From anticipation to action: an essential foresight path for businesses and organisations

 Namur, February 1st,  2014

From anticipation to action is a foundational book for the prospectivist approach, penned by Michel Godet in 1994 [1]. With a preface by the American futurist Joseph F. Coates, that book was the first version of what would become, through subsequent field experiences, the well-known handbook of “strategic prospective” [2]. The work, published by UNESCO, brought to the forefront one of the trademarks of the disciple of Jacques Lesourne, who was also his successor in the chair of Industrial Foresight at the Conservatoire national des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) in Paris: the famous Greek triangle that appeared on the cover of the French edition of that work (1991). This pedagogical diagram highlights and forms a relationship among three essential components of the attitude and process of foresight: anticipation, which favours long term thinking, intellectual and affective appropriation of the challenges and the responses for meeting them, the strategic will that is expressed in collective and adequate actions. The lesson taught by Michel Godet is that the transition from anticipation to strategic action cannot occur without the insight, mobilisation and appropriation of the foresight process by the parties involved.

Anticipation, appropriation and action are key concepts that businesses and organisations attentive to strategic thinking, and thus to foresight, would do well to keep in mind.

Anticipation of my future is constitutive of my present

As Gaston Berger (1896-1960), the father of foresight studies in France, noted citing the French Academician Jules Chaix-Ruy, « the anticipation of my future is constitutive of my present”: it would be impossible in one’s life cut oneself off from these upper reaches which constitute the past and the lower slopes that will be the future. This isolation in effect renders the present absurd [3]. The capacity for anticipation allows us not only to represent a development or event as well as its consequences before it actually occurs, but also and above all to act by preventing or anticipating a favourable or fateful moment. Action, and even reaction, to the knowledge thereby generated is inseparable from anticipation. In terms of foresight, apparently at the initiative of Hasan Ozbekhan (1921-2007) of the University of Pennsylvania [4], the word ‘preactivityis used for cases where the actor takes into consideration possible changes and prepares for them, and the word ‘proactivity’ for when, having identified the advantages of the event or development in question, the actor undertakes a voluntary act intended to bring it about. It was Ozbekhan who also popularised the term ‘anticipation’ within the sphere of foresight, seeing in it “a logically constructed model and concerning a possible future, combined with a degree of confidence that has not yet been defined” [5]. The Austrian astrophysicist Erich Jantsch (1929-1980), who drew largely on its inspiration, equated anticipation with the futuribles’ so dear to Bertrand de Jouvenel or the ‘alternative world futures’ of Herman Kahn [6].

The concept of anticipation is currently the subject of significant efforts at deeper examination and clarification by the futurists Riel Miller (UNESCO), Roberto Poli (UNESCO Chair of Anticipatory Systems, University of Trente) and Pierre Rossel (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne). Taking the work of the Americans Robert Rosen (1934-1997) [7] and John W. Bennett (1915-2005) [8] as their starting point, these researchers are working closely with the UNESCO’s foresight section to explore the possibility of establishing anticipation as a discipline in its own right, one that brings together a set of competencies enabling human beings to take into account and evaluate future trends [9]. This reflection is certainly lending stimulus to foresight studies, all the more so since it fits well with the efforts of the European Commission to open up foresight research. Thus the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation has for several years been investing in ‘Forward Looking Activities’ (FLA), activities that include foresight [10], just as the European Institute in Seville has done in past years by developing tools for strategic thinking in the area of public policy (‘Strategic Policy Intelligence’ – SPI) [11].

Anticipation is a key resource for businesses, insofar as it distinguishes itself clearly from mere prophetic imagination or forecasting without strategic purpose and includes methods of foresight watch and research in order to turn it into a tool of economic or territorial intelligence.

Appropriating challenges and responses to them: prime factor of change

Intuitively as well as from experience, the head of any organisation knows that steering the company would not be possible from a control tower cut off from the laboratories, workshops and the entire range of services that contribute to its operation, any more than from its external beneficiaries. The dynamics of all development and change are based on interaction, communication and the involvement of every actor. As Michel Crozier observed, resources, especially human ones, do not bend as easily to fit the objectives and ultimately – and fortunately – block any fine rational ordering [12]. It is therefore pragmatism and the reality on the ground that prevail.

Philippe Bernoux has shown that in a vision of change that is not imposed (contrary to Hirshman’s ‘loyalty or exit [13]), two principles are dominant: the autonomy of the actors and the legitimacy they give to decisions that concern them, and which they will express through their « voice« , namely, a voice raised in protest [14]. For Bernoux, author of Sociologie du changement dans les entreprises et les organisations, change means learning new ways of doing, new rules, a ‘learning by assimilation of new rules’. Change can only be a joint product, manufactured by all the actors concerned [15]. Change cannot take place without building new relationships: to change is to make possible the development of new sets of relationships. This adjustment can, moreover, come about only through people who are interrelated and through the systems of relationships which they co-create [16]. Bernoux reminds us that more than the structures of organisations and institutions, it is the interaction among actors that is a key. And that interaction presupposes true autonomy on the part of the actors, even if their scope for action is limited by the existing rules: without their capacity for action, change cannot take place. These actors are thus true agents of the process and cannot be reduced to the role of passive agents [17]. What is more: as the management psychologist Harold J. Leavitt (1922-2007) put it, whatever the power of the agent of change, whatever his or her rank in the hierarchy, the actor who has been changed remains master of the final decision [18]. This observation applies to a business which, while an institution, is also an actor: it always retains the capacity to influence an environment to which it is not subjected, to participate in the social construction of the market, to retain some of its mastery of its interactions with society [19]. Change thus succeeds only if it is accepted, legitimated and transformed by actors responsible for implementing it [20].

