The identification of plausible desirable and undesirable future events is fundamentally a cognitive process of prospecting possible futures. Yet, organizational practices designed for the identification and management of these uncertain futures, specifically project risk management, heed little attention to the role of cognition in these processes. Building on the theory of ‘pragmatic prospection’, we address this gap and examine the cognitive processes involved in prospection of desirable vs. undesirable project futures while identifying opportunities vs. risks. Empirically, we analyse the information search behaviour and post-hoc search verbalization in an experimental project risk and opportunity identification task. We find that risk identification relies often on simpler approaches with lower cognitive load, while opportunities triggered more explicit information search strategies and were more prone to evoke agency within the imagined futures. These findings challenge the assumption – widely held in risk management practice – that risks and opportunities can be approached by the same processes. We conclude with an outlook on how a better understanding of the involved cognitive processes can support foresight activities in project planning and beyond.
- Risk and opportunity identification
- Pragmatic prospection
- Cognitive processes
- Active information search