Learning from the Future: Essays on Uncertainty, Foresight, and the Long Term
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Scoblic, Joseph Peter
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CitationScoblic, Joseph Peter. 2020. Learning from the Future: Essays on Uncertainty, Foresight, and the Long Term. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Business School.
AbstractHow to formulate strategy given the uncertainty of the future is the central question that managers face. The purpose of this dissertation is to investigate one possible answer: the use of strategic foresight, defined not as the ability to predict the future, but rather as the deliberative consideration of multiple plausible futures. In the first essay, I reinterpret Frank Knight’s seminal distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty,” arguing that the absence of analogous circumstance is the defining characteristic of uncertainty. The quest for analogy explains the work of Herman Kahn, the postwar defense intellectual who advocated the use of “ersatz experience,” most notably fictional future scenarios, as a tool for considering strategy amid the uncertainty of the nuclear revolution. In the second essay, I build on the relationship between analogy and uncertainty to construct a theoretical foundation for strategic foresight, which lacks grounding in the management literature. In contrast with the managerial tendency to analogize to past experience, the consideration of multiple imagined futures reduces the danger of prematurely fixating on a focal hypothesis, thereby reducing bias and improving judgment under uncertainty. In the third essay, I report the results of a qualitative study of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Project Evergreen,” a quadrennial scenario-planning exercise. Project Evergreen has enabled the organization to develop strategy for the long-term future while also facilitating action in the present, easing the tension between exploration and exploitation by promoting a nonlinear conception of time. I introduce the notion of “scrappy foresight” to suggest that imagination is a valuable, but inexpensive, strategic resource. As a whole, this dissertation suggests that strategy, particularly long-term strategy, benefits from efforts that directly engage the uncertainty of the future.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37364454