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Future Probing for Prodaptive Organizations

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Caroline Maessen, Suze Van Houten, and Remko Van der Lugt

Organizations are struggling to find ways how to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of the (societal) challenges in the current dynamic environment. Linear approaches are considered insufficient to deal with current dynamic, complex challenges (Conklin, 2005; Snowden, 2002).

In order to deal with this, organizations need to improve their adaptivity: to become sensitive to what is happening outside their boundaries and to act upon external signals in flexible ways. Adaptivity requires a delicate balance between efficiency and innovation (Schwartz, Bransford & Sears, 2005). Organizations that enable an adaptive response open up adaptive space by engaging networks and emergence (Uhl-Bien, 2017).

In the last decades, design and designers have been found to play a more strategic role in helping organizations deal with complexity and uncertainty in a dynamic world (e.g., Nelson & Stolterman, 2012), especially because of the constructive approach to creating future artefacts that help people experience possible futures, such as prototypes, visualizations, or videos.

We present our approach to opening up adaptive space in an organization in a designerly way and our first learnings from applying this approach in a real-life case example.

KEYWORDS: future probing, prodaptive organizations, complex challenges, adaptive space


The presupposition is that a designerly feedforward learning approach, which we refer to as ‘future probing’, will help organizations to become prodaptive, as in being able to anticipate changes and act in preparation for these. The core mechanism in adaptivity relates to feedback. However, in volatile situations, merely reacting to changes in the environment is insufficient. A proactive attitude is required and a sense of ownership to actively seek for weak signals of change. To anticipate the changes requires some understanding of the situation and the capacity to read future signals that indicate what is about to happen, for example, a toddler’s mother who embraces herself because she picks up the signal that her child is going to jump into her arms (as toddlers do) and because she knows the toddler expects to be caught (as mothers are supposed to do, according to child logic). It helps to have experienced a similar situation before to make sense of the emerging future situation and to be able to make better decisions in the present.

Exploration of possible futures allows a cross-disciplinary group to gain insights and build an understanding of future (societal) challenges. Future probing opens up adaptive space by inviting people to step out of the operational flow and link up with other disciplines for exploration.

Approach: combining future visions and pressure on the system

Our two-tier approach consists of first exploring possible future visions by means of concrete manifestations of possible futures (e.g. Gardien, 2006), followed by niche experiments intended to put pressure on a system (e.g. Schot & Geels, 2008), in order to provoke regime change. Chris Ryan (2011) refers to such an approach as ‘eco-acupuncture’: identifying where energy is stuck in the system, then putting pressure at those points in order to allow for the release of that energy.

The process starts with mapping the current situation, stakeholders, trends and drivers. From a combination of trends and weak signals, a range of future visions is explored by making tangible future probes. These are products or services that represent the projected future in a provocative way and enable people to experience and discuss how they would deal with such a future and what are underlying values and motives. The narratives and insights are used to develop so called future enriched experiments, to poke the current system to evoke movement.

  1. In this approach, learning takes place on three levels:
  2. about the phenomenon under investigation (knowledge development)
  3. how to bring about movement in the organization (systemic change)
  4. about the way that a designerly approach can help the group to take a prodaptive role in this process (professional development)

Case example: surfing the data wave

Together, the research group Co-design and a provider of ICT infrastructure to Dutch research and education institutes explored futures where data are abundant along three lines: autonomy, educational big data and data ownership (knowledge development). The intention of the project was to design, lead and communicate a process, that would activate employees to deal with future changes (professional development), and that would start a cultural change in the organization toward a learning, prodaptive organization (systemic change). The details of the approach were developed during the project by a core team of both frontrunners from the organization and codesign researchers. This development was guided by these design values: pushing boundaries, discovery by serendipity, enabling to act and make, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and learning from the future. The frontrunners acted as ambassadors of the three themes and reached out to other employees to take part in thematic embassies based on curiosity and expertise. Furthermore, students were involved for their youthful energy and to look from fresh perspectives.

Step 1: By mapping the current system, a dialogue about trends and drivers, like data accessibility (open, closed), automatization, and robotization, instigated the discovery of new frames. Powerful ‘what-if’ questions started alternative world views regarding control and autonomy: “What if technology takes all decisions for and about us?”

Step 2: Experiential far-future probes (visionary prototypes) were developed as entry points to this new world. People were asked how they would deal with such a situation. E.g. students were offered a study contract by their university, that lowered their tuition in exchange for controlling all their personal data.
Students appeared open to some kind of fair trade but demanded that use by commercial third parties would be prevented at any time.

Step 3: Although, in this case, we did not yet conduct near-future probing experiments, it would be valuable to investigate how students could have more control over and insight into the personal data that are now kept by educational institutions, for instance, in a personal education ID.


When putting the future probing approach into practice, it appeared difficult to let go of current frames and thinking patterns in favour of more radical innovation. Even more cumbersome was to connect activities and insight from the far-future explorations to the present without complying with the organization’s pull to order and stability. Bootcamps and workshops generate energy among diverse groups of people and this opens up adaptive space (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2017) to share and develop knowledge. However, we encountered difficulties in trying to hold this adaptive space to facilitate more continuous innovation.

We found both enablers and obstacles:

  • Generative tools and visualizations to support the process increased confidence among the participants who were unfamiliar with the process of future probing.
  • Aligning the innovation process with the operational processes of both the organization and education (when involving students) can become a huge bottleneck. Making adequate use of flexible hours in agendas, like lunchtime and early breakfast, helps.
  • Keeping momentum throughout the whole process is challenging. Bootcamps and co-design sessions ignited a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but they were considered extra time and put pressure on operational deadlines.
  • Both the thematic content (data-revolution) and the novelty of the process (future probing) appeared attractors to engage employees in activities. However, because the approach was new to them, the desire to prototype new solutions to put on the market next week often prevailed over learning from visionary prototypes.

Preliminary conclusion

The future-probing approach is promising in opening up adaptive space within an organization because it provides the tension dynamics needed to learn from conflicting perspectives and to create novelty by linking up with people (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2017). Both operational and innovation managers need to develop commitment and agree on time spent on innovation. To quote the chief innovation in this case: “It should be voluntary, but not open-ended.”

To actually enable people and organizations to be prodaptive we need to expand future probing practice. Therefore, it is necessary to understand its working mechanism, especially in connecting far-future explorations to near-future experiments.

The future probing practice at least needs to support participants:

  • To recognise and let go of own patterns, dynamics & paradigms (probes as scaffolds)
  • To change their daily practice from focus on outcome to focus on learning (probes as boundary negotiating artefacts)
  • To proactively become more adaptive to make the connection (probing experiments)


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  6. Ryan, C. (2013) Eco-acupuncture: designing future transitions for urban communities for a resilient low-carbon future. Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 50, 1 July 2013, pp. 189–199.
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  10. Uhl-Bien, M. and Arena, M. (2017) Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability. Organizational Dynamics, 46, pp. 9–20.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Future Probing for Prodaptive Organizations
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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