Learning from the Future

by J. Peter Scoblic

Strategic foresight doesn’t help us figure out what to think about the future. It helps us figure out how to think about it.

The most recognizable tool of strategic foresight is scenario planning.

It involves several stages:

  • identifying forces that will shape future market and operating conditions
  • exploring how those drivers may interact
  • imagining a variety of plausible futures
  • revising mental models of the present on the basis of those futures
  • using those new models to devise strategies that prepare organizations for whatever the future actually brings.


When situations lack analogies to the past, it’s hard to envision the future.

Institutionalised imagination is essential.

Long View allowed the Coast Guard to pressure-test strategies under a range of plausible futures, prioritize the most-promising ones, and socialize them among the leadership—which meant that after the attacks, when the organization found its mission changing dramatically, it was able to respond quickly.

We remember yesterday. We experience today. We anticipate tomorrow. 

However, we need to be non-linear in a constantly evolving feedback cycle between present and future.

The loop: thinking about the future as an essential component of taking action in the present. The scenarios gave them a structure that strengthened their ability to be strategic, despite tremendous uncertainty.

Identify assumptions, drivers, and uncertainties

It’s important to explicitly articulate the assumptions in your current strategy and what future you expect & how might those forces combine to create different possible futures?

Imagine plausible, but dramatically different, futures

Push yourself to imagine what the future will look like in five, 10, or even 20 years—without simply extrapolating from trends in the present and prime the imagination and maintain the guardrails of reality.

Inhabit those futures

Scenario planning is most effective when it’s an immersive experience.

Isolate strategies that will be useful across multiple possible futures

What should we be doing now that would enable us to operate better in that particular future? 

Implement those strategies – needs commitment

Ingrain the process – an iterative cycle

What should we be doing now that would enable us to operate better in that particular future?