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Use foresight to challenge organizational instincts

In watching the organizations I serve confront change and make strategy, I have realized that each of them works intently to do the right things, day by day. They follow their instincts and often those instincts are cautious or self-protective or defensive.

Confronted with a changing marketplace, rising competition, or new technology, they often respond by trying to do what they already do, only a little better. Pride and instinct focus them on working to get better at the game they already play.

This instinctive focus is made of: trimming costs, improving products and services, winning a larger market share, raising profit margins, looking for brand extensions or product extensions, and seizing more of the space in their sector.

Some of this may be future-focused, but it takes a narrow view even then. It assumes continuity in the marketplace.

But we don’t have continuity in the marketplace. At best, a continuity view will get you a few years’ relative success. Meanwhile changes will emerge while you’re busy keeping things going. It’s like the firemen in a steamship, deep below decks, shoveling in coal to keep the screws turning, but with no pilot at the helm.

So as the old cliche says, an organization needs to “get outside its comfort zone”. It needs to examine its instinctive behavior, and find out if the focus is too narrow, too short term, or too routine.

Some simple things about foresight will help:

1). a long-term view makes it likely that you will look beyond the known and beyond only playing out the game that you are in now

2). a broader view of the forces, trends, and players that are part of your organization’s environment will help you see past the customary boundaries that you think are shaping your destiny

3). a more creative view of the future and possibilities for your organization in it can help you see things that don’t yet exist, and that could present great challenges or big opportunities for your future

So don’t rely only on your instincts, or better yet, change those instincts: let in the impulse to challenge everything, and keep a focus on change, and changing how you think and what you do.

Several years ago I wrote a post that gets at organizational timidity in a slightly different way:


Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwestern Division, via Flickr, cc Attribution license.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Natalie Dian October 13, 2012, 5:01 am

    John is very insightful in this blog contribution. One of the things Futures Studies can assist companies with is helping them to look the degree that their instincts are made up of a particular paradigm (world view). There are other world views to consider and other instincts attached to them. The major discipline that deals with paradigm and paradigm change in society is Futures Studies. Since we are in a period of change where the basic assumptions are in the process of changing and therefore paradigms are changing, it is to futures studies that companies should look.

    Natalie Dian,
    Director The Vision Center
    Vice-President, Membership WFSF

  • Alessio Bresciani January 2, 2013, 7:05 am

    Great post John. It reminds me of some of the themes in Clayton Christensen on Disruptive Innovation and why good companies can fail. Thanks for posting this.

  • John Mahaffie January 2, 2013, 7:26 am

    Thanks. I so often see that successful organizations risk failure precisely because they are successful. Success can lock them down against further insight and change.

  • René Rohrbeck September 12, 2018, 10:54 am

    We often lead firms in the uncertain, but highly profitable new market spaces with multiple scenarios and multiple strategies, see also https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2017.06.026. That ensures that they need to be systematic, less guided by instincts and less affected by biases, that take them typically back to their unprofitable comfort zone.

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