I do, however, believe in preparation for the future, the events it brings, the uncertainty it fosters, and avoiding the feeling of regret when steps were not taken to be ready for something that seems obvious after the fact."
I use the phrase “future-proofing” to be illustrative, not literal. I don’t believe it’s possible to keep the future out much like a well-worn raincoat keeps me dry. Nor do I believe that the future is something that requires protection. I do, however, believe in preparation for the future, the events it brings, the uncertainty it fosters, and avoiding the feeling of regret when steps were not taken to be ready for something that seems obvious after the fact. Take a look at your planning process and see if it has these elements built in, and if not, design a process to integrate them before taking your planning process forward.
1. Defined, transparent structure connecting analysis to plan results - I’ll share a key method to tackle this. Diagrams are a great addition to plan documents. A conceptual diagram can help lay out the structure of the idea, in this case, which analytical factors pertain to a certain strategic recommendation or project. A diagram showing the elements that went into a certain result would show all these components and how they combined.
2. Identification of fixed and flexible factors within the structure - Let’s take a certain diagram. It will likely show some “fixed” factors such as the current population, but it will also have some “flexible” factors, the variables, which are subject to change. By identifying these factors, you can do a periodic check on the variables to see if they did change, while leaving the fixed factors in place. In addition to other benefits, this can show when assumptions were made, subjective factors, so that new assumptions can be put in place as thinking evolves. Between the transparent structure and factors identified as fixed or flexible, you have a solid approach in place for periodic updating.
3. Plan opening with demonstration of interconnected issues - Plans often have goals and objectives at the beginning, and they tend to focus on a specific area of work, such as economic development or transportation. These goals and objectives are often entirely based only on writing as a medium. Early on in a plan, take economic development for example, it should be made clear what issues are interconnected, and even interdependent, for the economic development issues the plan will address. Economic development often relates to housing, transportation, education, and other factors for a local area, but it is up to that area to define the interconnected issues for themselves. Then, when the goals and objectives are written, it will be clear the conceptual, and previously unstated, basis these rest upon. Many times, an economic development plan will have some mention of transportation, for instance, assuming every reader “gets it.” The catch is, they don’t. The relationship between these issues should be stated for the purposes of the plan, even if it seems obvious to the creators, for the sake of transparency. See the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with 360 Degree Planning for more details.
4. Foresight focus - A big part of integrating a contingency component is adding in foresight. This deals with trends analysis, forecasting, horizon scanning, and other methods to gain insights into what the future might bring. This can take many directions, but a resulting list of “future forces of change” is common. This could be climate change, technology, natural disasters, or countless others. It could also be more near or short term, taking into account factors such as a major company relocation. While these are external, for the most part, they could also be internal to your organization, such as a budget cut, departure of a large number of employees, or other factors. You may even begin to sketch out the various ways each force could take shape, such as listing 3 possible paths for each.
5. Foresight likelihood - Once you have the foresight elements refined and focused on your needs, long after the initial brainstorm, you should consider the likelihood of each force and its paths, based on your current knowledge. You may not be correct, but it is a way to begin to give them deeper meaning.
6. Controllability and influence - Some of the factors you identify as interconnected issues and future forces of change may be entirely out of your organization’s control, but another organization in the same area may have some control or influence. By identifying these organizations early and checking in periodically along with the planning process, you can find out if there is the potential to inform them on your work and discuss potential paths of collaboration. Furthermore, they’ll have their own plans and ways of processing decision-making, and you may need to understand how their processes work so that you can influence it. This can be critical when your organization’s success is somehow dependent on that organization’s sphere of control and influence.
7. Scenario development - One way that planners can illustrate foresight elements, or future forces of change, is by developing scenarios. A scenario is a plausible future state; let’s say 10 years in the future. After you sketch out the various ways each “future force of change” could take shape, such as listing 3 possible paths for each, a scenario can be created that combines 1 path from each force and weaves them into a story for what that future state might look and feel like. The purpose is to give professionals, and in some cases the public, a view into how the future might shape in such a way that it feels possible and real, which inspires action. Generally 3-4 scenarios are created, but many scenarios can be developed depending on the project needs.
8. Outcomes as compass - When “future-proofing,” it is key to clearly understand the “why” for the strategy and projects that will result from the plan. The “why” tends to include key outcomes across all strategies and projects that serve as a sort of guiding light or compass. Outcomes to consider may include economic development, equity, environment, and health, but there are many others. For more insights into what constitutes an outcome, see How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations. To leverage systems thinking and mind mapping to connect your work with outcomes, see How to Map for Outcomes. When navigating the future as a part of future proofing, the “outcomes as compass” approach is even more critical than it would be otherwise, because the plan is quite literally being reoriented as the surrounding situation changes over time. The key question then is, reoriented according to what? The outcomes.
9. Strategy and projects as responses - Typically, plans end with recommended strategic directions, initiatives to serve specific needs, and/or a list of projects that will improve the situation. When future-proofing, you are not only thinking of these strategies and projects as a response to the current day needs, but also needs likely to come in the future. But with the future being its unpredictable self, you are forced to make decisions with limited information. There are a few ways to approach this and feel confident you’ve done your best. The first is to consider which projects are going to improve the local area no matter what the future brings. These are “no-brainers” of sorts with obvious need and wide support. Some of the other projects may only be appropriate if certain future events come to pass. For these, think in terms of “if-then” statements. If this certain future force of change takes this path, then we react with that (enter strategy or project here). This is essentially building in a contingency planning element that not only makes the planning process much more effective and successful, but it keeps professionals from feeling that their reactions are inadequate. The fact is, we can only do the best we can do. This type of thinking, planning, doing, and acting, given that the future remains unknowable, is the best we can do. That brings with it confidence and comfort in the knowledge of performing well as a professional. For more about “if-then” planning, specifically how to set up “trigger points” to help indicate when the “if” is really happening, or how far along it is, see How to identify tipping points and triggers.
10. Organizational co-creation - Last, but not least, no professional creates plans in a vacuum. It is always a team effort. In the case of real-time planning, it could be that there is a leader or champion in the organization that is convinced there is better way to run the planning process in order to remain responsive and flexible as the future unfolds. They may think that the typically accepted planning processes widely in use today are woefully outdated. This person, who might be you, becomes the champion of seeding options and ways forward for this critical planning need, which may end up influencing the organization in an impactful and productive way.