Strategic Foresight: How to See Around Corners

Prepare for your Grand Challenge to lead you into uncharted territory.

What do you believe will happen in the future? How confident are you about your beliefs? The core purpose of Strategic Foresight is to help you answer these two questions. 

Tackling a wicked problem means venturing into uncharted territory. You need a way to reduce uncertainty about emergent factors, in order to set milestones that people will give their all to achieve.

My Strategic Foresight framework consists of five steps:

  1. Engage Strategists
  2. Scan the Environment
  3. Connect the Dots
  4. Plan for Action
  5. Measure Results
Click to View the Full 5-Step Infographic

In 2018, the Promotional Products Association International asked me to create a Strategic Foresight playbook for their members, who were facing the market disruptions of the American mortgage crisis. Their 60,000+ members wanted help to understand what might happen that would impact their businesses. You can download that playbook here. An emergent crisis of that nature demonstrates the importance of integrating strategic foresight into a Grand Challenge initiative.

Strategic Foresight in Grand Challenge Work

Learning is crucial at the start of a Grand Challenge. Leaders need fresh, accurate information to deepen their understanding of the problem and the environment surrounding it. In the Collective Impact model, there is no “Strategic Foresight working group”—all leaders should engage in this research. Strategic foresight is an excellent process to bring into your Touchstone Events, as it helps people to imagine the future as it relates to the challenge at hand.

Most people need assistance envisioning what the future will look like. If you ask them, many will say the future looks like the present only bigger, better, and faster, but how helpful is that? And what about disruptions? Strategic Foresight provides higher quality answers about what is emerging and how to track new trends in terms of both their velocity (i.e., how fast they will mature) and impact.

Strategic Foresight is a cyclical process that should be repeated regularly. Let’s take a closer look at the five steps.

1. Engage strategists

Reach out and invite knowledgeable resource people into a conversation. Start with people internal to the participating organizations, but don’t stop there. Ask, “Who isn’t in the room, but should be?” You can pull them together for a real-time meeting, or you can simply catch the experts when they’re available for a 1:1 conversation.

Ask questions like: What do you see coming on the horizon that will impact our efforts, for better or worse? What can be done to exploit that opportunity or mitigate that problem? Given that emerging trend, what would you do if you were in my situation?

2. Scan the environment

Collect emerging trends and information in three areas:

  • Impact: Find out what strategies leaders in other initiatives have deployed, and how they are performing.
  • Sector: Discover the latest breakthroughs in the sector you’re addressing.
  • Beneficiaries: Find out what the people impacted by the problem need and how you might help. Scanning the environment happens at the leadership level and throughout the Collective Impact ecosystem because the participating organizations bring a myriad of eyes that will see trends that the leaders won’t.

3. Connect the dots

Share the results of your environmental scan with the strategists you’ve tapped, to leverage their creativity, deep knowledge, and intuition. In discussions with strategists, explore:

  • What is the velocity of the trends we’ve identified? Are they happening now; imminent; likely to happen in a less than year; or far on the horizon?
  • What is the likelihood of these trends actually coming to fruition in a way that impacts our efforts? For greater clarity, push for quantified estimates, such as 30% or 90%, not “a little” or “a lot.”
  • What secondary impacts can you envision? For example, might two or more of these trends combine to create unforeseen impacts, positive or negative?
  • What are the key indicators you would watch to determine if a specific trend is gaining in velocity or likelihood?

Download this worksheet to use with your group.

Correlate the information emerging from these conversations by velocity and likelihood of coming to fruition, so that you can focus on what is most certain and most immanent.

4. Plan for Action

Here, your group passes from the learning phase of the Strategic Foresight model into the action phase. Everyone in the participating organizations will become involved. Until this point, ideas about what to do to address the crisis have been only hypotheses. Now, based on velocity and likelihood, decision-makers can judge which hypotheses seem worthy of putting to the test.

Let the information from Strategic Foresight flow into the equity, funding, metrics, and communications and outreach groups. Make sure you share the results with the members of all four working groups and ask the leader of each group to act on it. Then the Strategic Foresight model will contribute to your group’s execution of the 10 Keys for Creating a Social Movement.

5. Measure Results

In the Collective Impact model, the metrics group will have determined what data to collect and assess, using both quantitative and qualitative measures. The answer to “how do we know if we are succeeding?” will emerge from this step.

Strategic Foresight provides methods for actively gathering information about the future, making sense of it, and taking coordinated action based on it. The process allows you to set goals people will do their best to meet because they are valid and achievable. I offer this infographic summarizing the 5-step cycle for use with your planning group.

Yes, the terrain is always changing. By continuing the Strategic Foresight cycle, your leadership team can stay abreast of emergent factors and maintain forward progress.

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL-it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

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