Marianne Henkel

18 April, 2017

Survival Kit for Agents of Change in an Age of Change

Do you like outdoor shops? I do. When setting out to get equipped for a trip, I can take hours marvelling at all those gadgets. And by the time I head toward the checkout counter, I have thought through all possible challenges and surprises I may encounter on my travels and their likelihood, and prioritised what to put in my basket (alright, except where fads and good marketing get the better of me … ).

09_ResponsiveSimilarly, Horizon Scanning and innovation together are a survival kit for agents of change in an age of change. The four contributions in this series have done a great job of pinpointing and structuring the different dimensions of the nexus between Horizon Scanning and innovation, leaving to me only to flesh out some key insights that emerge from their synopsis.  The key message in which they all concur is that:

Horizon Scanning and innovation enable us to deliver on our missions in a changing environment – all the more if they are well-linked. Given today’s urgent priorities, Horizon Scanning (and innovation) can easily be perceived as of second-order importance, anything between nuisance and luxury. However, both are about securing impact and relevance (Gnärig), about being able to fulfil your mission when the world – for which your organisation and strategy were built – changes fundamentally; About the challenge of hitting a moving target. Or, as Roberts puts it, Scanning and innovation are “fundamentally about purpose and intent”, in that they serve to reassert one’s agency instead of “simply responding to change with what seems appropriate at the time”. Le Goulven and Kaplan provide several instructive examples of how Horizon Scanning has “made the needle move” and led UNICEF to innovation – taking new approaches in response to new opportunities and challenges, opening new avenues to impact.


Horizon Scanning helps understand the challenge, innovation helps master it. Horizon Scanning – and related disciplines like futures foresight (Farley and Carter) – points to needs and opportunities for innovation, and, by looking at changing enablers and barriers, can show “transition pathways to [an] ideal future”.  And innovation can provide new solutions to old problems; the digital revolution has brought a mind-blowing amount of them.

Innovation can be an early signal of change. Outside innovations can be early signals of change – and can represent new opportunities, as well as future disruption if the opportunity is slept through and other run off with the ball.

Horizon Scanning helps assess the potential of innovation, reducing risk: Horizon Scanning can help assess whether a given innovation will contribute to solving a problem in the future (Farley and Carter). Given the timespans and investments involved with putting new organisational structures or new products on the ground, reducing risk is an essential feat to achieve decision-makers buy-in, as Le Goulven and Kaplan suggest point out. It can thereby help remedy the risk aversness of the civil society sector which Gnärig diagnoses.

If Scanning and innovation are “parents and children of change” (Roberts), they also produce and require organisational ownership of change, and shift in mindsets. Internal cooperation and communication in Horizon Scanning and, crucially, translating into action – as manifested in the experience of Le Goulven and Kaplan, as well as Farley and Carter. They are, in that sense, part of a participatory process, which can have an empowering effect, as Ralston suggested last year.

Also, both open our minds to questioning established assumptions and values (Roberts) and thinking out of the box. Methodologies like critical thinking and systems thinking can add further value here (Farley and Carter).

Setting priorities given limited resources. Le Goulven and Kaplan point out that given limited resources, it is crucial not only to find the right ways and tools for sense-making of new trends but also new and diverse ways of acting on them. And that there is an opportunity cost involved in our organisation’s limited capacities to digest trends, notably regarding trends in the 5 – 10 years horizon.

One bottleneck for many organisations is going through transformation open-eyed. Gnärig emphasises the need for radical transformation, and indeed, many large international CSOs are currently undergoing significant restructuring and transformation or have done so within the past decade – devolving responsibilities away from headquarters, moving headquarters to the South, diversifying business models and sources of funding. Such processes can be overwhelming in the time and attention they take up, and often lead to a temporary inward focus. But, as Gnärig and Roberts point out, the rate of change is quick and the number of developments to digest is increasing – looking away until an ongoing transformation is over, and leaning back once it is achieved won’t do.

I would like to thank our authors for sharing their wealth of experiences and knowledge. Together, they convincingly argue the case for Horizon Scanning and innovation, point to tools and lessons learned, and showcase illustrative examples – alas, human nature is not quick to change, and examples are how we learn best.

This blog series was intended to spur the discussion – and I’d love to hear further examples and experiences, of successes as well as bottlenecks, around how horizon scanning and innovation drive, or have failed to drive, CSOs’ impact and resilience. Feel free to share, and be part of the exchange!


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