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If you’re only keeping up, you’re probably going backwards

Wrong way signToo many businesses put themselves in jeopardy by giving all their attention to today’s problems and opportunities. Their future goes wanting.

Every organization needs foresight to survive. But too many submerge their occasional futures thoughts under overwhelming concern for the problems of the present. Foresight in organizations is typically focused narrowly on a vision of the preferred future, or on fears about what is directly affecting the organization’s business.

People in organizations are experts, rewarded for their knowledge and how they perform in their area of specialty. That too can shut out broader thinking and speculative exploration of change and what it means.

At a workshop a few years ago, an executive in a big chemicals and materials firm reacted to a wide ranging discussion of important trends. He said: “I don’t see what this has to do with fluoropolymers.” He was doing his job the best way he knew how. He evaluated things according to their impact on his responsibility—in fact on his company’s current market, customers, and applications for fluoropolymers. His posture and voice said that it would be hard for me and my colleagues to move him off that position.

Fortunately for us, the fluoropolymer skeptic got an earful from his colleagues, people outside his area of responsibility. They showed him a dozen ways that what he was hearing about social, technological, political, and economic change around the world would shape the challenges and opportunities for his product.

Business faces all kinds of change which has meaning that may not be immediately clear and may not seem directly relevant to current operations and issues. But it is relevant. With the rapid pace of change and the complexity of our world, it is probably more essential than every to make connections between the business at hand and disparate insights and information about the future.

Businesses need to think in the broader context that foresight brings them. They need to at once think more deeply into the future—five to fifteen years out—and to explore a broader range of change surrounding them.

Foresight should be a part of organizational strategy making, product development, R&D planning, human resources planning, facilities planning, etc.

There are dozens of techniques for getting foresight into organizational thinking. You can research futures studies for information on those tools. At their core are the following outcomes, which you can strive for as you help guide your organization:

·        Get colleagues to surface and share their assumptions about the future.

·        Open up thinking to the wider (often) global context in which the organization’s destiny will unfold.

·        Look at how different forces and trends interact, rather than just exploring the meaning of some single, dominant trend.

·        Share knowledge about change more thoroughly throughout the organization.

·        Explore change more deeply, and share ideas about change with more people in the organization.

·        Engage outside experts and stakeholders in exploring the organization’s future: you can invent your future with your customers help, in fact.

·        Preserve an understanding that there are multiple possible outcomes for the organization’s future, and that the organization should be prepared for that range and agile enough to maneuver in the face of change.

·        Involve more people in futures thinking and strategy making, to tap a wider sweep of knowledge and to bring more people into the conversation about change that will shape the organization’s strategy.

Build these goals into your work by making foresight a regular habit, not just an occasional activity. If you do, you can anticipate change and be ready to respond to it more nimbly, and almost certainly less expensively. How many times has your organization’s budget absorbed the shock of making a change much later and more expensively that might have been possible? 


Image: Kaiban, via Flickr, cc license

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