Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader. As a kid, I took to reading history and books on the world war (non-fiction books) were my favourite ones. Subsequently, I took to reading science fiction and spy thrillers.
One of the interesting things I found in many spy thrillers was a curious topic of papers being written by ignored analysts about future or emerging scenarios. In many novels, these neglected papers would come to haunt the decision makers and the hero in the book will have to douse the fire.
I was well into my corporate and consulting career, when I happened to hear about Shell scenario planning process. It made me realize that in most corporates we don’t see such futuristics papers. A consequence of this futuristic orientation is that organisations are either not well prepared to handle future uncertainties or have to depend on consultant inputs for them.
The horizon screening process is well documented in government. A google search shows a clear government bias as most practices refer to policy preparation and political or diplomatic strategies.
However, horizon scanning has tremendous importance and value for businesses. Horizon screening is the process of intelligence gathering about the future through a desk work. Being future oriented, there is clearly uncertainty about this intelligence. However, this sort of exercise looks for early warning signs of the type of changes.
The process highlights the emerging trends and developments and their impact on the future of the business. It highlights the likely changes in consumer needs and behaviours as well as the impact on the organization.
The output from the horizon screening process is a scholarly paper with references. It could be based on desk research and interviews / workshop with domain experts. Usually these papers are generated by individuals that are either anthropologist or technologist. However, the organization should never be internally focussed, they will benefit most if they could identify and incentivize people outside the organization to generate these papers.
The process should be run throughout the year and an internal champion should ideally be summarizing the reports and highlighting deep foresights for the strategy process.
The horizon screening process is uniquely powerful as it requires low level of facilitation, doesn’t require a huge mobilization or investments. However, the risk of ignoring the process is high and as a result ignoring valuable insights and alienating key thinkers within the organization.
This can be a very productive process: 10 authors each producing one scan per month will produce 60 scans (or more) over 6 month period. R&D staff, marketing and sales managers are potential authors who bring in either technology insights and/or anthropological insights through these reports. These reports aren’t based on the averages and normal observations, but on outliers. In most cases outliers are the ones that are indicative of probable disrupters.
Horizon Scanning is relatively straightforward but does rely on intuition and insight. For organizations that are used to decision making using data, the scans can be counterintuitive and often fly against conventional wisdom. From the author perspective, it requires analytical thinking to realize that something they have observed or read is interesting or different enough to include in the scan. It could appear irrelevant in the current context and environment, but can be of major significance for future. Research publications and conference for this reason tend to be great resources for generating such scans.
Before you send your managers to conferences or technical seminars and exhibitions, make sure that the managers understand the need for creating horizon scans on their return.
Another tool that is useful in the process is the 7 question approach of Shell. This is a well established process of enquiry and can be usefully adapted to generating foresights.
If you would like to utilize the scenario planning process as part of developing your innovation strategy, do get in touch with me for a discussion.
Krishnan is a leading innovation consultant and focuses on helping people and organizations innovate and build capabilities for innovation. He brings over 25 years of experience in the industry and consulting. You can reach him by phone / WhatsApp: +919791033967 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org