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The value of foresight and futures work

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Rob Gear, futurist at PA Consulting Group, is featured on a podcast by MWD Advisors about how foresight and futures work provides framing for innovation programs.

On his role as a futurist, Rob says: “The futurist role on a day-to-day basis involves horizon scanning, looking not just at technology but at trends, and weak signals of change that are likely to have an impact on the future. Looking broadly at change, and trying to understand what it might look like. And also we have our own approach to scenario planning we use here at PA, both internally and when working with clients. It’s an approach that we call FutureWorlds, and the horizon scanning very much feeds into that process. When you follow it through, it allows you to think about future change, to assemble a set of scenarios for how that might play out, and from that you translate those scenarios into action. So any sort of foresight work from that should lead to you doing something differently otherwise you’ve stopped before you got to the end of it.”

He adds: “What you’re really trying to do is work with people to explore uncertainty, to expose and challenge existing assumptions and biases, and help people think through not just a single future. People’s default setting is to fixate on a future they hold in their heads, and often that future is an extension of the present rather than a radical change. Thinking about the future can sometimes feel uncomfortable, and with advances in neuroscience we are increasingly starting to understand that the part of the brain that people use when they think about the future is the same part that is responsible for encoding memory. So your view of the future is very much shaped by your past experience, and bias. Good foresight work is trying to help people work through this to explore the wealth of uncertainty that’s out there, to look at the assumptions that they hold.”

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Scenario planning processes can lead to radical changes and innovations. Rob comments: “Often you find that scenario planning is a great catalyst for innovation. Because through your innovation activities, what you’re trying to do is meet the unmet needs of the future. Some of your innovating might be to perpetuate what you’re doing today, but if you want to be a bit more radical than you could start to think about a bit of a departure from the status quo to get there.”

He adds: “There are examples of organizations who have gone through these kinds of scenario planning processes that have radically changed what they do. And changed their business model because as they are looking at the future they perhaps see something they can do today has a certain lifespan, and it’s only sustainable up until a certain point when the efficacy or the fitness for purpose of the business model starts to go into decline. And we have some other futures tools that can help with that as well. Those sorts of models can be quite useful within your organization to think about how you structure your innovation portfolio as well."

Rob continues: "You need to have a few big bets out there to try and achieve your vision, whether that’s disrupting yourself. You need to have a spectrum of stuff that’s more speculative in the middle, and of course some of that might succeed and some of that might fail, and then of course you need to spend a bit of time doing the sustaining as well, getting as much value out of the moment for as long as that’s possible. You really need to have all of those voices, the pragmatic, sustaining, the entrepreneurial, and the visionary all represented within your innovation portfolio to get a nice balance. It’s a good way the use of futures tools can help you think about that more.”

“It would be extremely risky to bet everything on a small number of big bets for the future vision. There’s a lot of risk associated with that without haven taken some baby steps to get there. Start small sometimes. Experiment. Be prepared to fail. Get on board with all of that. It’s important to have all of this represented at the same time, which can be tricky to do because they have different management styles associated with them and cultural issues.

"I think there is tremendous value in getting the use of these tools and techniques established as business as usual, often people will do a bit of scenario planning as part of a specific project maybe, or they will do a discrete piece of horizon scanning and then stop. You really start to see greater benefit from this when it becomes business as usual. It’s always good to look beyond your own industry sector and look at great ideas that you might be able to capitalize from what others are doing. 

He concludes: "On the scenario planning side itself, a valuable lesson has been that this very much rewards the time invested in it. It’s not something you can spend an afternoon doing and expect to have great and useful results from that. You’ve got to commit and invest time and effort. And most importantly, you shouldn’t stop until you’ve done something different as a result. If you just do some scenario planning, create some scenarios and put them on the shelf, you’ve not achieved a great deal. It’s actually exploring the implications of what you’ve done and saying as a result said ‘what are we going to do differently?’ It’s about it being actionable really.”

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