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When facilitating a strategy workshop with a team, you need a view of where the organisation is going. Clients often say they want to work on their “Vision” or vision statement. We do that. However, they quickly realise that a “Tangible Vision”, or “Tangible Future” helps then envisage the potential futures more effectively, so they can think more clearly about how they will achieve their ambitions in their Vision statement.

This article contrasts “Aspirational Visions” with “Tangible Visions” or “Tangible Futures” as I prefer to call them. It explains both have their role. It describes a “Tanglble Fision. It explains the value of Tangible Futures and how a set of them can give a much more tangible and specific set of future states to develop and test a strategy against.

As an aside, I have been using Tangible futures with clients when facilitating Strategy Workshops for over 25 years. In that time the approach has developed and been refined, and I readily adapt the Tangible Futures to the specific needs of that client and their circumstances. This article gives you some clues as to how this works.

On facilitating organisational vision, mission, and purpose statements

The temptation when facilitating strategy workshops is to try to develop the mission, purpose and vision at the start.  It seems to natural. We need a mission, purpose vision – so lets sort that out first. Then do the strategy.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a rabbit hole of “premature wordsmithing”.  The situation where people argue about nuances and individual wording in a short set or words. They end up doing this without the much longer and deeper thoughts that lie behind those few words. This can lead to the “Ten thousand and six word problem“.

It is far better to briefly visit the Vision and mission/purpose at the start, note any issues, and concerns, but to move on to explore the future extensively.  We always do this. it helps to understand the wider issues and see where differences and nuances lie. However, I do not seek to “Close this down” at the start. I make it clear we will revisit it at the end.

Then as we progress through teh startegy development progress, when issues relating to the vision or mission/purpose arise, I encourage teh client to put a post-it on the poster so we do not forget it.

Then, towards the end of the strategy workshop, when the potential futures are understood, and the strategy context and strategy has been explored, we return to the vision for the organisation and its mission/purpose.  At this point it is far easier to establish what might need to change and the direction (or directions) these should take.  It is always easier, after you have had the 10,000 word conversation, to agree the nuances and specific wording that the team are happy with.

At this point we are into “Messaging” rather than arguing about substance and direction. A far simpler conversation to have. This becomes part of communicating and socialising the strategy. (link to the Socialising Strategy zone). You can then work on making that mission and vision memorable.

My clients find this approach a far better process. It avoids wordsmithing rabbit holes: ultimately these clients are happier with what comes out in both their Aspitational Vision, their Tangible futures and now they are to communicate and socialise those messages.

PS Mission and purpose are synonymous. Both are different to a vision. See these articles for explanations.

Contrasting standard vision statements with the Tangible Future approach

A standard vision statement describes a picture of what things might be like, or as desire, in the future.  (As created by a visionary).  These vision statements are often aspirational and have no indication of time. Standard vision statements often omit the obvious. They can be quite broad in their ambition, beyond the current scope of the organisation. They are powerful as rallying points.

However, they are less valuable in providing tangible stepping stones to develop the strategy to deliver that vision. That is where Tangible Futures are more useful.

Tangible Futures are more specific and quantifiable, yet still aspirational.

In contrast, I use Tangible Futures to create a future vision.  A Tangible Future is more specific than a traditional vision statement, even though it is creating visions of the future. 

Conventional future vision statements are often qualitative, aspirational and unspecific in their timescale.  A tangible future vision will also be aspirational but, in contrast, is specific in timescale, quantified, tangible and can contain multiple outcomes. 

For a tangible future we pick a series of timeframes (eg 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 and perhaps 20 years – to be decided) and develop what the situation will be like at that point in the series. Whilst being more specific, Tangible Futures also contain uncertainties and risks.  So, they show how a trend may diverge into two, or more possible futures (simple example: the impact of a dominance of battery electric, or hydrogen fuelled vehicles, or both co-existing). 

Facilitating Strategy admidst uncertainty and risks

A tangible future describes how the future may look at specific future points in time.  It is also more varible in that it contains uncertainites and potential alternate scenarios. When we explore the future, we always identify uncertainties and potential risks. 

  • Uncertainties are things we do not know about, or that could develop in a variety of ways. 
  • Risks are those things which might happen, to impact our plans and have consequences for our strategy. 

Some things are both uncertain and a risk. Both are built into the development of the Tangible Futures.  Both require awareness of the outside world, monitoring of development, scanning the horizon and forethought.

These uncertainties and risks are later incorporated into the strategy management process (Strategy as a Learning process) so they are monitored to see how they are developing or whether they are manifesting and emerging. This way you are looking for leading indicators that your strategy may need to change.

Using multiple Tangible Futures to explore the context and the organisation

I suggest we explore three Tangible futures, each having sub-themes within it:

  1. How might the external world develop? The External Tangible Future
  2. How might technology develop? The tangible future for technology trends
  3. How might the organisation develop? The Internal Tangible Future.

