Research by one of the UK’s major supplies of ‘future foresight’ has found that 60 percent of organisations are currently not considered ‘fit for the future’ and are at a considerable disadvantage to those who are ‘future thinkers’. Ross O. Storey shared thoughts with Dr Michael Jackson, the chairman of ShapingTomorrow.com, which helps nearly 13,000 people from more than 6,000 organisations across the globe anticipate and better prepare for emerging global opportunities and risks.
What is ‘future thinking’ and why is it now more important than ever?
The most significant changes affecting organisations know no borders nor markets and affect every part of society today. Countries, governments, businesses, and institutions continue to witness ever increasing surprise as complexity increases. New surprises impact us far faster, and more profoundly, than we might think, for example pandemics, changing weather conditions, terrorist events, health crises, social values, economic and political uncertainties, and technological advances.
Organisations, too, face additional new challenges including severe competition, market convergence, new entrants and high volatility in all aspects of their activities.
Companies are recognising this and are seeking fresh strategic foresight, agility and resilience through earlier warning of change, enabling better informed investment and decision-making, enterprise-wide innovation and in-time threat management leading to significant competitive advantage.
‘Future thinking’ provides the capability to anticipate and better prepare for emerging global opportunities and risks. It is increasingly important as the world becomes more complex and inter-connected.
How relevant is ‘future thinking’ to Asia and what makes this part of the world different in this approach?
‘Future thinking’ is relevant and practised by thousands of organisations in all regions of the world. The way Asians think is actually more suited to ‘future thinking’ than the West. The West can be characterised as extrapolating trends and using past experiences to design the future, while the East sees many new routes forward and is prepared to learn by experimentation. Taiwan University and the Singapore government are notable proponents of ‘future thinking’ in Asia, among others.
How can senior executives use ‘future thinking’ for opportunity finding and risk management?
Those who spot new opportunities and risks and exploit or deal with them early have a competitive advantage over their less prepared rivals. Studies show that those that create or join and leave a new market just before it peaks are those achieving the best performance. How do they do that?
The answer lies in their drive for a more agile and resilience-focused approach to being smart and forward-thinking. They have learned that continually searching for emerging trends, tipping points and weak signals is a vital intelligence tool to help them survive and thrive in an ever more competitive future. And, looking further afield for experts in academia, NGO’s, commerce, government, and futurists for that intelligence gives them greater insight and earlier warning than their less prepared rivals. Sharing what they know now, in a co-operative manner brings another level of resilience and agility to their organisations tomorrow.
Periodic and episodic analysis is no longer enough to cope with rapid change; real-time recognition, interpretation, and action on issues are required to reduce roadblocks to ongoing competitiveness.
How would you describe the overall benefits of ‘future thinking’?
The benefits include developing the ability to discover early warnings and avoid unpleasant surprises, to stay steps ahead of the competition and anticipate change.
This approach allows enterprises to appreciate new realities and which trends are likely stickers and stayers and which are not. It also improves confidence in your business actions through critical thinking.
‘Future thinking’ enables enterprise decision-makers to balance objectives in the short-term, with long-term goals, and to make better decisions, while keeping abreast of market developments in their fields of interest.
This approach enables decision-makers to look beyond for tipping points, cross-overs and collisions from those outside their usual ambit. They can better prepare themselves and their organisations for
what is coming.
Future thinking enables executives to develop their creative imagination, their foresight and their organisation’s knowledge, to be able to spot opportunities for growth and be more innovative.
What are the common obstacles to the ‘future thinking’ approach?
The potential obstacles include top management not being serious about using foresight as a strategic tool and having no motivation to think about the future.
Organisational silos and policies can restrict dialogue and sometimes incentives to manage the future are missing, or reward systems are even hostile to ‘future thinking’.
Other roadblocks can include the limited attention of internal stakeholders, the current decision-making processes, frequent career moves by executives and a lack of resources.
What is the current status of ‘future thinking’ and what has your recent research shown on executives’ attitude to this approach?
‘Future thinking’ is growing as a key tool in organisational strategic armouries. Technological advance is helping to make complex studies of the future far easier to handle and this can be expected to increase in the future.
But many organisations have been shown to be at a disadvantage compared to their more foresightful rivals.
Why did ‘future thinking’ and most other economic forecasters, fail to predict the global financial crisis? Will any such downturns in the future be more readily expected?
Actually, this isn’t true. The economic crisis was well signalled as far back as 2004 by many ‘future thinking’ people; the banks, governments and authorities, however, failed to take heed. However, it is true that most economists just kept extrapolating the forecasts. Their models don’t see that a trend is only a trend until it bends. Future thinkers look for these potential bends in the road and help their clients to prepare contingency plans in the event that they happen.
On a personal note, and as an ex-banker-CEO, I told my people in 1997 that it would ‘all end in tears!’ and that the sub-prime debt and new finance models failed to take into account the almost near certainty of another recession (they happen every seven to 10 years). Consequently, I refused to sell sub-prime products and preferred to grow ex-growth, which my successors reversed with now known disastrous consequences.
From a commercial perspective, Shaping Tomorrow began reporting the growing levels of concern way back in 2004 and our tracking mechanism was one year ahead of the stock market in suggesting a market collapse. We alerted our clients and most took action well ahead of time.
What good examples can you provide of enterprises successfully using ‘future thinking’ in recent times?
Our clients have successfully worked with us on all manner of future thinking programmes from the future of shoes, talent, smoking, medical equipment, healthcare, education and energy to establishing shared future thinking organisational systems.
Their interests range across agriculture, consultancy, chemicals, education, energy, engineering, food and drink, financial services, government, health, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, professional associations, retail, and telecommunications.
Their needs cover environmental scanning, scenario planning, modelling, ongoing industry and topic surveillance, security risks, education, strategic planning, change management, surveys, expert panels and foresight tours.
Is there anything else you’d like to add which you believe is relevant to our discussion?
Not so long ago, when environments were relatively stable, organisations kept their eyes on internal operations. The definition of managerial work was decision-taking.
Today, as environments become more and more volatile, organisations are turning their gaze to the horizon, watching and struggling with a confusion of signals.
The core of managerial work now is to know what is going on in order to be able to decide what is to be done. Sensing and making sense of the environment is the new competency for organisational growth and survival.
Dr Michael Jackson can be contacted at mike.jackson@ShapingTomorrow.com
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