Looking into the Future – how to plan a ‘future’ strategy for your civic society

I recently met with the committee of a long-established civic society to discuss ideas for rejuvenating their society and attracting new members. It was a very enjoyable outing for me: I was able to suggest some ideas that they could incorporate into their strategy and they offered me tea and cake: a fair exchange!

I regularly find myself in conversation with people wondering what the future holds for their societies and how they can keep things going in the medium to longer term, not just for the benefit of their existing members but also as a way of attracting the next generation of committee members.

Now, I make no claims about being able to see into the future but one of the characteristics of successful organisations (and individuals for that matter) is a capacity to consider what the future might hold for them. This allows them to develop strategies to ensure they can cope with whatever the future might bring.

There is a structured technique, sometimes known as ‘Horizon Scanning’, that can be employed by any organisation to plot a course to the future. It’s about looking ahead to see what trends you can identify and how the changes brought about by these trends will impact upon your organisation. There are, of course, books you can buy on management techniques that will cover this concept in much more detail should you wish to read them and they’ll certainly do the subject more justice than I can here in the space available, but bear with me while I outline the principles.

Let’s say you want to work out what might lie ahead for your civic society. Get together a few people who really understand what your society is about – this is most likely to be your committee but could also include people from the wider membership or even people who have recently stood down from the committee.

Now, here’s a tough one. How ‘up to date’ are the members of your group in their thinking and awareness of what is happening in the world at large? Are they trend setters and trailblazers (or do they just tend to wear nice blazers)? Ideally, you need one at least a few people in the group who are knowledgeable or have given some thought to what is happening in the wider world. If you don’t have them, go out and see if you can find them.

Ask them to start thinking about the changes likely to happen within society over the next 10 to 20 years. You can ask them to use a STEP (or PEST) analysis (Social, Technological, Economic, Political and add Environmental if you want to make it STEEP, or Legal and Ethical if you fancy STEEPLE!).

This needs to be done in a structured but uncensored way (we all tend to censor our thinking – or at least what we say out loud, when in groups), by which I mean, encourage people to put forward ideas, however flippant, without evaluating them at this stage. Ask them to think of ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios: from the best of all possible worlds to a dystopian nightmare.

Ask your group to write their thoughts of what could happen — best and worst outcomes — under each STEP/STEEP/STEEPLE topic on separate Post-It Notes, then take everyone’s Post-It Notes and see if you can arrange them into themes. The idea is to produce coherent visions for what might happen to society at large, both good and bad.

So, if for example, one of your participants imagined the possibility that there would be a surge in community spirit over the next few years on one Post-It Note, perhaps inspired by government campaigns and initiatives, and someone else had written that people would have more leisure time (because, perhaps, technology will make working hours shorter), you could group these (four) ideas together. Conversely, someone could have imagined that there would be a growing crisis of community engagement as technology enables us to lead more and more individual lifestyles where we don’t need to step outside our front doors; in fact rising crime would make it dangerous to do so. What are the demographic trends in your locality? What’s happening, or likely to happen, to the high street? Will we still need to rely on privately owned motor cars? Etc., etc. etc..

Then, develop these scenarios, perhaps informed by extra research that these days can be done on line. You only need two or three comprehensive scenarios—one very positive, perhaps, one less so and one outright depressing. The chances are that the middle one will be closest to reality but some elements from either of the other two could also work their way into your selected scenario over time, so don’t throw the others away and keep them under review.

The trick then is to work out what these scenarios would mean for your civic society if the predicted outcomes were to materialise and then to develop strategies to prepare your society to respond to what’s coming over the hill.

For example, how would you cope with a sudden influx of new members who all wanted to join the committee? If nothing else, this should get you thinking and talking.

Have fun!

(If you would be interested in hearing my talk – I’ve seen the future and it’s sooner that you think!, which can also be run as a workshop, have a look at my Talks page.)