Let us stop thinking that we can transform a system while remaining outside it or by taking on the role of ‘grand architect’. It is because the actors are concerned and involved that they will carry out a strategy of change. To do so requires that they be co-creators and share the company’s vision and objectives, the challenges of the environment and the correct responses needed to face them. Collectively.

Action: from aims to the process of transformation

In a famous lecture given at the Centre de Recherches et d’Etudes des Chefs d’Entreprises, Gaston Berger defined true action as a series of movements directed towards a goal; it is not, he said, “an agitation by which we try to make others believe that we are powerful and effective” [21]. As the former director-general of higher education in France rightly observed [22], these goals are first and foremost change and the processes of transformation studied in social psychology. These theories were described by the German-American scholar Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) [23]. Before becoming interested in social change, Lewin developed the experimental study of group dynamics. He worked on the concept of the equilibrium of equal and opposite forces that make it possible to attain a quasi-stationary state. The quest for new equilibrium occurs after a shift in the balance of forces in order to bring about change towards this objective. The process is marked by three stages: first, a period of unfreezing during which the system calls into question its perceptions, habits and behaviours. The actors are motivated. Next comes a period of transition, during which behaviours and attitudes become unstable and contradictory. The actors experiment with and eventually adopt some of them. Finally, there is a period of refreezing in which the system generalises the tentative behaviours that are suited to the new situation and harmonises the new practices.

As Didier Anzieu and Jacques-Yves Martin describe it: “how can one overcome the initial resistance that tends to restore equilibrium to a higher level? By ‘unfreezing’ habits little by little, using non-directive methods of discussion, until the point of rupture, shock, or a different refreezing can occur. In other words, lowering the threshold of resistance and bringing the group to a degree of crisis that produces a shift in attitudes among the group members, and then, by means of influence, among the neighbouring zones of the social fabric” [24].

Berger reminds us: the Americans Lippitt, Watson and Westley [25] pursued this line of inquiry. Thus, they divided the process into seven phases that fit quite well with the stages of a future-oriented process: 1. Developing a need for change, 2. Establishing a network of change relationships, 3. Diagnosing what is at stake in the system, 4. Examining alternative paths and choosing an action plan, 5. Transforming intentions into efforts to change, 6. Generalising and stabilising the change, 7. Determining the final relationships with the change agents. There are other models, used mainly by those futurists who draw upon social psychology and behavioural sociology in order to gain better understanding of the processes of transformation that they observe and to optimise them when they wish to implement them themselves [26].

Conclusion: will and leadership

Strategic plans do not implement themselves, as Professor Peter Bishop of the University of Houston frequently reminds us: “people implement them, and these people are called leaders” [27].

In a debate on the so-called ‘[educational] landscape decree’ held at the Political book fair on 10 November 2013 in Liège, Jean-Claude Marcourt, vice-president of the Government of Wallonia and minister of Economy, New Technologies and Higher Education, stated that “one can be progressive at the level of ideas and conservative when someone proposes the concept of change”. Apart from all ideological considerations of right, left or centre, this formulation is particularly insightful. In the political fraternity, as in the world of business or organisations, strategic capacity is impossible without a true openness to transformation. The latter can and must be driven by a leadership that, in today’s world, must be collective if it is to be effective, even if, from anticipation to action, it comes about under the aegis of men and women who are known for their ability to inspire and catalyse that change.

What brings together government officials and business leaders is the common challenge of motivating willing parties to favour anticipation, and to do so in such a way that they accept both the challenges and the strategy and thus move to take action.

Philippe Destatte

[1] Michel GODET, From anticipation to action, A handbook of strategic prospective, coll. Futures-oriented Studies, Paris, Unesco Publishing, 1994. – The French version of this book was published in 1991 by Dunod: De l’anticipation à l’action, Manuel de prospective et de stratégie.

[2] M.GODET, Manuel de prospective stratégique, 2 tomes, Paris, Dunod, 3e éd., 2007.

[3] Gaston BERGER, Le temps (1959) dans Phénoménologie et prospective, p. 198, Paris, PUF, 1964. Jules CHAIX-RUY, Les dimensions de l’être et du temps, Paris-Lyon, Vitte, 1953.

[4] According to Michel Godet, at the ‘Assises de la prospective’, organised by Futuribles at Paris Dauphine, on 8-9 December 1999.-  M. GODET, La boîte à outils de la prospective stratégique, Problèmes et méthodes, coll. Cahier du Lips, p. 14, Paris, CNAM, 5e éd., 2001.

[5] Cited by Eric JANTSCH, La prévision technologique : cadre, techniques et organisation, p. 16, Paris, OCDE, 1967.

[6] « The possibility of acting upon present reality by starting from an imagined or anticipated future situation affords great freedom to the decision maker while at the same time providing him with better controls with which to guide events. Thus, planning becomes in the true sense « future-creative » and the very fact of anticipating becomes causative of action ». (p. 89 & 139)  » Hasan OZBEKHAN, The Triumph of Technology: « can implies ought », in Joseph P. MARTINO, An Introduction to Technological Forecasting, p. 83-92, New York, Gordon & Breach Science publishers, 1972. – Eleonora BARBIERI MASINI, Why Futures Studies?, p. 56, London, Grey Seal, 1993. – Erich JANTSCH, Technological Planning and Social Futures, p. 17 & 37, London, Associated Business Programmes, 2nd ed., 1974. Anticipations are « intellectively constructed models of possible futures ».

[7] Robert ROSEN, Anticipatory Systems, Philosophical, Mathematical and Methodological Foundations, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1985. – R. ROSEN, Essays on Life itself, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.

[8] John W. BENNETT, Human Ecology as Human Behavior: Essays in Environmental and Development Anthropology, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1993.

[9] Riel MILLER, Roberto POLI & Pierre ROSSEL, The Discipline of Anticipation: Exploring Key Issues, Unesco Working Paper no. 1, Paris, May 2013.

[10] Domenico ROSSETTI di VALDALBERO & Perla SROUR-GANDON, European Forward Looking Activities, EU Research in Foresight and Forecast, Socio-Economic Sciences & Humanities, List of Activities, Brussels, European Commission, DGR, Directorate L, Science, Economy & Society, 2010. forward-looking activities, Building the future of « Innovation Union » and ERA, Brussels, European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, 2011.

[11] Alexander TÜBKE, Ken DUCATEL, James P. GAVIGAN, Pietro MONCADA-PATERNO-CASTELLO eds., Strategic Policy Intelligence: Current Trends, the State of the Play and perspectives, S&T Intelligence for Policy-Making Processes, IPTS, Seville, Dec. 2001.

[12] Michel CROZIER, La crise de l’intelligence, Essai sur l’impuissance des élites à se réformer, p. 19, Paris, InterEditions, 1995.

[13] A.O. HIRSCHMAN, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1970.

[14] Philippe BERNOUX, Sociologie du changement dans les entreprises et les organisations, p. 10-11, Paris, Seuil, 2010.

[15] Ph. BERNOUX, Sociologie du changement..., p. 191.

[16] Ibidem, p. 11, 85 and 308.

[17] Ibidem, p. 11 and 13.

[18] Harold J. LEAVITT & Homa BAHRAMI, Managerial Psychology, Managing Behavior in Organisations, The University of Chicago Press, 5th ed., 1989.

[19] Ph. BERNOUX, Sociologie du changement…, p. 144.

[20] Ibidem, p. 51.

[21] Gaston BERGER, Le chef d’entreprise, philosophe en action, 8 mars 1955, dans Prospective n°7, Gaston Berger, Un philosophe dans le monde moderne, p. 50, Paris, PUF, Avril 1961.

[22] G. BERGER, L’Encyclopédie française, t. XX : Le Monde en devenir, 1959, p. 12-14, 20, 54, reprinted in Phénoménologie du temps et prospective, p. 271, Paris, PuF, 1964.

[23] Kurt LEWIN, Frontiers in Group Dynamics, in Human Relations, 1947, n° 1, p. 2-38. – K. LEWIN, Psychologie dynamique, Les relations humaines, coll. Bibliothèque scientifique internationale, p. 244sv., Paris, PuF, 1964. – Bernard BURNES, Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to change: A Re-appraisal, Journal of Management Studies, septembre 2004, p. 977-1002. – Voir aussi Karl E. WEICK & Robert E. QUINN, Organizational Change and Development, Annual Review of Psychology, 1999, p. 361-386.

[24] Didier ANZIEU et Jacques-Yves MARTIN, La dynamique des groupes restreints, p. 86, Paris, PuF, 2007.

[25] Ronald LIPPITT, Jeanne WATSON & Bruce WESTLEY, The Dynamics of Planned Change, A Comparative Study of Principles and Techniques, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Cie, 1958.

[26] Chris ARGYRIS & Donald A. SCHON, Organizational Learning, A Theory of Action Perspective, Reading, Mass. Addison Wesley, 1978. – Gregory BATESON, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press, 1972. – G. BATESON, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University Of Chicago Press, 1972, reed. 2000. – Jean-Philippe BOOTZ, Prospective et apprentissage organisationnel, coll. Travaux et recherches de prospective, Paris, Futuribles international, LIPSOR, Datar, Commissariat général du Plan, 2001. – Richard A. SLAUGHTER, The Transformative Cycle: a Tool for Illuminating Change, in Richard A. SLAUGHTER, Luke NAISMITH and Neil HOUGHTON, The Transformative Cycle, p. 5-19, Australian Foresight Institute, Swinburne University, 2004.

[27] Peter C. BISHOP and Andy HINES, Teaching about the Future, p. 225, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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