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Setting aside biases

The participants in a futures activity—for the activity to be successful—have to do several things. First they must shed their immediate concerns and responsibilities. I once saw an extreme case of the inability to do this at an event in a materials and chemicals firm. An R&D executive, during a discussion exploring issues and problems in society said: “I don’t see what this has to do with fluoropolymers.” His colleagues—many who did not have fluoropolymer responsibilities—jumped all over him and showed him how he needed to think first about how the world and the marketplace were changing, then find a fit with the company’s technologies.

Second, they must suspend their devotion to what their organization does today and allow the future to suggest possibilities that may change the opportunities available to the organization. At a futures conference, one speaker put it succinctly: “We are up to our eyeballs in petroleum—let’s not try to be something we are not.” Yet that firm has myriad opportunities in energy beyond petroleum, and given the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, had better drop such close focus the existing basis of the business.

And they must, in the case of large businesses, set aside their concerns about how the Wall Street analysts and investors will respond to changes they might make. This is a particularly acute problem for Fortune 500 firms. Shares in those firms are defined and planned components of investment portfolios. If a firm is to transform itself to something new—in other words if the changes it wants to make are substantial—shareholders and stock analysts will react. A blue chip firm feels stuck in that status. How much wiggle room there is depends on the myriad ingredients of Wall Street thinking, on the current investment climate, and on the reputation of the firm and its leaders.

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