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Futures Thinking Tools from a Futurist’s Toolkit

By 20 September 2014

This blog is part of a showcase of exhibits from South Asian think tanks participating in the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. You may view other entries on the PEC Showcase Overview Page. 

The Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communication programme puts CEOs and managers in a position where they have to make smart and tough decisions. This could be in regards to hiring a dedicated communications person, shifting towards digital modes of engagement or simply adopting social media for better communication of research. This blog introduces some ‘Futures Thinking’ tools which I have found to be of great assistance in terms of improving decision-making, implementation and the ability to cope with future challenges. These include the Futures Triangle, the Futures Wheel and the Double Variable Scenario method.

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One of the major challenges for Think Tanks, in terms of strengthening their Policy Engagement and Communication (PEC) programmes is to strategize and make tough decisions about their future orientation. Futures thinking tools can provide assistance in improving decision-making, implementation and the ability to cope with future challenges. While working with Think Tanks, I have found the tools below to be of great help.

The Futures Triangle
Invented by Sohail Inayatullah (Inayatullah, 2008), the futures triangle is a tool for mapping the past, present and future to help explore the space of plausible futures. The fundamental thought is that there are three dimensions that shape plausible futures: the weight of the past (barriers); the push of the present (drivers); and the pull of the future. The tension and interaction between these three forces creates a possible future space.

The futures triangle method consists of identifying three distinct factors. The first step is identifying the contending pulls of the future. These are current images of the future – the way it could be or should be. The second step is identifying the critical drivers pushing (creating or reinforcing) towards a preferable future. The third step involves identifying the weights or barriers preventing the realization of a particular image of the future. Once this is done, the question is identifying where the strategic intervention should be: the image of the future or at the competing forces of the pushes or the weights?

In terms of the PEC programme, a futures triangle for a think tank might look like the one below:

futurestriangle

A futures triangle for a think tank engaged in Policy Engagement & Communication (Sheraz, U., 2014)

The Futures Wheel
One key barrier with decision-making is indecisiveness and the urge to debate (both are often intrinsic in researchers). When academics or researchers debate, both opponents bring to their arguments, statistics, evidence and rational and then debate the issue. In the end, one side wins whilst the effort and resources of the losing party is wasted. In such situations, the futures wheel a future-oriented technique, invented by Jerome C. Glenn in 1971, has a lot to offer. The Futures Wheel is a structured brainstorming method used to investigate the direct and indirect consequences of a decision, issue or trend and to explore alternative possibilities and strategies It is one of those rare methods in which opposing views on an issue, find a place on the same page, thus making the process more robust and enriching the future discussion space. Also the brainstorming does not stop at primary consequences but also explores secondary impacts, providing new opportunities and identifying potential consequences.

A typical Futures Wheel brainstorming session involves selecting the issue to be discussed, followed by identifying the primary impacts stemming from the central issue. Once primary impacts have been identified, the second order implications (the impact of the primary impact) are brainstormed. Where there are disagreements, a new impact line and new circle can be created. Here it is important to remember that any disagreements make the process more robust, and enrich the future space, leading to more informed and intelligent decision making.

In my interactions with various think tanks, a critical decision faced by many Think Tanks is in regards to hiring a full-time communications person. A Futures Wheel in regards to such a decision would look like the following:

futurewheel

The futures wheel (Sheraz, U., 2014)

Double Variable Scenario Method
The above two methods are useful in mapping and anticipating non-partisan possibilities but when it comes to making decisions, there are uncertainties about various issues and their possible consequences. Here scenarios are useful for exploring stories about possible futures amidst uncertainty. Unlike predictions or forecasts, scenarios are stories about possible futures, about what could happen, not what will or should happen. Scenario planning helps in preparing for contingencies (and surprises) and by clarifying alternatives, using this tool helps us to explore decisions about the preferred future more effectively.

In terms of building scenarios around the degree of importance and uncertainty, the double variable scenario method is useful in developing short and medium range strategies. The initial step involves identifying the key variables which are highly uncertain as well as highly important. The extremes of each of the two uncertainties are plotted against each other into a two by two matrix thereby creating the framework for four possible scenarios. A possible scenario matrix based on two important and uncertain variables “Financial stability” and “Visible PEC programme” is shown below.

ScenarioMatrix

Scenario Matrix, (Sheraz, U., 2014)

The scenarios which emerge from this interaction include two extremes:

1) A worst case scenario resulting from the convergence of PEC invisible as well as financial instability, appropriately nick-named Armageddon. This scenario envisages a brain drain of think tank personnel leading to below-quality knowledge production. Due to minimum outreach, there is zero audience and zero stakeholder engagement. The organization is on austerity measures to survive.

2) A best case scenario resulting at the junction of visible presence and financial stability. This scenario visualizes outreach to stakeholders and better policy outreach. In such conditions, attracting skilled Human Resources is easy, resulting in better quality of research. Due to financial stability, the think tank is able to work on topics of its own choice and path its own destiny. Financial stability is also reflected in better Human Resource Management, resulting in more capacity development opportunities for employees.

The trick is to locate the current position of the organization, (in this particular case, the think tank is located at the nexus of sleepy hollow and best-case) and decide the direction in which it needs to move. In terms of the conjunction of online visibility and financial stability, the think tank needs to concentrate on securing finances and alternative methods of generating revenue.

Reference

Inayatullah, Sohail. 2008. “Six Pillars: Futures Thinking For Transforming.” Foresight 10 (1): 4–28.

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This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However, these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec.

Feature image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

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