Strategic Foresight: An Essential Skill for All BoardsFebruary 16, 2021
This blog focuses on “setting direction,” a key aspect of “gold medal governance.” It is part of a series designed to increase the capacity of sport organizations to effectively govern in an increasingly complex world. Read the first blog, providing an overview of the six keys to gold medal governance.
Without foresight, leaders aren’t able to lead.
Without foresight, boards aren’t able to govern.– Robert Greenleaf
Strategic foresight is the capacity to anticipate and act in the present to meet one’s needs in the future. Like athletes packing different gear for a competition so they are prepared for different surfaces, weather conditions, or facility amenities; boards of directors need to anticipate the possible contexts in which their organization might exist in the future. But unlike athletes who may focus simply on the next competition, boards need to think long term – to the next year, the next quadrennial, or even beyond, to set direction for their organizations.
“Setting direction” is not imagining an optimistic future that might be possible if everything we think is important works out as it should. Rather, it is direction anchored in the board’s understanding of the various possible futures in which the club or association may exist.
To do this, a board needs to develop a capacity for strategic foresight which enables an appreciation for how the sport organization will need to evolve to continue being relevant in the local, provincial/territorial, national, or international sport context of the future.
Ruben Nelson, an insightful futurist who lives in Calgary, defines the strategic foresight necessary for a board as “the capacity to pay close enough attention to the context in which the organization it is governing exists that the board is willing to adapt in order to influence, or indeed determine, the trajectory of that organization” (Nelson, 2015). Willingness to adapt may require letting go of structures, policies, strategies, or programs – or even the organization’s purpose – that may have been successful but could keep the organization anchored in a place that is becoming irrelevant.
Take the classic example of Kodak. Despite inventing and patenting the first digital cameras and other digital technologies in 1975, the company remained focused on film, ultimately leading to its bankruptcy in 2012. When Kodak finally decided that digital was the way the future, the future had passed it by.
Sport organization boards should pay attention to the essential lesson – it is critical to be prepared to challenge even the essential core of one’s business. Consider, as an example, the merger of the Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport and Fair Play. In becoming the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport, the narrower purposes of both organizations expanded to enable sport organizations to address the vast range of ethics questions in sport. Strategic foresight enables a board to develop the wisdom to make strategic commitments in the present that will ensure the organization remains relevant in the future.
Developing strategic capacity
So, how does a board go about developing this capacity for strategic foresight? Below are three activities that can help.
1. Schedule time for future-focused work
Regularly schedule time specifically for future-focused work. A board doesn’t need to do this in an intensive session. In fact, it is better to do it continuously, record insights as they accumulate, and have them available when you begin to plan. It can be a standing agenda item. As with sport, practice improves skill. Examples of 30-minute activities for integration into future meetings include:
- Identify trends that could impact your organization or your sport, prioritize them and assign different board members to locate an article or video for discussion during “future-focus” time slots over the next year.
- Invite a local expert or futurist to present to the board.
Allow time to reflect on what the board has learned. Concentrate on questions that help to identify what could this mean in the future– e.g., how might it affect interest in your sport, recruitment of athletes, athletes’ families, the sport’s most accomplished performers, your club system, competitions, and so on? Foresight is not about predicting the future; it’s about becoming more insightful about possible futures. Be sure to record insights so they can be reviewed during your next planning session.
2. Tap into evidence and thought leadership
Many organizations release reports on future trends. For example, the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations published The Future of Global Sport in 2019, providing a vision of sport for the next 20 years. The annual Ford Trends Report examines global consumer behaviours and attitudes, with a 2021 report focus on societal adaptation. The World Economic Forum publishes future-looking articles on a broad range of global issues. A quick review of these types of reports can reveals insights on a wide range of sport-related topics, from interest in hosting major multi-sport games (ASOIF, 2019) and the growing autonomy of elite and professional athletes (ASOIF, 2019); to the emergence of business entities in multisport spaces (ASOIF, 2019) and the increasing demand for trust and transparency from consumers (Ford Motor Company, 2019); to the impacts of climate change on the health of communities and individuals (National Intelligence Council, 2017).
3. Scenario exercise
With a bit more time, your board could use a scenario building exercise to dig into the possible impacts of the interaction of trends. This powerful exercise from futurist Ruben Nelson helps a board appreciate that the factors acting on any organization do not exist in a vacuum and the resulting impact of such interactions may produce quite different futures. It also reinforces that it is unwise for a board to assume the direction or linearity of any trend.
Here is a short guideline for the exercise:
- Select two trends that may impact your club or association. Each trend should have some unpredictable variability. The illustration below is based on two trends, (a) private business entering traditional sport spaces and (b) countries’ declining interest in hosting international championships.
- Place one trend on an X-axis and the second on a Y-axis, labeling the two ends of each axis as being opposing directions. In the example below: countries have a high interest in hosting international competitions or countries have a low interest in hosting international competitions, and private business is a significant player in organized sport or an insignificant player. This creates four quadrants.
- Depending on the size of your board of directors, assign each quadrant to a group, pair or individual. For each quadrant, create a picture of the possible future produced by the intersection of those trends. You might ask: what might be the impact of this combination of factors for coaching, officiating, public and private facilities, various levels of government, volunteers, schools, colleges and universities, coach educators, potential participants, sponsorship, etc.? Make sure you answer the same questions in each quadrant. Remember this is not about predicting the future, it’s trying to develop a better appreciation for possible futures.
- Share your ideas and record them. If you’re feeling creative, give your future a name or theme song. It can be useful shorthand in the future when you want to recall the futures you have considered.
- Reflect on the themes in your four futures. What are the significant differences? Similarities? Do you have a preferred future that might combine different elements of the futures? What might your association do over the next four years to prepare itself to adapt to these possible futures or your preferred future? How do these scenarios challenge your current planning assumptions?
The imperative of being future-focused
Any sized board at any level can engage in future-focus thinking. Indeed, every board should become increasingly committed to assuring that the leadership it is providing is anchored in the future. The result is powerful and essential to continuing relevance – being able to set purpose and direction for the next four or six years also serves to ensure your organization will be preparing itself for the quadrennials that follow. Edward Cornish (2005) said: “The goal of…exploring future possibilities…is to develop foresight…the ability to make decisions that are judged to be good not just in the present moment but in the long term.”
About the Author(s)
Rose Mercier, MBA, GSP, senior consultant with The Governance Coach has for the past 10 years worked exclusively in supporting corporate, nonprofit and public agency boards in Canada and the U.S. to achieve governance excellence. Rose worked in the Canadian sport system for 20+ years in program management, chief executive and system leadership roles. Rose’s extensive involvement in Canadian sport continued through consulting engagements with more than sixty national and provincial sport bodies. She was a founding mother of Canadian Women & Sport (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (2019). The Future of Global Sport.
Cornish, E. (2004). Futuring: The exploration of the future. World Future Society.
Ford Motor Company (2019). Looking Further with Ford Trends Report 2020.
National Intelligence Council (2017). Global Trends: Paradox of Progress.
Nelson, R. (2015), Strategic Foresight: A New Obligation for Boards of Directors. Board Leadership, 139, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1002/bl.30015