Why the Board’s Duty of Foresight Remains a Radical Idea Ten Years Later: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • April 23, 2024

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna AIMP FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

Association boards have a duty of foresight.

Over the last ten years, this foundational assertion, which originated from an article I wrote for Associations Now magazine in 2014, has become the core of a future-adaptive methodology for helping association boards set a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight (SGF). As I mark the ten-year milestone in 2024, I want to share why I believe the board’s duty of foresight was a radical idea when it first emerged, and why it remains one today.

Marking the Milestone

When I wrote my 2014 article on BlackBerry, I did not set out to coin the term, “the duty of foresight.” Rather, as a long-time and enthusiastic BlackBerry customer, I wanted to better understand how one of the world’s most capable technology innovators could see its success dissipate so quickly and completely. Among other concerns I uncovered, my research revealed that the company’s board and management team were woefully unprepared for the 2007 release of the iPhone, and were either incapable or unwilling to imagine a world in which the company was not the dominant player in its ecosystem.

To be clear, the failure among the company’s most senior decision-makers to fulfill the duty of foresight was just one of myriad problems that led to BlackBerry’s decline. In their excellent book, Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, authors Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff do a superb job explaining the wide-ranging factors that combined to bring BlackBerry down. Losing the Signal was released about a year after I published my article and, in total candor, my excitement at the opportunity to learn more from the Globe and Mail reporters whose work on BlackBerry had been central to my research was somewhat tempered by the concern that my article may have missed the mark. After reading the book, I was relieved to discover that it had not. (FYI, the book is also the basis for the outstanding 2023 movie, BlackBerry.)

Why the Duty of Foresight Was a Radical Idea in 2014

It is difficult to remember with great precision how I thought about the duty of foresight ten years ago other than seeing it as a compelling concept with clear implications for association boards that I wanted to explore further within our community. Only in hindsight have I come to view the duty of foresight as a radical idea at that time, in three specific respects.

  • The duty of foresight was a novel proposal—I can recall investigating it at the time and finding no pre-2014 references in any context to the duty of foresight, which was unexpected. By connecting these familiar words in a way not previously considered, something surprising and meaningful emerged. Yet rather than commend myself for recognizing the need to talk about the board’s duty of foresight, I remain humbled and enormously grateful for the invisible inspiration that made the conversation possible.
  • The duty of foresight challenged association orthodoxy about boards—In the spirit of the previous point, I believe the novelty of the duty of foresight made it possible to question the association community’s powerful orthodox beliefs regarding board purpose and work. Instead of limiting them to the comparatively passive duties of fiduciary responsibility, the duty of foresight challenged boards to reflect deeply and choose to embrace their affirmative obligation to act with their stakeholders and successors in mind.
  • The duty of foresight created a new space for intentional learning—Foresight is an intentional process of learning with the future, and the duty of foresight began as a board-level commitment to pursue this difficult yet critical learning work as a consistent priority. Association boards often struggle with learning, and the duty of foresight offered new possibilities for focusing their attention in a way that can maximize learning’s beneficial impact on directors, officers, and staff partners, the association, and field the association serves.

Next Column

In my next column, I will share additional perspectives on why the board’s duty of foresight, even with its ten-year history, remains a radical idea in 2024. Until then, please stay well and thank you for reading.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna AIMP FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected], on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.