The Language of Foresight
The Business Imperative: What’s the Bigger Picture?
My accidental journey to becoming a foresight professional started with a business need and a fortuitous visit to a futurist conference.
In 2014 I was asked to step out of the day-to-day of the business I helped launch and assume the new role of Chief Strategy Officer. The role was mine to define, but it rose out of the need for our organization, a provider of financial services, to become deliberate in our growth. We had grown from a business plan in 2007 to a balance sheet that experienced 1000% growth and made the Inc. 500 in 2012. I was struggling to find ways to somehow see the bigger picture, but I knew our clients, community-based financial institutions, were disappearing at the rate of one a day and our products and services alone were not going to reverse this course.
My business coach was a member of the World Future Society and she invited me to join her at their annual conference in 2014. She told me to float in and out of as many sessions as I could to get a flavor for the discussions. On that Saturday, I attended presentations from foresters, military strategists, educators, spiritualists, and sci-fi authors covering an incredibly diverse range of topics. I strayed in and out of almost all the sessions, and what struck me was how many of the same trends were influencing the future of their respective industry, albeit with different implications.
A New Toolkit: How Can I Identify Signals of Change?
I took it all in, and the following week my coach called me to debrief. I told her it was the most mentally stimulating conference I had ever attended. As I reflected on what I experienced, my main conclusion was that while each industry was facing a complex and uncertain future, there were a far smaller set of trends, that if understood and followed, could provide me with insights that could allow me to articulate possible futures for my industry and company. The following year I attended formal training where I learned about biases and practiced environmental scanning, trend definition and implications, pattern recognition, and scenario development.
A New Approach: What’s My New Purpose?
With the knowledge of trends and a foresight toolkit, I felt equipped with a new way to approach my work. My role and work continued to transform which resulted in my pursuit of two specific purposes.
- Create a diverse set of possible future states that allowed our company to develop strategy within a context. For the first time we could create a vision of our preferred future and strategies to intercept that future. Our planning discussions centered around the implications of key trends and our SWOT analysis was conducted in relation to those key trends.
- Create a future-focused organization, which resulted from my desire to practice and become more proficient with the tools. I learn best when I teach methods to others. So, I took six people out of their day jobs for a two-hour lunch and learn to introduce them to foresight and share the initiative. We then met for an hour every two weeks for six months where we defined an issue to focus on, “the future of lending”, learned to collectively scan, analyze trends, identify first and second order implications through the use of the futures wheel, and drafted three scenarios. The team then presented the scenarios to the executive team as a group of subject-matter experts to inform the company’s 2016 strategic plan. The executive team found the scenarios provocative and thought provoking. This was also the first time these team members had the opportunity to present to the executive team.
A Fraud Analyst, A Collections Representative, and a Marketer Walk into a Bar: What’s Their Common Language?
My first team was made up of a fraud analyst, collections representative, financial analyst, customer service representative, credit underwriter, and marketer. They were from diverse cultures and crossed three generations. The month after they presented to the executive team, they were asked to talk about their experience at the monthly all-staff meeting. I asked employees to see me if they were interested in joining a second round of foresight. I received responses from four employees who wanted to repeat the experience and 15 new participants.
Over the next 18 months, I led three rounds of foresight training and when the company was sold in early 2018, half of all employees had gone through the program. The most interesting observation for me was how the language of foresight made its way into project teams, especially when the team was issue-solving and considering alternatives.
A Look Into My Future: What’s Next?
I have since moved on to a community-based financial institution, and we’re committed to avoiding the plight of the “one a week” in our industry that disappear through a sale or merger. While the context foresight provides is critical in mapping out our next 36 months, I’m more convinced than ever before that our success hinges on our ability to successfully integrate strategic foresight into the organization:
- Creating awareness around our biases
- Understand how disruption is born from shifting values structures, and a way in which to identify those shifts
- Look beyond manifestations and ask “why?”
- Challenge each “why?” by asking “if it’s true, then what?”
Whichever combination of futures unfold, one thing is for certain, my future is to be seen leading from a place of curiosity and as a fellow explorer.
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Chief Strategy Officer of National Products, Sunrise Banks
TFS Alumni Denver 2017 Cohort, Advanced Symposium 2019 Cohort
Currently serving as Chief Strategy Officer for Sunrise Banks, Eric is responsible for driving innovation and growth by partnering with fintechs to expand the banks’ mission of “Being the most innovative bank empowering financial wellness.” He’s interested in connecting with entrepreneurs, VCs, accelerators, incubators, financial institutions, and other professionals in the fintech ecosystem. Eric is also an applied futurist and the principle of Sextant Advisors, a consultancy dedicated to applying strategic foresight to companies who are interested in creating and intercepting their future. He has spoken at numerous forums and conferences on financial services and strategic foresight. Eric’s background includes underwriting, portfolio management and product development at two of the country’s largest financial institutions, Capital One and US Bank. Eric earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin.