Careers advice: The importance of horizon scanning

27 March 2023

Risk management and business resilience are now a top priority for many organisations, as a result of recent global events such as threats to the global supply chain, technological disruption, and issues related to cyber-crime, data protection and privacy.

There is no doubt that in the increasingly complex and volatile world in which we find ourselves, the ability to ‘horizon scan’ is a real asset to managers and leaders and is likely to increase your value to your business now, as well as your value in the job market of the future.

Tips to develop your ability to horizon scan

  • Be prepared to use horizon scanning to change your mindset, challenge your assumptions and be open to more possibilities. Horizon scanning is not just about predicting the future – it’s also about finding out more about the trends that already exist but of which you may not be aware.
  • Keep an open mind. Don’t look for what you already know or want - scanning is not the same as searching. This may seem contradictory, but it is one of the hardest aspects of horizon scanning. It is more about asking the ‘unasked questions’ or identifying what you don’t know.
  • When you identify a forward trend, identify a champion amongst your stakeholders. The major challenge for horizon scanning analysis is in overcoming cultural resistance and emerging or weak trends usually don’t point to obvious action. They may fall into gaps that are not well explained by current models and the data supporting them may not be clear-cut. Established businesses often have difficulty embracing this kind of ambiguity and you will need a compelling story and internal support to explore it further.
  • Invite challenges to your own way of doing things. There is no magic recipe for how to do horizon scanning but watch out for thinking that the way that you do it is the best and only way. Asking other teams or outsiders to review your work is a great way to introduce new approaches and get constructive criticism of your horizon scanning activity, as Gareth Southgate famously practises with the FA Technical Advisory Board to the England football team.  
  • Create a diverse team in every sense. Use a broad mix of ‘generalists’, ideally recruited from very different experiences to gain as wide a perspective as possible in your brainstorming/ ideation creation sessions.
  • Think about the need to demonstrate likely impact. Focus on describing the outcomes and potential benefits of your analysis, rather than the process or detailed content.
  • Seek (and analyse) data to support your evidence base. A systematic and comprehensive scanning process provides a degree of robustness which is important for the credibility of your idea. Analyse data sets but also look for outliers or data which may be predictive of other/ future trends.
  • Remember that uncertainty and risk/opportunity are not the same thing. It is possible to calculate the risks of taking a new path (and easier to persuade stakeholders to back your idea) through for example, a small pilot project or trial for a limited time or investment to assess its impact.

To make sense of the potential trends, you could consider:

  1. What could be going on here?
  2. What could it lead to?
  3. What additional facts would be consistent with this trend or challenge it?
  4. What is the belief underpinning this trend that challenges your existing beliefs?
  5. Is there a missing piece of information that could confirm or accelerate this trend?
  6. What pattern of signals would validate it?

The ability to be ‘intra-preneurial’ in your thinking has long been sought after by recruiters. Horizon scanning and predicting future trends is a useful addition to your existing skillset and one which is ever more current in the ‘VUCA’ business environment we all inhabit.

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