Every business leader feels it and knows it–the world is changing at an accelerating pace. Business models are shifting, consumer behaviors and preferences are evolving swiftly, and emerging technologies and platforms are transforming the competitive landscape. In such an environment, it is difficult to look ahead to the next quarter, let alone the next year. Still, a business leader’s top priority is to position their company for continued future success. The question is: How?
As professional foresight consultants we’d like to offer a big “AHA” containing three unconventional ideas for how you can begin future-proofing your business today. “AHA” is an acronym that stands for Awareness, Humility and Action. You must strive to enhance your awareness of changes on the horizon; have enough humility to acknowledge that what served your business well in the past might not be sufficient tomorrow; and be willing to take action in the face of less-than-perfect information.
Awareness: See What You Can’t See
Many leaders today still rely on traditional methods to stay abreast of advances in their field, such as reading newspapers, industry websites, and attending trade conferences. This is all fine and well, but in an era of accelerating change tomorrow’s threats and opportunities are less and less likely to come at you through conventional means. This implies you must learn to see differently.
The Chinese have a wonderful saying, “The periphery is the new center.” Therefore, to see what you can’t yet see, you need to go to the periphery and expose yourself to fresh and unique ways of perceiving your industry.
There are a number of ways to do this. First, expand and diversify your reading diet to include sources outside your industry’s “echo chamber.” A couple of easily accessible resources are The Economist, MIT’s Technology Review and Wired.com. Next, regularly attend at least one conference that is not directly related to your industry. The purpose is to expose yourself to adjacent ideas that might allow you to expand your business in innovative new ways. (If you can’t afford to attend such a conference, strive to watch one TED talk every week.) Finally, hire at least one unconventional thinker. As George Patton once quipped, “If everyone is thinking alike then someone isn’t thinking.” Bring in someone who regularly and consistently challenges your thinking. Consider this person an “un-team” player.
Humility: Unlearning is Important as Learning
It is a cliche to say that lifelong learning is essential in today’s rapidly changing world. Often lost in this emphasis on learning and relearning is the idea that we’re often unwilling to unlearn certain things about our industry. In fact, we may not even realize we have anything to unlearn.
The reason so many existing businesses are disrupted isn’t simply because they didn’t see the change coming, it is because they couldn’t let go of their assumptions earlier. Think Blockbuster, Borders and RIM(Blackberry). In each case, the companies held on for too long to old ideas about customers’ preferences, the strength of the prevailing business model or the true nature of their competition. What might you need to unlearn today in order to succeed tomorrow?
Action: Master Inactivity
Peter Drucker, the famous management guru once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” It is wonderful advice. Unfortunately, if that action is the wrong action or if it seeks to solve the wrong problem, even the best intentioned action is worthless. This is why we advocate that today’s leaders master inactivity first.
Specifically, give yourself permission to have “a closed door policy” and regularly devote time to the difficult task of thinking about future opportunities and threats. We go even further in suggesting that leaders regularly take a “think week”—an entire week to think and reflect on how the world is changing. Such an amount of time might seem an unaffordable luxury but here’s a different spin on it: If you can’t devote two percent of your time on an annual basis to thinking about the future, who in your business will?
Alas, thinking is hard work. This is one reason so few people do it. To help jumpstart your thinking, here is one powerful question to ponder: “What is the “tomorrow” problem you must begin solving today?”
We’re confident that if you broaden your awareness of the periphery, stay humble about the need to unlearn and master the inactivity of thinking, you will come to your own “AHA” moments and better position yourself and your organization for the future.