VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—is an acronym coined by the U.S. military to describe the geo-political environment after the Cold War. Today, business leaders have adopted the term to describe their Monday mornings.
In such an environment, where does competitive intelligence fit? How do you keep up with the unprecedented pace and scale of change? With automation and artificial intelligence playing a larger role, how do CI professionals remain relevant?
The CI community seems to be answering, “we need to go beyond pure data, beyond plain analysis, and take on a more anticipatory—maybe even predictive—role.”
Competitive Intelligence Focuses on Today, Only Glances at Tomorrow
And so scenario planning, wargaming, and strategic monitoring are introduced to help fulfill this role. As futurists here at Kedge, we applaud this more forward-looking approach, but we believe you can go even further.
Scenario planning, at least in the traditional sense, is designed to give competitive intelligence some direction. In a world where practically everything might be a threat, scenarios may help you decide what kinds of threats to monitor. The desired outcome is an early warning system that alerts the organization if a particular event is getting closer to occurring.
But this puts the organization in a reactive stance, constantly playing defense. It also relegates CI to be a kind of security camera, dutifully and diligently looking out for the very first sign of a threat so company leaders can quickly react.
While this is a necessary and important system, it’s only one way to approach planning for the future. The other is a more aspirational approach, where CI functions more like a GPS, actively guiding the organization toward a desired future.
Futures Intelligence Starts with Tomorrow, then Creates a Road Map for Today
The fact is, every action we take brings about a result that helps shape the future. We, as individuals and organizations, must be more purposeful in deciding which actions we take, so that we can create the future we desire.
The organization that thrives in this VUCA environment will learn to balance both the reactive and proactive approaches. Competitive Intelligence can be the facilitator and driver of this balanced approach by adopting the discipline of Strategic Foresight.
Strategic Foresight is the decades-old practice of identifying emerging trends and issues (not only in a particular industry, but across all sectors), and then using this insight to map out possible futures using immersive, fully fleshed out scenarios.
These well-informed maps of the future allow us to test our current strategy, develop breakthrough innovations, and create transformative change. In this way, you develop futures intelligence.
Futures Intelligence Means a More Holistic, Actionable Role for Competitive Intelligence
Strategic Foresight doesn’t replace the crucial skills you’ve developed as an accomplished CI professional; it enhances and updates them for the 21st Century and beyond:
Discover holistic data
Gathering data — both quantitative and qualitative — remains a foundational part of the process. With Strategic Foresight, you ensure a more holistic data gathering process. You begin with examining the macro environment, then determining your industry and organization’s role within it.
In this way, you’re more vigilant of potential disruptors. After all, in this VUCA environment, your competitors are more likely to come from outside your industry than from within it. Strategic Foresight also takes into account our innate information filters and outdated mental models, which act as blind spots when investigating a future that looks markedly different than the present or the past.
Explore trends and patterns of change
Competitive intelligence software is becoming more adept at not just collecting data, but helping to analyze it as well. This is certainly useful, but it doesn’t provide a complete picture. Trends that can be identified by software, by quantitative data, are by definition already taking place today. By the time you can gather data on a trend, it should have already been incorporated in your strategy. You should add in pattern and sense-making to gain insight into the next wave of change.
At its deepest level, change is driven by shifts in societal values and beliefs, the intangible zeitgeist of the global community, and ripple effects from the interplay of existing trends. Identifying these patterns of change requires creativity and intuition that is innately human and can’t be relegated to an AI function. This is how CI professionals can work alongside rapidly advancing technology for unprecedented success, instead of being rendered obsolete by it.
Map the paths the future may take
If the breadth of your scenario can be summed up in one sentence (for example, “What if Alibaba opens an online restaurant?”), then you have an overly simplistic and probably inaccurate map of the future. In Strategic Foresight, scenarios are based on data and research, but they also fold in creativity and intuition to weave a compelling narrative of a possible future. This world-building allows us to be immersed in that landscape and experience its technology, conflicts, values, and people.
Effective scenarios help us suspend disbelief so that we can understand and imagine the implications and possibilities of such a world. When used in conjunction with our traditional planning methods, these stories equip us to be successful in our VUCA environment. By creating multiple alternative narratives, we can test our existing strategies to ensure they are successful in a variety of operating environments, develop new strategies based on the divergent worlds painted in the scenarios, and even inspire new innovations that we can use in our current environment.
These points only skim the surface of the benefits you can reap by developing your Strategic Foresight muscle. There’s the energy and momentum that comes with realizing you can do more than chase trends and track changes in an environment that looks markedly different each week. There’s also the comfort and support from being part of a growing community of change agents and future thinkers who, together, are building a brighter future. Moreover, it’s easy to get started:
4 Ways to Kick-start your Futures Intelligence
- Get a free introduction to Strategic Foresight with “Unlock the Futurist Mindset”—an easy-to-read yet informative guide. Download your copy below.
- Scan Broadly, from the Outside In – Actively seek out emerging issues from the macro environment, and be sure to cover STEEP (the Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political sectors). Then you’ll have a solid foundation to understand value shifts, identify emerging trends, and consider the implications of the collision of those trends on your industry.
- Challenge assumptions and old ways of thinking. If you think an idea is ridiculous, ask yourself “why?!” You do not have to change your belief system. The simple act of pausing to consider your knee-jerk reaction is enough to begin to move past informational “blind spots” caused by outdated mental models. It is also helpful to surround yourself with a team that offers diversity of thought.
- Come to The Futures School Applied Foresight Accelerator — a 3-day certificate Strategic Foresight program that offers practical tools and a diverse network of like-minded professionals.
- Consider earning professional certification.