Forget leaps of faith. Strategic foresight is what you need to redirect your business
“Let’s emphasize that no one can predict the future. Our job is to anticipate alternative futures, enabling our clients to drive the desirable ones and build robust strategies against unfavorable ones,” says René Rohrbeck.
Words by: Michal Schindler; Illustration: Jan Strmiska
It’s commonly said the more experience, the better the business. But sometimes, deep experience can become more of a liability if you can’t abstract from it. Sometimes, all you need is to look into the future with an open mind. Lessons learned or otherwise great strategies can get in the way. Strategic foresight, then, is a set of methodologies and techniques that help your company to abstract from and/or leverage its collective mental boundaries.
That’s exactly what companies like Rohrbeck Heger provide to their clients. And why this particular company, with its strong academic background, has recently been acquired by the fast-growing European company builder, Creative Dock. “We’ve invested in previous years to be outstanding in execution … in ideation, testing, building whole businesses, while scaling internationally. Now we are evolving our capabilities into predicting the long-term directions of different industries and setting up strategies that ultimately increase the probability of our client’s successful digitalization?“ explains Martin Pejša, CEO of Creative Dock Group.
What exactly is strategic foresighting? “We help companies avoid running after the ball and instead help them see where the ball will be. Our main focus is on helping our clients to identify growth fields ahead of competitors,” explains Tobias Heger, co-founder of Rohrbeck Heger and Creative Dock Group’s new Head of Strategic Foresighting.
Which sources do you use for your analyses?
Tobias Heger (TH): We’ll typically work with strategy and innovation departments and foresight units to turn future trends, needs, and uncertainty into opportunities. We seek to identify new markets, innovation fields, and opportunities early and develop the right strategy for companies to innovate in these fields. Either through internal activities, partnering, or external support. In the past, we stopped at identifying innovation opportunities. In the new setting, with RH being part of the Creative Dock Group, we can proceed to actually build the products — a huge step forwards.
How do you collect data for your forecasts?
TH: It is a mixture of systematic desk research supported by some crawling tools, and our own trend database from past projects, and expert experience.
What methodology do you use? Is it more about technical projection, machine learning, or intuition?
TH: It depends on the client and type of project. Sometimes, we build or work with existing, elaborate market models. In most cases, we create estimates based on the triangulation of information we find in existing studies and forecasts, and expert experience or even intuition.
René Rohrback (RR): Our methodology does, however, not stop at building analytical tools. We specialize in creating strategic dialogues which take our clients on an intellectual and social journey towards the future. Or in other words: our job is only done once the analytics is followed by action from the client — investing into new growth fields, building strategic resilience, building new businesses.
How academic are your outputs? I assumed it was more about long-term vision, but now it seems to me that you strive to directly influence companies’ products and projects.
TH: We always aim at having a direct impact on our clients’ businesses. There are quite a few foresight institutes out there that build sound academic scenarios and future views. We can do that as well, but we always push our clients to translate this into either strategic implications that can be operationalized or innovation opportunities that can be sized, timed, and refined.
RR: The scenarios, roadmaps, and alternative strategies that we build help our clients create a shared understanding of mid-term development trajectories and missing capabilities, and to build and fortify the shared motivation to change. Our job is only done when our clients start investing into “the new”.
Is there any difference between trend forecasting and what you refer to as “Foresight-Driven Innovation”?
TH: Yes, there is a difference. Trend forecasting is usually about trying to understand and predict how a single development — a trend — will evolve in the future. Foresight-Driven Innovation (FDI) takes different change factors into account as it is usually not a single trend that influences a field but a set of factors that drive change. With FDI, we don’t try to predict what the future will look like, but rather accept that the future is uncertain and try to understand how it might unfold by linking main change drivers and the influence these factors have on each other. Usually, we end up with a set of different scenarios in which different innovation opportunities can be identified. Further, many innovation opportunities might be promising in some scenarios while they are likely to fail in others. We identify the main market success and failure factors to enable our clients to act early.
How is your analysis different from the predictions managers can read in the newspaper (for free :-)?
TH: Predictions in newspapers and magazines are often biased and too generic or abstract to be really helpful. We work with our clients to make change tangible and actionable for their organization.
RR: The value is in the companies’ actions. The paradox is that after reading the newspaper predictions, we feel “in control” and often fail to act. And in consequence, we lose control. Our methodology is based on a consistent process in which we build awareness of risks and uncertainty in our clients’ businesses, identify change drives and trigger points, and systematically build strategic responses. This way, we enable companies to take control of their future and become trendsetters in their industry.
You are very much involved in sustainability. For the third year, you are organizing a sustainability summit. Can you foresee the coming economic crisis curbing or accelerating this trend?
TH: In my subjective opinion, the current situation led to a shift of attention to overcoming the health crisis, brought along by the covid-19 pandemic, and the foreseeable economic crisis in at least parts of the world. However, I believe we have reached a point where it is simply not possible to ignore the need for a more sustainable economy. The question becomes rather how it will be addressed and how drastic the changes to the economic systems will be.
RR: Many of our clients are already faced with an internal division between the high-performing older generation focused on working “faster, higher, farther” and the young generation that challenges the way of working, the business models, and sometimes even the purpose of the company they work for. On top of that, the European Green Deal and the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities are a silent revolution that is being driven through the financial system.
Which state has the chance to be the most hi-tech in 10 years? China, Germany, USA, or any other?
TH: Current metrics, such as research and development spendings, education, and hi-tech company concentration, point to the United States, China, Germany, South Korea, and Israel. This is unlikely to change fundamentally. But I believe we will see some surprises as I think some of these countries have become a little self-centered, while others are catching up in terms of education and are hungry for growth and success.
RR: “AI is developing at amazing speeds in China, which has in many areas the most tech-friendly regulations and, in some industries, an unrivaled ability to synchronize public and private research, development, and innovation investments. However, the mix of high living standards, predictability, stability, excellence in education, and elite development schemes that we see in the US and Switzerland could still be the winning combination for national hi-tech supremacy.
European company builder Creative Dock continues to make acquisitions in the DACH region. After buying the Swiss innovation company Spark Works (read more about the deal), it has acquired the German foresight & innovation company Rohrbeck Heger.
Specializing in strategic foresight and innovation, Rohrbeck Heger is a pioneer in corporate foresight with methods that it co-developed with leading industrial firms like Adidas, Lufthansa, Siemens, Total, Bosch, Deutsche Telekom, Mercedes-Benz, Cisco, or Tata Motors. Additionally, the company has conducted 15 years of university research at the EDHEC Business School in Roubaix, France, which the Financial Times ranks among Top 10 Business Schools in Europe.