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VII. Planning from the Future Backwards

In her book, Thinking in the Future Tense: Leadership Skills for a New Age, Dr. Jennifer James describes the importance of "thinking on the edge of one's culture" when organizations are facing a period of considerable change, but are uncertain about the nature of that change. Being able to tell stories about how the future could and should be different from the past and what new behaviors will be needed to achieve that change is an important part of moving forward. In University of the Pacific's Strategic Planning Process, our challenge will be to vision a 10-year Future for Learning, Work, and Professional Practice, then Plan from that Future, Backwards." (11)

Typically, formalized strategic planning processes and the resulting strategic plan follow a standard progression. They start from the current state and propose a future, based on what we know now, incrementally enhanced. This sort of scenario planning creates a preferred future scenario that we focus on achieving. Because of the self-focused way human minds work, this often means we pay insufficient attention to the actions of other people and organizations (for example as they focus on achieving their own preferred future scenarios) and so miss those events or relationships which could have been turned into real strategic advantage for our organization and ourselves.

Various approaches to "Planning from the Future, Backwards" have been developed as an alternative to formalized scenario planning. The proposed approach for University will incorporate several of these. It will involve describing the alternative future conditions the University of the Pacific will be facing in the 10-year future; then pulling those conditions back to the present to determine the sorts of programs and experiences the University will need to provide to succeed in each of the future conditions and to be resilient if other conditions apply. This approach also identifies the barriers the University will need to overcome in order to achieve their goals. Further, the Strategic Planning Process will frame the sorts of strategies, decisions, and actions necessary to establish the "expeditionary" pathways needed to achieve success.

John Seely Brown and John Hagel coined the term "radical incrementalism" to describe how organizations typically proceed during periods of uncertainty when the need is felt dramatically to change, but the new actions and programs required to achieve that depend on future conditions that have not fully materialized. Their so-called radical intention causes them to take bolder actions than normal, but they are still incremental and expeditionary in proceeding, testing new programs and practices as they go.

In the previous section, we have already described some of the sorts of questions we will be asking regarding the development of 21st Century Learning in the 10-year future. In the following section we will conclude by raising some of the other key questions that will be asked abut the future of work, professional practice and changing societal needs.

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Next: VIII. Reconsidering the Future of Learning, Working and Professional Practice