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How can INGOs prepare for the future?

10 May 2016

"We had the perfect strategy for yesterday's future," a CEO once commented to me.

Unexpected shocks disrupt the familiar plan-budget-delegate-review cycle and solutions based on specific technical fixes. This is a common occurrence in a world full of change and unknowns. At this point, narrative foresight and futures literacy become vital.

These disciplines do not simply question the product, process or strategy, they challenge the official future itself. It is sometimes not sufficient to identify weak signals and explore alternative futures; sometimes the core narrative of the business needs to be re-imagined.

It is this deeper level of foresight that encourages organisations to transition from technical fixes to adaptive responses, or even transformative journeys where they change as they create new futures.

To create successful foresight strategies, I have found the following four principles to be crucial.

1. Challenge the 'used future'

Every organisation has practices that do not necessarily reflect their preferred future. Indeed, they often live strategies that contradict their vision. In the foresight process, I ask participants what these routine practices – their "used futures" – might be.

In the education sector, the used future that emerges over and over again is classrooms designed around desks in rows, which is not student-centred or technology-friendly. 

In international development, the used future may be the notion that development agencies are still required in an era of disintermediation – that the middle man is still needed.

2. Search for emerging issues

This is especially important during periods of rapid change – technological, demographic, or geo-political, for example. Emerging issues can be forthcoming problems or possible opportunities. The challenge is to identify them before they become easy-to-spot trends.

Uber, Airbnb and Facebook all spotted emerging issues, and are disrupting the taxi, hotel, and media industries respectively. But who are the disruptors of the non-profit sector? Paul Taylor cites the Mercy Virtual Care Centre, a hospital without beds, and Buurtzorg, a community care system without managers.

3. Create scenarios

The trajectory of an emerging issue is difficult to predict, and organisational culture is hard to change. Using alternative futures is crucial when negotiating such uncertainty. Alternative futures, or scenarios, can help an organisation to become more flexible and adaptable. They also help to develop a range of alternative visions and strategies.

The trajectory of an emerging issue is difficult to predict, and organisational culture is hard to change

These scenarios can be developed using many techniques, but I have found the most useful to be based on challenging one's core assumptions about the way the world is and the way the world is developing. For development organisations there a number of possible futures:

  • issuing their own initial public offerings;
  • disappearing altogether as new organisations such as Avaaz, Change.org, Kiva, and GetUp! became the dominant players;
  • a new app or platform creating an Uber of development;
  • a new platform allowing authentic cooperation between local and global.

4. Find the worldview and narrative

The capacity to change is not just linked to workforce capabilities, but also to the deeper inner narratives. Narratives are not right or wrong. The critical question is whether or not they support the vision of the organisation. Without an understanding of the narratives, strategies often fail – culture ends up eating strategy for breakfast.

One NGO I worked with had as its core metaphor: "Being pummelled by the present." They were so overwhelmed by emergencies that they had lost focus and were being drained of energy. Through the narrative foresight process, they transformed their story to: "A flock of eagles." This in turn led to a strategic shift, focusing not just on finding jobs for youth, but working on high impact strategies at national and global levels. They reported that while previously they had been feeding their worries, now they were creating possibilities.

In order to transform the current development environment, we need to challenge the used future, identify emerging disrupters, articulate alternative futures-scenarios to create new strategies, and ensure these strategies are supported by core narratives.

Sohail Inayatullah is one of the expert facilitators of the Bond Business model innovation for NGOs programme for senior leaders who want to ensure their organisations are fit for the future. The course starts on the 27 June 2016. There is a 15% discount if you book your place before 14 May 2016.

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About the author

Sohail Inayatullah headshot

Professor Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, is a political scientist at Tamkang University, Taipei (Graduate Institute of Futures Studies) and an Associate at Melbourne Business School, the University of Melbourne.