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Designing a Strategy Fit for the Future

By Martin Wilson and Michelle Eaton, Innovation at the RNLI

4 November 2019

This is a guest post by Martin Wilson and Michelle Eaton about a fascinating foresight project they have helped to run at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). I came across a post they had done on Medium about the work and found it intriguing, so I invited them to write something here. As ever, the views and opinions expressed in the post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CAF. Enjoy! Rhodri Davies, Head of Policy.

A key role of innovation is to help organisations think outside the box whilst creating a working environment and culture that helps them understand, accept and plan for a future state that simply couldn’t have been imagined before.  There are a number of high profile examples of corporations that failed to innovate, Kodak being a prime example of a company that dominated its market during most of the 20th century but failed to understand the impact that emerging and disruptive technology would have on their business. It’s also likely that CEO of Blockbuster, John Antioco, is still regretting his decision not to partner with Netflix on the basis it was a ‘niche idea’. Netflix itself is now a $28 billion dollar company.

Ultimately, preparedness for the future is crucial to the survival of organisations today; public, private and third sector alike. This is especially true for well-established organisations who may struggle envisioning potential scenarios when business as usual feels so comfortable.

In Summer 2019, RNLI Innovation was tasked by senior leaders to contribute to the organisation’s future strategy.  From the Innovation team’s perspective, this was about shaping the future strategy in line with some of the most significant emerging trends and drivers that could affect our operations over the next 30 years.


In order to achieve this, we pushed our thinking forwards - leaving present principles and constraints behind us in order to aim towards corporate readiness for a world in which the operating environment, societal norms and climate factors will be very different. We are used to looking further afield for new ideas, but this piece of work pushed the boundaries of any horizon scan we’ve done before.

The diagram below represents the process we went through to identify the insights. However alongside this, we continuously involved a wider group of people in the testing of ideas, the validation of sources and the identification of assumptions. These participants were drawn from both the innovation team and subject matter experts from key departments across the organisation. This pushed our thinking, challenging us to imagine that any combination of ‘Black Mirror’ scenarios are potentially not quite as far away as we may have hoped. 


As a result of this process, we produced an astounding 98 insight cards - and that was after several rounds of filtering out the least relevant or perhaps even too avant-garde.  What was most interesting to see when the cards were finally displayed in their relevant themes and timescales, was that the ‘social’ category clearly outweighed the rest of the PESTLE groupings. 

Whilst it’s easy to think of the future as one filled with robots and complex machines, it seems what we actually need to be prepared for is a huge shift in societal norms, culture and values that's only ‘driven’ by the emergence of disruptive technology.  With the rise of social enterprises over the last few years changing the world for the better and evolving generations that are both socially and technologically empowered, it’s clear that accepting and driving cultural change and value driven behaviours will be an essential step in creating an organisational strategy fit for the future.

We believe the next steps would be to bring a group of senior-level stakeholders together to work with these insights and identify linkages between, and areas of coalescence around, those that are believed to be of greatest impact for our organisation.  We are cognisant that these will be different for each organisation depending upon their purpose, where areas of strategic focus have been set or where threats have emerged. Once the areas of interest have been identified and prioritised, we would work together to define these as strategic questions that we can look to answer through empathy-driven problem solving activity.

To draw out one illustrative example of how this may work in practice, the Enabled Communities, Volunteering Reshaped and Local Love insight cards could prove to be a catalyst for some interesting consideration for the growth in grass-roots activism and increasing devolution of control around the defining campaignable issues.

enabled communities
volunteerism reshaped
local love

The devolved question may be something along the lines of...

‘How might we mobilise individuals across communities of interest to build sustainable relationships that generate revenue for the causes they care about?’.

This could lead to research activity to better understand who these individuals may be and which communities of interest do they operate within, leading to ideation activity to surface relevant revenue generating activities. 


So finally, we hope that there is value in us sharing the full insight card deck with external Foresight practitioners in the hope that it helps promote discussion and supports you in ensuring your organisations are prepared for the future, whatever it might bring.

By Martin Wilson and Michelle Eaton, Innovation at RNLI

The insight cards

'Future 250' insight cards .ppt from Martin Wilson and Michelle Eaton

'Future scenario' insight cards .ppt from Martin Wilson and Michelle Eaton