Friday, September 29, 2017
I recently explored how the U.S. Coast Guard uses strategic foresight to make better decisions with CDR Eric Popiel on The Business of Government Hour.

Strategic foresight is not futuristic forecasting. Foresight is about being able to perceive the significance and nature of events before they have occurred. It is about having the imagination to be prepared for what may come, regardless of which scenario occurs – it’s a mindset, not a process. It is about going beyond the tyranny of the present and preparing the best you can for the uncertainty of the future

Efforts to create strategic foresight capacity in the U.S. federal government have experienced fits and starts over the past 40 years.  But in recent years, there has been some progress at the agency level, largely at the behest of political and career leaders who appreciate the value of foresight as part of their decision-making processes.

  • How does the US Coast Guard use strategic foresight to inform decision making?
  • What is the Evergreen process?
  • How is the federal community sharing strategic foresight best practices?

CDR Eric Popiel, Program Manager, US Coast Guard Evergreen Program joined me on The Business of Government Hour to explore these questions and more. Here’s a snapshot of our discussion.

How does the Evergreen program enable the U.S. Coast Guard’s use of strategic foresight? What’s your role in making this happen?

The U.S. Coast Guard Evergreen’s mission is a strategically agile Coast Guard prepared to manage a complex and fast-changing environment. Our mission is to position the Coast Guard to navigate these challenges and harness opportunities by developing the foresight mindset in our workforce, teaching people how to practice disciplined foresight and identifying those long term trends that will impact the Coast Guard in the future. The critical piece to all of this is that we must inform the key decision-makers and best inform the policy-makers. Identifying strategic challenges early and linking them to future capability gaps which can be linked to budget will help the Coast Guard get ahead of the curve and advantageously position the service. I think building a workforce that thinks strategically will help the Coast Guard writ large be less reactionary and more strategic.

Currently, I am the Evergreen Program Manager, the officer assigned to lead the Coast Guard’s Strategic Foresight Initiative. In addition to managing that program, I also teach a foresight module to the Senior Enlisted Leadership Course in New London CT in addition to other teaching and facilitation opportunities.

What are the top three challenges that you face in your position and how have you sought to address these challenges?

Running a program like Evergreen comes with some unique challenges. The number one challenge is that foresight is one of those disciplines that not everyone understands or realizes the value it can add to a large organization. Convincing people that the pursuit of long-term strategic goals is worthwhile can be daunting and at times frustrating. I find that addressing this problem is tackled through networking and relationship building. Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting when trying to explain what your program can do and how it can impact the organization. Senior leadership buy-in has also been helpful in addressing this challenge. The past two reports that Evergreen has produced were both signed and promulgated by the Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard and I expect our upcoming Arctic report to be signed by him as well.

A second challenge has been linking the high-level strategic ideas the Evergreen produces to actual budget initiatives. From what I can gather, this is not a challenge that is unique to Evergreen, but is one faced by many different foresight programs. I’ve studied our process and reached out to our requirements and capabilities directorates and brought them on board with what we are trying to do. I’ve explained how we can use their established processes to link the Evergreen outputs to requirements and eventual budget initiatives. I recently had a very productive meeting with our 7 shop and explained our goals. They were incredibly receptive to our approach and we’ve forged a great relationship with them and expect our two offices to be working closely together for the foreseeable future.

Finally, I’m challenged by not having enough time to do everything that I’d like to do throughout the day. Staying on top of foresight trends, researching current events, conducting environmental scans, in addition to other projects takes some time management. I’m also asked by a variety of government agencies to give presentations and assist with their foresight efforts. Juggling all of this can be a challenge but it is a good challenge to have. When I came to DC 4 years ago, I assumed that every agency had a long-term plan for success and a foresight program similar to Evergreen. I’ve come to find out that this isn’t the case although I’m incredibly enthused and happy that many agencies are integrating foresight into their planning processes. I’m optimistic that in the coming years, the discipline of foresight will be even more embedded in the mindset of federal employees and hopefully become “institutionalized”.

How does the Evergreen process assist leadership to think “over-the-horizon” and manage uncertainty and ambiguity in plausible operational environment?

The future is unpredictable and unknowable and therefore uncertain. Evergreen can expose senior leaders to different futures and allow them to grapple with the challenges that these scenarios present. It helps them to remove themselves from the “tyranny of the present” and operate in a world outside their typical environment. Thinking about a future 10-20 or even 30 years out is by definition over the horizon. I think it exposes them to uncertainty and helps them to formulate answers to some of the “what if” problems these scenarios present. This thought process alone is helpful and expands their aperture to not just include what is happening, but what could happen. I also think that exploring future worlds is fun and an exciting experience for those leaders not typically into hard science fiction or alternative realities.

What is the Federal Foresight Community of Interest? How does this mechanism enable you to share best practices, lessons learned, and methods among agencies?

The FFCOI was a group formed about 3 years ago with the purpose of bringing together foresight practitioners across the federal government to share best practices and showcase different foresight methodologies, and apply lesson learned. I’m currently honored to serve and the co-chair of the group along with Mr. Joe Moore from the VA. The community is thriving and has outreach to well over 30 different agencies. We meet on a quarterly basis and try to fill the agenda with thought provoking speakers, presentations of foresight success stories, and reports on new projects currently underway. It is a tremendous opportunity to network with other like-minded individuals and learn from the best foresight practitioners in the federal government. I have learned a lot from my colleagues and they have helped out Evergreen a many ways. I always reach back to the community when I’m looking for external workshop participants or just need some advice on methodology. We’re all trying to make a difference in the Federal Government and it is exciting to see foresight programs take root in different agencies. While this is still a grass root movement, I really think it is beginning to attract the attention of higher level leadership in many organizations. I’m optimistic that we can continue to make a difference and institutionalize foresight within the federal government.

I invite you to listen and download the entire interview at The Business of Government Hour: Interview with CDR Eric Popiel