In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience – you have to learn from the future!

We live in a world where constant change is both a cliche and an understatement. Change, change, change. You’ve heard enough consultants pushing this mantra to last your lifetime. Yet, nothing you try seems good enough. And no matter how fast you move, you always seem a step or two behind. Projects take longer, with ever-increasing complexity, and ever-decreasing effectiveness. And change itself, an event we’re supposed to be ‘managing’, keeps drowning us in confusion and feelings of helplessness.

The problem is that innovation, the economic religion of the 21st century, is no longer enough to differentiate you from everyone else. Your competitors are watching you so closely, that any advantage you might gain by a breakthrough innovation is quickly copied, perfected and released – without all the pain and cost of the development. Nevertheless, innovation is still critical, and breakthrough innovations will continue to bring rich rewards for companies ready and willing to embrace change. What is required is something much more radical than mere innovation. It requires the embracing of dualities, the creation of chaos – selling the sacred cows and herding cats! And it is one of the scariest journeys any person or organisation can embark upon. Yet that is exactly what the world’s top futurists and strategy gurus encourage people around the world to do every day. The methods they use are often deceptively simple, and yet remarkably profound. One of the best methods involves learning from the future. Here is a taster of the process.

If we are asked to recall two or three of the most important learning experiences in our lives, I am sure that most of us will not tell of courses taken or degrees obtained, but rather of brushes with death, of times of great adversity, of new and unexpected challenges or crises. Charles Handy, the philosopher-business writer, in The Age of Unreason (Arrow, 1995), refers to these as ‘times when continuity ran out’ – in other words, when we have no past experience to fall back on – when there are no rules or handbooks. If we have lived to tell these tales, then we have also survived them. They became growth experiences for us. Therefore, rather than being feared, times of discontinuous change should be welcomed – this is how we grow up.

In order to minimise the pain of these growth opportunities, it would be much easier if we had a clear view of the future. If we could just see the light at the end of the tunnel, the journey would become less scary. But, in a world changing as fast as ours is, who can claim with any confidence that they know the future? Forecasting is a tough job in any environment. At the beginning of the 21st century it is virtually impossible. The more the world changes, the less appropriate it becomes to extrapolate from past experiences. In fact, one of the simplest ways to fail at the start of this new century is to simply improve past successes.

The trick, then, is not to learn from the past, but rather, to learn from the future. Harvard professor, Stan Davis was one of the first business strategists to popularise a method that breaks through the barrier your brain creates when you try to think about ‘learning from the future’. In his 1986 book, Future Perfect (second edition, Perseus, 1997), he explains the process of creating a vision of the future and then ‘planning backwards’ to the present. Wolfgang Grulke, a South African, expanded the model in Lessons in Radical Innovation (@One Communications, 2001).

The principle behind this way of thinking is that in a market environment that is changing at break-neck speed, the worst place to start contemplating your future is from where you are now. While you may run your business on a day-to-day basis primarily from the inside out, you can only design your future business from the outside in. The starting point at a macro level is a simple ‘trick question’: What is your business? Not, what do you do? Rather, the question asks about your company’s value proposition to the marketplace. Not your perception, but rather, your customer’s perception.

Any hole, anywhere, anytime!

If that seems too simple, consider an example. Think of a company that makes power drills. What is their business? It seems too easy a question, until you hear the answer! They’re not in manufacturing, nor are they in construction. Actually, they don’t sell products at all. I know of no person (although I am sure there must be a few) who really wants a power drill. No one I know of keeps their power drill next to their bed, or puts it at pride of place next to the obligatory pictures of adorable grandchildren on the family mantelpiece. No, the only thing a power drill company is selling is‌ holes. No one wants a drill – but they have to buy one in order to get a hole.

Probably the best technology in the world at the moment for making holes is lasers. Precise, powerful, clean. Even disposable. Imagine a small hand-held tube, with a dial at one end that allowed you to calibrate both width and depth of the desired hole, to within 10 microns. Calibrate, hold against the wall, touch the button at the back of the tube, and ‘zap’ – a perfect hole. If you had that, would you buy a power drill? Surely, any company that supplies power drills would want to transfer to this technology quickly? But power tool companies employ dozens of engineers, skilled at developing higher torque engines that drill faster and quieter, and materials experts, skilled at designing titanium bits that never wear down. How will such a company maintain its customer-base when laser technology becomes readily available? If they continue to think of their business as ‘power tools’ rather than the customer-centric ‘holes provider’, they will not have the necessary skills in their company to compete. But then maybe they shouldn’t compete – after all, they’re a power tools company, aren’t they?

