Environmental Scanning Necessary but Not Sufficient

Environmental scanning is necessary but not sufficient to effective change leadership and strategic planning.

As much as I would rather avoid over-worked expressions, “necessary but not sufficient” is my best response to executives who express growing dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of environmental scans or to futurists who worry that clients are not as interested in this basic service as they once were. I hear both concerns with increasing frequency.

Organizations need a systematic analysis of their external and internal situation before they embark on any change effort. Futurists typically use a scanning framework to cast a wide net for relevant trends and issues.  STEEPV is a common scanning framework (social, technology, economic, environment, policy and values). Signature i sometimes uses a very simple set of questions to help groups search for big changes. We also use a more sophisticated scanning framework for exploring how professions change since many of our clients are professional membership societies.       

But without a method for making meaning out of this data, organizations can’t learn much from these scans. This is why Signature i counsels using these scans as only a map of relevant trends and issues. Organizations still have to identify the key drivers of change shaping their future and choose their strategic issues and opportunities.  We use a simple straightforward test to help organizations make meaning out of environmental scanning:

  1. Does the issue or trend affect your mission?
  2. Could your actions make an important difference in the direction of this change?
  3. Does your vision require you to act?

Environmental scans are necessary to stay alert to issues and trends that could affect your mission. But they are not sufficient and have little value without the leadership conversations to answer questions 2 and 3.  The answers to these questions will focus your energy and resources to lead change. They lead to better strategic plans and signature initiatives. And if the changes are significant, your answers may lead you to create a new vision that transforms your organization.

There are plenty of shortcuts any organization can take to lower the time and cost of environmental scanning.  You can rely on scans others have done for your industry or related industries.  Networking with your key thought leaders helps. Developing your own scanning framework and recruiting a team of scanners to monitor new developments will give you a systematic approach. Signature i uses all these tactics and more to get the job done.

What is critical is to remember that environmental scanning is not the real job to be done—leading change is.  For that, you must have the meaning making and decision making of leadership conversations.