Scanning: Foundation and Practice

Scanning: Version 3.0

Scanning is the foundation for looking into the future. It’s the evidence-gathering process that gives us clues to how the years ahead will play out. It’s a radar system for identifying emerging issues, budding trends, and signals of factors that will come into play over the horizon. Through it we track development of trends, issues, driving forces, and challenges. Scanning should be a key activity and core competency of any person charged with governance of an organization, charting a strategic course, top level leadership, and an individual moving up in an organization or desiring more control over their destiny.

A good scanning system should accomplish the following:
  • Detect social, political, economic, environmental, scientific, consumer, or technological trends and issues that affect the organization or individual.
  • Prompt thinking on those trends and other factors will affect the organization, its stakeholders, and customers. They could be threats, opportunities, changes, targets of advocacy, or conditions that call for adaptation.
  • Promote an ongoing consciousness of what will emerge in the future.
  • Lead to consideration of implications - the effects, results, consequences, up-shots, or after-effects of a trend, occurrence, event, or “tipping point.”

Any planning effort should include external and internal analysis of an organization. Scanning is the most basic external analysis. It identifies what is coming so plans can deal with the future. Scanning allows leaders to anticipate and react. It answers the question, “What is happening?” or “What could happen?” and especially “What happens then?” It helps an organization avoid being “blind-sided” by something that should not be a surprise.

Here is my 3.0 version of scanning. Over the years I’ve shifted my own practices to trim time, take advantage of new resources, and sharpen focus. I offer them to you, a visitor to my website. I’ve tried to crank the daily time commitment to stay informed and vigilant to 20 minutes or less per day.

1. Scan a broad-based new source daily. Recommendation: a compilation or web resources that takes a global view.

  • Quartz - - my top recommendation. A free, daily e-mail that arrives in the morning in North America. Edited by smart people. An offshoot of the Atlantic.
  • Nextdraft - - Dave Pell produces probably the best 10-item list of topics with unique content and witty commentary. Free. Get it and you can skip 4 below.
  • Google News, CNN, Fox News, Yahoo - in other words a broadly-based website you visit once or twice a day to browse quickly.
  • New York Times - if there’s a justified paid subscription for being informed, this is it.
I’ve fallen in love with the first two above. They’re a daily ritual. I look at the NYT at least once and often multiple times a day. Although liberal in its editorial slant, the Times is still the world’s greatest home to journalism, global in its focus, and thorough in coverage. While I used to recommend the Wall Street Journal and continue to for those with an exclusively business focus, I’ve found it of lessening quality in the past 5 years of ownership under NewsCorp.

2. Scan a newsmagazine weekly. Our recommendations:

  • Economist (best of the pack by far. Written from a global perspective. I recommend the online version.)
  • While I used to recommend the alternatives of Time, Newsweek, or US News and World Report I’ve given up. The Economist is the only game as far as I’m concerned. Nothing else comes close. If you think you know something equal or better I want to hear about it here.

3. Scan a business magazine once per month. Our recommendations:

  • Fortune (neck and neck with Forbes)
  • Forbes (scan, don't read cover to cover)
  • Business Week (because it’s a weekly it’s a bit more problematic but look at the online version)

4. Once per month scan an eclectic, preferably future-oriented source. Make it different every month. Here are some examples:

  • Fast Company (mostly about the future of business and typically quite good)
  • Wired (Sometimes too hip but compelling in its writing and editing. Definitely often on the edge.)
  • Technology Review (MIT-published online source that concentrates on cutting-edge technology developments in energy, robotics, genetics, ICT, and materials)
  • New Scientist (almost always a surprise on a given day or something to delve into more deeply)
Many of these sources can be set up for an RSS feed or even Twitter. See below.

5. See “wild cards” and content you’ve never seen before by using online and automated sources. Examples:

  • Google News Alerts - hands down the most convenient and best clipping service on the web. You can set up as many “bots” as you want that will identify articles and send you daily or weekly summaries with story links and short descriptions to allow you to move through them quickly. I typically have 5-6 scans going at a time. You might want 1-2.
  • Twitter as newsfeed. Highly recommended. If you tweet frequently set up a separate account. Subscribe to the sources above and below and visit the stream a couple of times a day. Massive timesaver.
  • Vox
  • The Verge
  • Sharing articles with other. Gotta have Flipboard! I typically maintain publications there. You can see those and my most recent flips here.
  • Don’t have time to read it now? Pocket it. Lives on your toolbar or smartphone. Read later.