Before I describe these, we will need two pieces: The Big issues and organisational context

Organisational context and big issues

Interviews identify the team’s Big opportunities and issues for the future

We use interviews and research to identify a team’s big issues and opportunities. These can then inform the themes of the Tangible Future.

These interviews are where people express their overall view of the big issues and challenges the organisation faces, or expects to face, given the longer term future view.  It is always interesting to see where people’s focus and concerns lie, and also which are the outlier ideas that exist. 

Having these from the interviews also gives the team time to research and develop detail so they can reserach and explore these wider issues in advance of the workshops.

Using an Organisational context map to frame the themes of a Tangible Future

The organisational context map describes the system in which the organisation operates.  This is used in teh external tangible future.

To get people thinking, we can also develop a future context diagram, to suggest the bodies, players and partners that might be part of the future organisational context.

Three Tangible Futures: External, internal and technology

The External Tangible Future explores the wider External Context

The External Tangible future looks at the wider trends in the context of the organisation. The themes of this should be aligned with the Organisational Context insights.

The external Tangible Future can include politics and economics, environmental implications, social trends and attitudes, and in this case influences on the wider industry effects, and changing attitudes.  This includes existing and emerging customer groups, and partners that you do, and could, work through and with. 

Given technology is such a future driver, it is common to develop a specific Tangible Future that looks at future technologies and their impact.  This can be compared alongside the external environment and the organisational Tangible Futures to look for how they might influence these parallel future views.

I expect this the technology tangible future to be informed by Subject Matter Expert input and material.  Perhaps short sessions from SME on each aspect.  Briefing material being available, including perhaps models and predictions.  The tangible future captures the essence of these. Typical themes can be AI, environmental technology, cloud computing, disruptive technologies, working practices, all depending on the client’s context.

The technology Tangible Future should explore how technology elements, might emerge, and may develop.  Their development will influence both the external Tangible future and the Organisation’s Tangible future.  This way the three tangible futures can be viewed as a set.

The Internal Tangible Future explores the development of the Organisation

We create an internal, organisational, Tangible Future.  This looks at how the organisation might develop over that period.  It typically looks at finances, governance, key processes and activities, suppliers & partners, its people, its capabilities and what it needs to learn and grow.  Often it contains shifts in employment practices and work patterns, driven by social and environmental changes. It is expected that this Tangible Future will be aligned with, and be influenced by, the other two tangible futures.

Techniques we can use to analyse Tangible Futures

Future back thinking and analysis

As we do this work, we can carry out some “Future back” thinking. This describes a potential future, and then describes working backwards what had been needed to reach this situation.  This would be looking back across the three tangible futures.  Note, how this is in a future state, but that state is described as if it were the present, and from there you look back in a past tense at what had happened previously – a very deliberate framing of how this works).   

Comparing the Tangible Futures as a set

When discussing and exploring the three Tangible futures, it is natural to iterate across them to pick up how a topic in one, will influence themes and ideas in the other two.  Ultimately, there should be a natural progression across the themes to this tangibility.

I find that clients often do this themselves. walking back and forth between the three tangible futures comparing and contrasting themes and scenarios.

These do not have to be perfect.  The purpose of them is to explore options and how things might develop as a set.  When we have a reasonable view of these, we can move on to explore scenarios and alternative futures.

Scenarios and Alternative Futures

It is likely that you will have several contrasting alternative futures.  One of the tests of a good strategy is “Will our strategy fly in a variety of scenarios”.  This is analogous to testing the extremes of flight characteristics of an aircraft in a wind tunnel.  After all, you would not want to fly in an aircraft that was not tested to its limits, and it were not known where those limits were, would you?

The traditional way to do this is by testing the strategy against contrasting external scenarios.  Usually these are set up as a pair of contrasting dimensions.  A common example would be to contrast say Global warming scenarios with technology changes, or societal effects.

Another way to explore scenarios is to explore a contrasting range of outcomes and of impact.   For instance, a client whose market was changing dramatically due to both environmental legislation and competitor activity. We considered the range of contrasting external situations that might occur (Scenarios). Then we looked at the implications for their revenues over the next three years: the impact of the range of scenarios. This led them to consider the implications of their strategic choices and to develop a strategy that was robust enough to fly in any of these, with the opportunity to expand once more information became available.

Scenario work, and the tangible futures are helpful in identifying where uncertainties are and where additional research and thinking is required.

Facilitating Strategy and future thinking

This post is designed to help an organisation think what they want from their strategy facilitation day. Over the past 25 years I have facilitated strategy workshops for a whole variety of clients from small Charities to multinational corporations.

Just as much variety exists in the management team’s needs and what they want from that strategy. For example the needs of a new team coming together for the first time is different to that of an established team facing a major challenge. A team looking at a short term need, contrasts with onelooking 10, 15 or even 60 years out (Yes, I had one looking that far ahead).

So if you are thinking about a strategy facilitation, a strategy workshop, or simply a strategy refresh, and want to explore some options, simply get in touch with Phil Jones, our Chief Executive. using the form below or the contact us page.