How can Service and Product Design make better decisions using strategic foresight?

Credit: Miguel Amutio via Unsplash

This article reflects on a series of campfire talks that I am hosting with Service Design College that will provide you with an understanding of different aspects of service design. This module focused on ‘How to make better decisions using strategic foresight?’

In the past, design was only seen in the context of production. We designed the desired product for a particular purpose, and our work was done. However, the role of service and product designers has evolved to include strategic planning over the years.

We’re now in a position to help multidisciplinary teams look at their organisations with the future in mind. At the core of our work is strategic foresight. This concept is inherently built into service and product design. Our job as designers is to always create solutions for the future, and that is impossible to achieve without foresight.

Thinking ahead in five steps

Strategic foresight is not a prediction of the future!

Rather, it is the establishment of a range of realistic possibilities. This process is always followed by actionable decisions aimed at mediating the possibilities in question, especially if they could be detrimental to the company. As a designer, you then need to decide where those possibilities fit in the organisation’s vision.

Organisations have been forced into unfamiliar territory because of the pandemic, and not all have done so successfully. Only organisations that implemented strategic foresight have managed to stay afloat. Even without extenuating circumstances, companies that plan ahead are more likely to succeed.

Take Netflix, for instance. The company’s flexible business model has seen it survive from the late 90s to a more digitalised 21st century. They went from renting DVDs to streaming content and then became one of the first streaming services to produce their own material. Strategic foresight has allowed the company to grow with every technological and societal development. This level of foresight is crucial for every business. This has paved the way for new streaming rivals and services to enter the market. Although, Netflix is facing competitors they have a history of building new products and services that shape the future market’s needs by thinking a few steps ahead.

Strategic foresight allows you to find alternative success routes while your business is still successful. In so doing, you maintain an upward trajectory because each new success wave breeds more growth opportunities. The idea behind strategic foresight is that you continuously work because you never know when the tide might turn against your company or organisation.

Aligning the present with the future

Good foresight is not just thinking about the future but also finding ways to build a bridge between the present and the envisioned goal. The most vital part of strategic foresight is turning objectives into daily tasks to ensure that our vision materialises. This calls for a shared vision between senior stakeholders, employees, and the design team, which is often a hard sell.

A shared vision makes it much easier to get stakeholders and colleagues to align their everyday decisions with the bigger objective. Moreover, there needs to be a common language when discussing key objectives and timelines with the rest of the organisation.

People in other professions may have a different understanding of short-term and long-term objectives compared to fellow designers. Designers might understand long-term objectives to mean years from now, whereas the long-term could be three months for people in technical fields. Therefore, it is crucial to set quantifiable timelines and targets for tasks aimed at achieving the main objective.

It is human nature to want more tangible results, which further makes strategic foresight a hard sell in bigger organisations. The key to making this concept more palatable to non-designers is breaking it into simpler short-term goals. This enables the balance of short-term deliverability with long-term objectives and makes design more tangible.

A CEO may have three- to five-year terms, during which they hope to leave a legacy. This adds to the need for more immediate results, making 10-year objectives hard to sell. The key to changing this mindset is showing decision-makers the severity of their present situation. Make sure they understand that failure to look beyond the present will make the company obsolete tomorrow.

Looking at the current business state further allows you to flag vulnerabilities in products/services to highlight the need for strategic foresight. Remind decision-makers that failure to look into the future will hinder the organisation’s ability to reach the next wave of success.

How do you then implement strategic foresight?

1. Agree on a tipping pointDecision-makers often understand key performance indicators (KPIs) better than long-term designs. So, pinpoint a few KPIs you could observe in the organisation. Agree on an intervention strategy when the selected KPI declines or reaches a certain point. This will make it easier for the entire organisation to deal with the event when it happens because you’ll have an action plan.

2. Compile a list of “black swans”It’s crucial to have a list of “black swans” that could impact the organisation. A black swan event is often seen as an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation. This refers to low probability but high impact events such as a pandemic. Similar to the tipping point, this serves as a risk management tool. Compiling a list of black swans also allows the organisation to allocate resources and time for the possible events.

3. Attempt speculative designSpeculative design allows us to research possibilities without the constraints of realism. This involves asking oneself and the rest of your team “what would happen if…?” Speculative design is a way to brainstorm probabilities and their design solutions. Implementing this exercise ensures that no scenario catches you off-guard.

We often treat the future as something that happens to us. The main advantage of strategic foresight is that it allows us to research what is ahead and shape our future. And so, the future does not necessarily happen to us or our organisations; it becomes something we work towards.

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Innovation | Strategy | Making a difference through writing, listening, talking and doing

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Daniel Tuitt

Innovation | Strategy | Making a difference through writing, listening, talking and doing