Earlier this week, I attended a conference (actually an “Unconvention”!) about leadership and strategy, with a focus on the role of Boards in working with their senior management teams.
I was chatting with one of the organisers, Dr. Nicky Howe, the CEO of Southcare, about how boards and senior leaders should cope with our fast-changing world. After our conversation, she said – in fact, tweeted – that “a futurist belongs in a board room”:
As a futurist who provides a “Futurist in Residence” service for boards and senior leadership teams, of course I couldn’t agree more (thanks, Nicky)!
But what does that actually mean?
What value does “futurist” thinking bring to your strategy?
In a nutshell: You scan wide first, before you narrow down and go deep.
Let me explain …
This is important, and it applies whether you’re on the board of a publicly listed company, your own “board member” in your small business, or anywhere in between. We’re all facing a fast-changing world, with more competition and disruption than ever before. So, yep, I get it – it’s not as easy to set strategy and direction anymore.
You do still need to set direction, create a strategy, develop stretch goals, collaborate closely with your management team, monitor progress, exercise good governance, and do all the other things to keep your organisation on track.
But the world might change around you in an instant – from a global competitor, increased regulation, a change in government, a smart start-up, or a disruptive technology. And then your beautifully-crafted strategy is useless!
So how do you balance these competing priorities – on the one hand, giving clarity to your team; and on the other, designing for uncertainty?
The secret is to start with foresight.
Later in that conference, another CEO admitted to me that his organisation had only one strategy – and they were placing all their eggs in that basket. If that failed, they had nothing else. That’s risky! Maybe even negligent.
As French philosopher Émile Chartier said:
“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one we have.”
That’s where the skill of foresight comes in. You step into the future and scan wide by exploring multiple possibilities. You don’t just look at one possible future; you consider multiple futures. Sure, they aren’t all equally likely, but at least you can consider them, and weigh them up when planning your strategy.
The wider you go, the better you are. Otherwise, you’re starting from a narrow range of possibilities, and just hoping to get lucky. And hope is not a strategy.
So scan wide first, then narrow it down to set your direction, and then go deep to create your strategy.
Make the time for foresight!
If you’re spending all day managing immediate priorities or – worse – putting out fires, it’s not easy to find the time for foresight. But it’s an essential leadership skill, especially now.
If you think you’re too busy to do this, at least take heart from the fact you’re not alone! Rich Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, found in his research that almost all leaders said they didn’t have time for strategic thinking because they were too busy putting out fires (If you want details, search for “Make Strategic Thinking Part of Your Job” in the Harvard Business Review)
But that doesn’t mean you should stay stuck! Either make the time for foresight, or engage a futurist to help you with it.
Foresight increases your chances of success.
If you have the resources, you might be able to invest in multiple strategies for multiple futures. That’s how successful venture capitalists work: They back multiple start-up companies, knowing most will fail but hoping one will make it big.
Most boards and leaders don’t have that luxury, and you will probably choose one path and use that to guide your strategy. That’s fine. At least your foresight has given you the best chance.
It’s like trying to predict the weather. If you want to know whether to wear warm clothes three days from now, check with the weather bureau and you’ll get a pretty accurate prediction. But if you want to know whether to wear warm clothes three months from now, you look at climate, not weather. Foresight and strategy work with climate, and the more you know about the future climate, the better you can plan for it.
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