How to Encourage a Board to Talk About the Future

ASAE ForesightWorks identifies a host of trends likely to transform life, work, and business. Conversations about what's coming can make leaders skittish, but it can be done with some patience and an emphasis on the upsides.

There are a lot of quotes in business literature about the challenge of dealing with future trends. My favorite, though, comes not from a captain of industry or Harvard Business School guru, but from a film critic, Pauline Kael: “We don’t have time to catch up with the future that is here,” she wrote in 1968.

The quip neatly summarizes both the scope of the problem and why it’s so hard to deal with. People are already starting to face the challenges of automation, shifting demographics, new learning methods, and more. But many associations are so consumed with dealing with today’s urgent problems—which are a function of yesterday’s trends—that keeping up can feel impossible.

Foresight can be proactive as well as reactive.

ASAE ForesightWorks, created by the ASAE Foundation and which my colleague Tim Ebner and I wrote about in the latest issue of Associations Now, isn’t a set of simple fixes for whatever challenge may be affecting your organization. But it is a tool to help you catch up. Laying out 41 “change drivers” that are currently affecting industries (and hence the associations that serve them), it includes recent research on each trend, with relevant prompts for points to discuss them.

How you discuss them, though, is up to you, which is part of the beauty and challenge of talking about the future. But any effort to study the future should also include an effort to devise an action plan for what the organization will do in response. Many organizations, for instance, do some form of environmental scanning—gathering data and news stories about trends—but go no further. As futurist Marsha Rhea, CAE, who is involved in ForesightWorks, puts it, “environmental scanning is just one of a number of methodologies that an that an association could use to practice foresight.”

Indeed, scanning comes fairly early in the process. In their 2007 book, Thinking About the Future, Andy Hines and Peter Bishop lay out a six-part process for addressing future trends. It kicks off with “framing”—that is, sorting out the problem that needs addressing, before proceeding to scanning, then forecasting (making informed predictions about the trends’ impact), visioning (articulating what the organization will look like in light of the trends), planning (establishing steps for putting that vision into action), and finally, at last, taking action.

Many associations and their boards, though, may not get much beyond the scanning mode, for fear of drawing a wrong conclusion about the data they have in hand. But Rhea points out that the point of a forecasting exercise isn’t to make a rock-solid prediction about what an association’s world will look like five years from now, but to identify a number of possibilities that can drive its future activity. “Thinking about the range of future possibilities is important, although eventually informed assumptions will have to be made to guide visioning and planning,” Rhea writes in “Why Associations Need Foresight,” a free research brief connected to ForesightWorks.

“What I don’t see enough of, not just at the board level but also associations in general, is using foresight in a couple of other arenas,” she says. “One is risk management, to really look at your programs your services and do what some people call futureproofing: ‘If these changes occur, what are our vulnerabilities? How do we need to adapt?’”

But Rhea stresses that foresight can be proactive as well as reactive—the process can reveal avenues for increasing membership, revenue, and engagement that it might not have considered otherwise. That’s one way a leader can get a skeptical board to think about foresight beyond the familiar strategic-planning methods. Sue Pine, CAE, vice president of professional development at Association Headquarters, suggests going slow, but that leaders should be firm about the importance of the process.

“Having those conversations with boards or with staff is not always easy, but I think that the responsibility is joint [between staffs and boards],” she says. “How it starts, I feel, is that the exec director decides they’re going to lead it, or they’ll identify a staffer who will at a high level interface with the board to identify the champion who gets this. If you think you’re just going to show up at a board meeting and say, ‘Hey foresight’s important and here’s 41 change drivers we should be discussing,’ you’re going to blindside and shut them down pretty quickly. I think you need to start with conversation about future thinking and foresight.”

What do you do to help your organization talk about future trends, and take action in response to them? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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