic, who would like to give us an idea that will start a new topic?” [Continue until the group has read all sticky notes.])

The second suggestion is another brainstorming method that I like a lot, called brainwriting. In the version I know, each participant receives a blank sheet of paper divided into, for example, 6 squares. After the facilitator presents the problem statement, participants are asked to write an idea in one of the squares on their paper, working individually. After everyone has written one idea, each participant passes his/her paper to another participant. Participants are asked to read the idea on they paper they’ve just received, then write a second idea in another square. The second idea may be related to the first one or build on it, or it may be a separate thought. Participants continue exchanging papers and adding ideas until all squares are filled or energy lags. This method is highly efficient—everyone is generating ideas simultaneously. (In fact, brainwriting can generate so many ideas that it takes quite a while to gather them all.) It guarantees equal “air time” for all participants–the loudest voice doesn’t dominate. Most or all of the ideas can be anonymous—participants need not know who produced the other ideas on the sheet in their hand.

My next two suggestions move away from traditional brainstorming with everyone in the same room at the same time. I’ll save those for a second post.

In case you may have missed it in our Twitter feed, Foresight Alliance’s Christopher Kent was interviewed for a story in the Washington Post on what it means to be a futurist.  As Kent says, the critical role of the futurist is that  “We don’t predict the future. We help clients understand: What are the range of futures they face? What can they do to achieve the most beneficial and successful future?”

You can read the full story here.

We are pleased and excited to announce the launch of Foresight Alliance: a partnership of skilled consultants and analysts dedicated to helping organizations create their optimal futures.

We believe passionately in the value of foresight to strengthen organizational decision-making, strategy, and innovation. Collectively, our team has more than 90 years of experience applying change management and foresight expertise to the issues faced by companies, nonprofits, and government agencies in this increasingly turbulent world.

And although our organization is new, our members share a rich history of working together on diverse and challenging foresight-infused projects. We thoroughly enjoy our colleagues, our clients, and our work. That’s why we are thrilled to be embarking together on this new adventure—and the opportunities it will create to support the success and excellence of world-class organizations at a time of extraordinary global change.

The Foresight Alliance team is creative, skeptical, effective, curious, knowledgeable, reliable, ethical, and expert. We hope you will get to know us, and to see first-hand how we partner with forward-thinking organizations to generate more robust strategies, new business opportunities, wiser decisions, and broader thinking.

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