Strategic foresight: A case study

Strategic foresight is a process of creating useful conversations about possible futures. In this case study, we look at how having a clear view of what’s changing in the outside world empowers an organization with the confidence and agility to reorient its strategy for long-term resilience and sustainable growth.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been privileged to think seriously about the future of food and beverages—what we’ll eat and how we’ll produce it. I’ve worked with organizations such as the Future Food Studio, the National Science Foundation and New Harvest, along with some of the biggest players in the consumer packaged food and beverage industry, such as PepsiCo, Campbell Soup Company and Constellation Brands.

Strategic foresight determines pathways to new growth

In 2015, I worked with Tyson Foods, one of world’s most prominent meat producers. Looking to see beyond the “insights” it was getting from consumer trends reports, Tyson engaged our team at Idea Couture (the innovation firm I was with at that time) to deploy a strategic foresight process that would systematically construct a long-term view of the future of food.

Tyson’s view of the future has changed significantly since then. Just take a look at the headlines:

What’s changed about Tyson’s strategy? By virtue of its investments in plant-based alternatives and cellular agriculture, Tyson has repositioned itself, shifting from being a meat company to being a protein company. It’s certainly not a 180-degree turn, but the move does represent a significant pivot for such a large organization.

Strategic foresight can upend established ways

Transformation is hard. Firms, and the people who run them, tend to be deeply entrenched in their ways. Tyson’s own CEO acknowledged that investing in alternative proteins felt counterintuitive for many within the company. So how does a business with roots going back more than 80 years to an Arkansas chicken farm all of a sudden decide to invest in veggie patties and emerging biotechnology?

Strategic foresight facilitates new kinds of conversations. The long view permits you to talk about possibilities that might feel uncomfortable or even impossible through a short-term lens. But when you take a step back, look at the facts and consider how the world is changing over a longer time horizon, suddenly the idea that sounded ridiculous becomes the clear and obvious strategy.

Strategic foresight requires looking at drivers and signals of change

I always say strategic foresight is, among other things, the practice of developing good taste in information. Understanding why Tyson would make the transition from a meat company to a protein company is easy once you bring together the relevant data at every level.

Consider the following indicators of change and their implications for how a meat company thinks about the challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Population growth

The world population is projected to increase from 7.3 billion (in 2015) to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. That’s a lot more mouths to feed.

Environmental concerns

Meat production is a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Its effects include deforestation through land usage, water consumption, fossil fuel usage, methane emissions from livestock, and effluent waste pollution.

Growing demand for protein

As populations and incomes grow in developing countries, demand for animal products is expected to more than double by 2030.

Flexitarian behaviour

Meanwhile, the neologism “flexitarian” is becoming common parlance. It describes the growing group of people who swap out meat for a plant-based option once or more a week, without eliminating meat altogether. Though vegetarians and vegans represent about 4% of the US population, 47% of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal a week.

Emerging technology and startups

Venture capital–funded startups like Aleph Farms and Memphis Meats are prototyping lab-grown steaks, chicken strips and other non-animal “animal” products.

Strategic foresight reveals what’s hidden in plain sight

When done right, strategic foresight can completely upend your assumptions. Suddenly, the once credible assumption that a meat company should focus on what it does best is replaced with a new credible assumption: the company should explore diverse sources of protein. What initially seemed unintuitive now looks like the only viable approach to maintaining resilience and long-term growth.

 Here are a few things to notice about the drivers and signals of change above:

  • This isn’t highly speculative sci-fi stuff. It’s all publicly available information—firmly grounded in what’s happening today—that anyone can find and understand.
  • It stitches together a perspective based on views from many angles and altitudes. There is big-picture, macro stuff to consider, such as population growth, emerging economies and climate change, that helps to frame an unignorable long-term challenge. Then with further research, you can add in changing demographics, shifting consumer behaviours and values, potential new sources of competition, and emerging technology to construct a coherent view of the future.
  • The strategy (almost) writes itself. The big challenges and opportunities are self-evident. The research provides the relevant material for a conversation about the future. The decision-makers can then look at the signals and consider their implications, intersections and cross-impacts.

by Robert Bolton