5 mins

Preparing for future eventualities may seem impossible without a crystal ball, but there are some things you can do as a leader to exercise good foresight.

A long time ago, when stepping into my first leadership role, someone told me that I needed to use foresight as a tech leader. I didn’t understand what they meant. To me, foresight sounded very abstract – more like a trait than a skill.

After some research, I learned foresight is a skill you can, and should, build as a leader. In this article, I will explore what foresight is, why leaders should use it, and highlight some tips on practicing foresight more regularly.

What is foresight?

Foresight can sound like a very “mystical” trait – something you might expect from a seer, sage, or wizard. You might hear people describe foresight in different ways, but I prefer some of these terms below: 

  • Seeing the forest for the trees
  • Taking a step back 
  • Looking forward
  • Imagining the future
  • Managing risk

Regardless of how you describe foresight, it’s healthier to imagine it as less of a trait (something you have) and more like a skill (something you can practice or do). I like to describe foresight as the skill of imagining you and your team in the future exploring questions such as:

  • What is the bigger goal or outcome we are trying to reach?
  • Are we moving towards our goal with our daily work?
  • What opportunities can we take advantage of to reach our goal faster?
  • What are the risks or roadblocks slowing us down or preventing us from reaching our end goal? 
  • With our current actions, what are potential unwanted side effects or consequences?
  • What might we do to avoid or minimize the risks and roadblocks?
  • Is our end goal still relevant, given the global and company context?

Why do leaders need to practice foresight?

Like with many leadership topics, I like to ask the question: “If you’re not doing it, who else will?”

It’s great when everyone on the team takes ownership of all tasks. Still, when everyone is busy, or assumes someone else will take ownership of an activity, it can be easily overlooked.

As a leader, you don’t need to worry about practicing foresight if your team is already in an established routine of casting their minds forward, but you should be concerned if it is not part of their day-to-day. Without foresight, you might suffer some of the following consequences:

  • Teams produce the wrong outcomes – Team members may complete tasks, but they might unintentionally choose low-impact work or pursue avenues that don’t help your team move towards a bigger goal.
  • Work is interrupted or slowed down – Without foresight, teams operate on optimism, thinking, “what could go wrong?” In reality, the world is full of risk and, without foresight, those risks turn into issues that interrupt tasks, create roadblocks, and slow down the general workflow. 
  • Emergencies become harder to deal with – Leaders who use foresight anticipate risks and can build contingency plans that allow them to respond more efficiently. Without practicing foresight, leaders are forced to react on the spot, which adds more stress to you as the leader and often reaps suboptimal results.

How to practice foresight more regularly

You might notice throughout this article I refer to foresight like it’s an activity, not a trait. I don’t find it helpful to ask, “Do you have foresight?” After all, no person I know can see the future with perfect clarity. There is no such thing as “perfect” foresight.

I find it much more helpful to ask, “What have you done to practice foresight?” because this focuses on the time and energy you invest into thinking about the future.

Unfortunately, many leaders can be prevented from practicing foresight due to poor habits or situational nuances. Some of these include:

  • Poor time management skills - All leaders have an endless to-do list, and it’s easy to find themselves reacting to the latest email, Slack/Teams message, or an action from a meeting. Practicing foresight demands leaders to dedicate time to thinking about the future and not get caught in the reactive nature of day-to-day demands. To improve this, consider starting small. Reserve and use 30 minutes a week for thinking about the future.
  • The thrill of doing, not thinking - A lot of leaders in tech come from a “maker” background, where people get fulfillment from doing an activity and witnessing the results. An example might be writing code and seeing a new feature appear in production. A challenge with practicing foresight is that you spend time thinking, but not necessarily doing. Many leaders feel guilty about using this time because they are “not doing.” To counter this, remind yourself that leaders can, and should, practice foresight and be comfortable with the fact that there may be no immediate results.
  • Focus on short-term results - Some leaders and managers see their role as “executors.” In turn, they focus on driving work through the team more than serving as an enabler of it. This short-term focus distracts them from taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Although some leaders are executors, there are always two time horizons they should operate in. One, the short-term, for instance, a weekly effort to reflect on immediate events. The second time frame is more extended and where foresight should be applied. If you’re focused on the weekly cadence of work, then 4-6 weeks up to three months might be an example of the second time horizon you should use to practice foresight.
  • Refusal to embrace uncertainty - Imagining the future can be an uncomfortable exercise because it means facing uncertainty. The longer the horizon, the more uncertainty a leader has to deal with. Knowing what you’re going to work on today should be very clear, but envisioning what the world looks like in 3-6 months might not be so easy. To embrace uncertainty, remind yourself that looking into the future doesn’t require taking action. But imagining the future can prepare you for that uncertainty, helping your team achieve even more success.

Now it's up to you

You’ve now learned what foresight is and why leaders should regularly practice foresight. Your challenge now is to reflect on if you’re practicing foresight enough, and if not, what can you do to change it.