This analogy should strike fear into the hearts of all business leaders. Too many companies are caught in the ‘make and sell’ trap, and when that unexpected competitor rolls in and takes their clients, they won’t have what it takes to compete. And the more comfortable you feel now, the more likely it is that you’re next!

The customer is always right?

It is vital that you discover your company’s ‘real’ value proposition, and focus the energies of the company on becoming the best in the world in that area. Let’s ask again: what is your business? There’s a fairly easy way to find out what the market thinks a company’s primary value proposition is: ask them. And listen – really listen! This is what it means to have moved from a ‘make and sell’ world, to the ‘new’ economy of ‘listen and serve’ organisations. The outcome of this process is not a ‘vision statement’, but rather a ‘passion statement’.Having done this, you are now ready to start thinking about the future, and choosing what business you want to have in the future. But the mistake would be to simply extrapolate from your current situation. When you try to think about the future with your current business in mind, you immediately constrain yourself to current and past realities. The best place to start is the future environment. This is certainly not a ‘short cut’ and promises no quick fixes for businesses. Yet, a comprehensive view of the future environment and the marketspace of the future is a prerequisite to making decisions about how your business can thrive in the future.

Tomorrow’s World Today

All strategic thinking processes must have a clear understanding of where the company is today, including present markets and the existing environment. But there is a such a gap between today and tomorrow, that the only way to get our minds into the future is to start by considering the future environment. This includes broad ranging views, taking in politics, geography, economics, technology, societal forces, spirituality, culture and much more. The only way to get these insights into the future is to obtain strategic inputs from experts in various fields – especially experts who are pushing the boundaries of their field. No field of study should be outside your scope. And they shouldn’t be limited to the corporate world either.

Of course, each of these views of the future (whether they are worked out scenarios or not) is speculative, and open to constant change and correction as new data and events play themselves out. A constant revision of the view of the future is required, forcing an iterative process into play. Strategic planning is no longer a task that can be scheduled once a decade, or even once a year. You need to build change into the very DNA of your organisation in order to be successful in your radical innovation attempts.

Having established a tentative view of the future environment, a view of the future marketspace is fairly easy to create. But now the real heart of this approach: the question is not ‘how do we take our company and our products to that market?’, rather, ‘what type of company will best fulfill our passion statement, given that future possible market?’. This is a fundamentally different type of question. This question ignores current structures. It ignores current constraints. It ignores current products and services. It focuses solely on your primary value proposition – that description of your business that sets you apart from all your competitors. And it thrusts that into the future.

When Nokia engaged on a process like this during the 1980s, it was a forestry company. They saw the future, and saw it involved communications, especially mobile telecoms. So, they made the change, harnessing technology they had developed to keep their lumberjacks in contact in the treacherous forests of Scandinavia. The rest, as they say, is history.

Only when you are prepared to be as bold as this are you able to envisage the type of company you need to be, or could be. Even so, there is a danger that present realities constrain your thinking. ‘How do we get there from here?’ is a question that no-one should be allowed to ask. Rather, the question should be phrased from the future. Go to that future company, walk around a bit, imagine what it could be. Then ask, ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘how long did it take?’ These questions will assist you in creating a set of strategic actions that influence how you operate your company today.

There be dragons – stepping off the map

You cannot do this process once, and write it off. The process itself must become an integral part of what your Executive and strategic teams do on a regular basis. Remember that if you only spend 10% of your time thinking about the future, that still means three full days per month are required. But it requires more than just the attention of the strategists. Everyone in your organisation should be involved, especially those who work and live at the frontline, interacting with clients everyday. In fact, your clients should be involved, too.

Don’t expect consultants to be able to do this work for you. You cannot outsource responsibility for visioning a passion. There is no guaranteed blueprint that can turn your successful business into an innovative business. There’s no golden bullet for radical innovation. Most of what you do has to be made up as you go along, and constantly adjusted as well.

Margaret Wheatley, in her book, Leadership and the New Science (Berret-Koehler, 2001), states it like this:
“I like to think [of what I do] as reminiscent of the early chart books used by explorers sailing in search of new lands. Those early maps and accompanying commentary were descriptive but not predictive, enticing but not fully revelatory. They pointed in certain directions, illuminated landmarks, warned of dangers, yet their elusive references and blank spaces served to encourage explorations and discoveries by other people. They contained colourful embellishments of areas or events that had struck the wanderer’s fancy and ignored other, important places. They contained life-saving knowledge, passed hand to hand among those who were willing to dare similar voyages of their own.”

Are you ready to start charting in the blank spaces? Are you excited about creating a memory of the future to guide your every action today? Are you ready to lead the revolution in your organisation?

If so, then welcome to tomorrow’s world today.

An early version of this article was first published in the Future Magazine, October 2002.

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