How to spot windows of opportunity

Sensemaking / How to spot windows of opportunity

Pick those points where there are already glimmers of new solutions, and you’ll have a better chance of creating impact at scale, says Stephanie Draper.

By Stephanie Draper / 23 Jan 2015
Burtonwood & Holmes / Flickr

Whether or not the world is more volatile and complex than ever before, more people are recognising the need for change. By which I mean tectonic shifts to shake up and rework our fundamental systems, not little ripples on the surface. 

The difficulty is finding ways to kick-start this urgently required level of change – fixing our destination and working firmly towards it, facing up to global epidemics, resource scarcity, climate change, antibiotic resistance, conflict and fear. So many things that we now take for granted will be  affected; so many stakeholders will need to be involved. And some are resisting, not without (short-sighted) reason. Change hurts, even when it’s for the better. 

Those of us working for change need to cut through this complexity and focus our limited time and energy where it will be most effective. Forum for the Future works to this hypothesis: pick those points where there are already glimmers of new solutions or a different discourse, and you’ll have a better chance of creating impact at scale. We call these ‘windows of opportunity’.

As with understanding change itself, finding windows of opportunity is an ‘emergent’ process: you have to scan, take a chance, learn as you go. Author and change consultant Margaret Wheatley points us towards identifying where small, local actions are starting to connect and learn from each other. Complexity theorist Dave Snowden encourages sensemaking and learning through experimentation. 

As yet, there is no magic tracker or perfect checklist to identify a window of opportunity, but there are practical things to look for.

Here are four indicators to get us started:

1. An increase or change in discourse

A number of conversations – academic, institutional or public – happening across disciplines may highlight new knowledge or shine a different light on a known challenge. For instance, economist Jim O’Neill’s recent study on the economic impact of antimicrobial resistance1 brought the issue to the attention of a new audience.

2. A surge in new solutions

The concurrence of technological innovations or new social solutions, focused on a particular problem or area, can reveal new routes to change. Bio-based technological solutions are emerging to alleviate land use pressure, for example, and applications for the internet of things could soon disrupt many aspects of our daily lives.

3. Multiple activities start to converge

Change quickens its pace when similar actions happening independently in different places start coming together. Take political activism, for instance, to improve conditions in informal settlements in Mumbai, Kampala and other cities. Slum Dwellers International is starting to combine these efforts and share learning.

4. New incentives and funding

At its simplest, an increased flow of capital is an indication of a window of opportunity. It shows that people are attracted to an idea and see a space for it. Funds also allow the idea to develop and scale. At Forum for the Future we mean to increase our impact by focusing on these windows of opportunity. Our new Futures Centre will really enhance our ability to do so, giving a home to our horizon-scanning so that we can see the solutions on the table, listening carefully to conversations and tease out clarity through journalism and analysis of trends.

We hope that the Futures Centre will draw many people to work with us: initiating experiments to create impact at scale.

Stephanie Draper is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

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