FSG Blog
August 3, 2022

Scanning the Horizon: How to Upset Your Settled Opinions

Joe DuFresne and Kevin McDermott
FSG Principals

All of us are quick to agree that change is never-ending, especially lately. The proof of our conviction is in our willingness to accept the discomfort of actively scanning the horizon for developments that may upset our plans.

Military organizations, for example, have a habit of formalizing ways to challenge the assumptions of senior leadership—a habit that often comes as a surprise to civilians who wrongly imagine the military as rigidly hierarchical.

For his recent book, Paragraph 3: Conversations About Prepared Leadership in the Age of Perpetual Uncertainty Kevin interviewed retired Lt. General Mary A. Legere, whose last post was as the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence. The objective of a role like Legere’s is to challenge leaders transfixed by the present, whose units might be simultaneously competent but too comfortable.

“In an intelligence organization,” Legere told Kevin and his coauthors, “we are often reminded that the future, like the enemy, has a vote. Everything we’d spent months learning about the enemy, about technology and tradecraft would be in constant flux. Even a routine exercise was briefed to the commander, and his staff planners would be challenged to name what might defeat or disrupt their plan.”

The US Coast Guard, for example, has an office assigned the task of horizon scanning, a function one will find in all the branches of the U.S. military. While the office’s name and position in the organization chart has changed often, for at least three decades the Coast Guard has employed an Office of Strategic Analysis (the OSA, aka the “Commandant’s think tank”) to analyze trends and cross-impacts that may affect operations, policy, politics, budget, and the strategic choices senior leaders make. The Coast Guard’s long-range strategy program, Project Evergreen, is managed by this office. (FSG scenario consultants facilitated long-range strategy, including Evergreen, for the Coast Guard from 1998 through 2013.) 

The mission of the Coast Guard’s internal think tank is to provide an asymmetric approach to conventional policy and budget planning. Organizationally its job is close enough to senior leadership to keep a finger on the pulse of what the Coast Guard is grappling with in the near horizon but not so close that its perspective could be warped by the vortex of tactical movements. Staying on that vortex’s event horizon, as it were, allows these analysts to remain focused on the larger, longer picture.

As Joe knows from his experience in the OSA, shaping organizational strategic culture requires access and credibility. This only comes with a senior executive sponsor or champion, ideally either the Vice Commandant or Commandant. When members of the OSA worked on the Vice Commandant’s staff, for example, they were accepted as observers or participants in meetings across the building: budget, mission support, human resources, operations policy, within the context of any of the Coast Guard’s many missions.

Not many headquarters’ offices shared this broad level of access. It proved invaluable for the Coast Guard. Since the OSA did not have a “rice bowl” to defend it could not only offer strategic input but also serve as an honest broker and external perspective across the organization’s stovepipes.

To be clear, the work of the Coast Guard’s OSA was not in the miliary tradition of “red teaming,” the practice of empowering a crew of devil’s advocates to rigorously poke holes in a strategic plan. Where they are alike is in their mission to upset settled opinion about where the operating environment is headed.

Insights from Scanning the Horizon

Scrambling settled opinion seldom comes easily. As Mary Legere remarked in Paragraph 3, “even prepared organizations struggle to pivot in a single step.”

Leaders whose organizations are accustomed to scanning the horizon for the risks and unexpected opportunities that come with embracing change will have greater success meeting the challenge of uncertainty than those who do not.

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