Calling All Association Executives to Become Futurists

Associations know they need to anticipate the future. It’s just that few consistently pay attention and use foresight practices.

During a digitalNow session May 19 entitled Helping Your Members See the Future, my co-presenters and I will challenge associations to adopt a consistent and more mature approach to foresight.  My co-presenters confirm what I have observed:  most associations use foresight episodically and inconsistently.  

In this session we will make the point that when a wide range of leaders have a thorough understanding of the forces shaping the external environment,  they can make better decisions and set and achieve more powerful goals.  My task in this session is to give an overview of the ways associations are practicing foresight.  We will poll our participants on the ways they do use foresight now.  

Here’s our list. How many of these ways are you practicing foresight today? What’s missing from this list?  

  1. Strategic planning.  Associations understand they need to assess their external environment as part of strategic planning.  A few associations realize this requires looking out five to 10 years to anticipate change.  A traditional SWOT analysis only tells you how well you are handling today, not what you will have to do to be ready for tomorrow’s opportunities. A systematic environmental scan helps focus strategic planning on leading the future. 
  2. Visioning.  At critical turning points in an industry or profession, a few associations recognize they should examine deeper systemic changes and prepare their members to continue to have a vital role in the future.  The most compelling visions come from asking better questions, such as, who do we want to be, how can we better serve society, and what will be our highest contribution to the future. 
  3. Strategy development.  When an association chooses a strategy, it is taking direct aim at an opportunity and playing to win. An environmental scan can inform the search for opportunity and strengthen an association’s judgment about what will work in a changing world—and also what should be abandoned because need or relevance is declining. 
  4. Anticipatory learning.   Good foresight is about learning how to continuously anticipate the future rather than simply a one-shot injection of intelligence to make an immediate decision wisely.   Members join associations with the expectation they will help them stay at the leading edge of their field.   Associations can help their members explore trends and issues through research reports, scanning links, education sessions and think tanks.  It’s powerful anticipatory learning when association members work collaboratively to develop viable responses. 
  5. Change leadership.  Showing people what the future could hold is a powerful tool for catalyzing change.  A good future scan can invoke strategic conversation, inform stakeholders, and invite leaders to co-create a future.  Foundations, think tanks, study commissions and summits are examples of using the future to organize concerted action in the present.
  6. Innovation.  Businesses frequently use foresight to spot trends and anticipate future markets. Now that associations are striving for a culture of innovation, we should see more associations doing this.  Foresight helps innovators see beyond today’s constraints to new capabilities that can turn “what if” ideas into real possibilities.   

When I switched careers from association executive to futurist, I somewhat jokingly said I am working to have foresight recognized as a core competency in association management.  Today I see this as a serious vision and like the possibility of putting Signature i, LLC out of business.  All association executives should be able to help their organizations anticipate the future.  Today associations hire us to help manage these episodic uses of foresight because they don’t have internal capacity. I would celebrate a day when foresight is commonplace in associations. Until then, I teach what I’ve learned and call other association executives to also become futurists.