Cathy Hackl, Contributor
Nov. 9, 2020
The pandemic has created a shift in the way executives think and what their priorities are. Suddenly, the future of their business and their employees isn’t what they thought.
Remote work and technologies that enabled working virtually took center stage. Interacting with customers, from support to market outreach changed seemingly overnight. Technology adoption is accelerating across most industries.
Executives had to figure out a way for consumers to interact with products and try them out without physical retail stores. Shipping times took longer as supply chains were backlogged by the pandemic. What might have been a secondary priority at times become a main focus overnight. This acceleration took companies like Zoom by surprise as the use of their product skyrocketed. It is also forcing a change in investment priorities to fully digitized supply chains and customer sales and service channels.
The pandemic didn’t suddenly produce a need for strategic foresight and Futures Intelligence (FI). It’s always been a need, albeit untapped by many, as technologies like artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, the Internet of Things, and big data have influenced businesses, societies, and cultures.
“Speculating about the future, even if it is far-fetched, can help people and institutions cope with what comes next,” said Alex Henke of The Economist. The pandemic was only one example of why having a team dedicated to Futures Intelligence is more important now than ever. But what is Futures Intelligence and why should businesses care?
Let’s start with what Futures Intelligence is and what it’s not. Many executives are well acquainted with the term Business Intelligence. Business intelligence (BI) refers to “the procedural and technical infrastructure that collects, stores and analyzes the data produced by a company’s activities”. Futures intelligence, on the other hand, is not just another dashboard.
Futures Intelligence is about anticipating change, retaining market relevance, and imagining the possible and plausible scenarios that could play out in the near and long term future of the organization. FI harnesses emerging trends, emerging technologies, and the weak signals of today to understand how shifting paradigms in culture, business, environment, technology, psychology and society will impact a company, government, or organization in the future. All these can help anticipate potential threats to a business model or a brand’s relevance and help that company explore potential favorable and even profitable scenarios and work toward them. It’s the science of looking for patterns and drivers of change, sparking intelligent imagination, identifying orthogonal questions, and exploring secondary and tertiary impacts.
Why Organizations Need Futures Intelligence
Organizations are good at sensing changes, weaknesses, and cultural shifts in their area of expertise, product domain or sector. They make the necessary adjustments to “fix” their organization or business practices for those changes, but they don’t find it necessary to prepare for the future outside of what they know. They end up losing market share and falling to their competitors without understanding why because they never looked at how different futures might impact their business or at what may be happening in other industries that will have a ripple effect.
There is more to business competitiveness and market dominance than selling a product or service. Every leader must appreciate and consider ancillary influencing forces that impact your people, product, policies, partners, and ultimately your purpose.
Part of the reason why organizations get stuck in the “cycle of focusing on only what they’re currently good at” is because they fail to look outside their sector to better understand how their product or service could transform in the future and most importantly, how their customers could change or even how their behaviour could change in case of catastrophic events or even pandemics. There is often a failure to look at other industries and explore how policy, environmental factors, geopolitical impacts, customer behavior, and societal changes may ripple and create greater change, risk and opportunity. At other times, it is getting stuck by relying only on technology for the solution.
Organizations constantly have to keep up with new technology and trends like artificial intelligence, automation and machine learning, robotics, IoT, AR, VR, and Big Data. In the age of Big Data, “many organizations have let their inherent capacity for foresight weaken, relying instead on past performance, or costly analytics that are mostly backward looking.”
Organizations interested in implementing futures intelligence often find it difficult to identify strategies or anticipate results from foresight activities. Dominic Price, Futurist at Atlassian, told attendees at an event in 2019,”it is not natural for us to unlearn...you have to stop doing what is current that is no longer valuable”. Leadership has the power to instill the importance of foresight into an organization’s culture and give guidance on how to capture and implement it. Price shares how Atlassian instills foresight into their organization, “at Atlassian we've strived to create a culture of innovation that is inclusive and exciting, and a set of team rituals and team playbook, that enables our teams to remain nimble, autonomous and focused.”
Many organizations may not know where to start when it comes to capturing Futures Intelligence but there are plenty of scanning areas already within an organization. Technology is something to track for FI. And the political environment is another good sensing area. Employees and customers are a great place to start as they are on the ground floor of sensing trends and shifts. For example employees of a consumer products company are also customers of other consumer products giving them a perspective on behavior changes or preferences.
Leadership can help them recognize and capture what they’re sensing. This can be done simply by asking “what-if” type questions like, what if my customer becomes my competitor? Or what if a global pandemic happens and schools close? It can also be explored through Alternative Futures ® Scenario Planning exercises which delves into greater depth and analysis for future scenarios, implications, risks and opportunities. This type of thinking and practicing futures-based exercises can help an organization see its weaknesses outside their area of current expertise to find future areas of expertise.
After scanning different areas, capturing cultural shifts and trends, identifying drivers of change and practicing scenario analysis, leadership must identify no-regret strategies that would positively impact the organization in multiple scenarios. Through this analysis, FI informs the strategic planning and prioritization process supporting difficult investment decisions.
Futures Intelligence Can Guide Innovation & Strategy
We live in a world of more rapid change than ever before. Technology changes seemingly day to day and produces more data than organizations know what to do with. Humans must also adapt and adopt new behaviors, as well as trust collaborating with technology. However, by implementing Futures Intelligence, organizations can be prepared for change in a different way by seeing blind spots and how biases shape current strategies.
When practiced correctly, Futures Intelligence is a method to systematically establish well-informed, future-oriented perspectives that guide innovation, planning, and strategy.
Scanning a variety of environments like technology, political, environment, competition, and customer landscape will lead to a strong understanding of market shifts, new features that meet customers’ needs and increased revenue. In the study by Rohrbeck and Kum, they found, “future-prepared firms outperformed the average by a 33% higher profitability [and] a 200% higher growth.”
Futures Intelligence and foresight are essential to an organization’s growth, profit, and longevity in an ever-shifting world. Preparing for the future now, however uncertain, puts those organizations and leaders in a position to not only be part of the future but shape it too.
This article was written in collaboration with Maria Bothwell, CEO of Toffler Associates .
By Cathy Hackl, Contributor
© 2020 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved
This Forbes article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.