Futures Cone – connecting capability and strategy

If you haven’t read Sjef van Geaalen’s piece on the futures cone then you are missing out on a rare blend of insight and humour (APF Compass, April 16, pp5-7). The versatility of the futures cone is understated. Like the term strategy, it appears to have become an axiom in the futures field. Often trotted out to show what we do without any real understanding on how USEFUL this diagram can be.

The futures cone allows you to demonstrate why you need to be involved in an organisation’s operational development. Let me show you what you can do with this great foundation concept.

Using the futures cone to connect capability

The structure of the futures cone should be familiar to you. The present is represented, in this case, by the oval on the left with time moving forward to the right. I have simplified the cone to only represent the possible, probable and preferable futures. The lines from the present to the different future states are indicative and do not represent a linear, orderly progression. In this diagram you can clearly see the divergence of futures as time progresses. This alone should allow you to understand why we are not forecasters. We do not predict the future, we explore and understand the possibilities.

But how far in the future should you be looking out to? 5 years? 15 years? 30 years? Well that depends … of course! It solely depends on the capability generation cycle of whom you are exploring the future with. Let me explain. Firstly a capability is the ability to do something. Your capability generation cycle is how long it takes for you to develop the ability to do something (different). The futures cone illustrated previously describes three capability time frames. The current capability (what you can do now), the funded capability (what you have already bought but are still implementing) and the capability after next (the capability you haven’t committed to or perhaps even considered).

Clearly a small, agile start-up focusing on app development would be able to re-orientate their capabilities much quicker than a national organisation, such as the military, or a supra-national entity, such as the United Nations. That is, their (the start-up) capability development process is potentially very quick (measured in weeks and months) while the military will most likely take decades to develop a capability. This should answer your question on timeframe. Explicitly, there is no point in considering the future space 30 years hence when working with a small, agile organisation. There are plenty of reasons to explore this space when working for large government organisations.

Great. You can now articulate not only why you don’t predict the future, but also why you’ve chosen a specific timeframe for exploration. How do we do this? While it is not the purpose of this article to list the variety of methods you all know so well, I will point you in the direction of Bishop, Hines and Collins seminal work in 2007 on scenario development. I favour the multi-variable methods like field anomaly relaxation because I am a purist, however pick your poison. For me though, what is more important than ‘how’ is ‘why’.

Why do we explore the future? Well, let me introduce you to another very simple diagram.

The intersection of the future environment and capability

We seek to understand the future to understand the potential risks and opportunities. It is that simple. An understanding of the future, by itself, is useless. It may be fun to explore. The product may read like a great science fiction novel however, without context, it has no reason to be. That reason, the context, is provided by the organisational capability and answered through two questions.

  1. How does the environment impact my capability? Remember that a capability is the ability to do something. When you develop a capability, you want to be confident that it can operate without interference. Thus an understanding of the environment allows us to find the sources of risk or uncertainty.
  2. How can I affect the environment? Our capabilities give us the ability to create an external effect. One where we can drive an agenda, influence change or create future value. Understanding the environmental allows us to find those levers of change. It makes back-casting possible.

When you are able to articulate the interaction of the proposed organisational capability with the probable future, you can then move into the next phases of analysis. Options generation, modelling, risk analysis and resource gap analysis. These methods allow you to move your consideration of the future into a logical and useful description of options that truly informs the decision makers.

Like me, you may really enjoy developing a rich understanding of the future. However, without context, it is ultimately pointless. I use these diagrams to create a logic-chain, a rationale if you will, to create a sense of purpose for what we are doing. Futurists are uniquely positioned to provide organisations, big or small, a solid understanding of potential risk and possible options. Using this logic, the futurist is a valuable contributor to the operational development of an organisation.

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