Don’t Stop Talking About Tomorrow: A Guide to Surviving the Future

conversations1How often do you talk with your colleagues about the future and how it will affect your organization?

As I have mentioned many, many times here and elsewhere, most leadership teams spend less than 3% of their collective time talking with each other about the future – of their company, their industry, and the world in general.

In my experience, most of us live day to day assuming that the future will be just like the recent past. We realize that there are some predictable trends, and that some things (like the weather) go through regular cycles, but for the most part we expect tomorrow to be similar to today.

Well, to be more accurate, we either expect sameness, or we are so overwhelmed by change, uncertainty, and innovation that we hunker down and live in fear that our lives are out of control. We worry – often rightfully so – about being blindsided by new products, new competitors, or new rules and regulations that put control of our businesses in someone else’s hands. And that kind of worry actually leads to believing, or at least hoping, that tomorrow will be just like today.

direction confusionHow well-prepared are you for next week, next year, the next five years? Do you have a clear vision of what technologies could disrupt your industry, or perhaps even your basic business model? How will changing generational demographics impact your staffing strategy?

Are you developing leaders who are tuned in to the digital age? Does your corporate culture encourage power-sharing and collaboration? Or do your team leaders still operate in “Command and Control” mode?

If those questions make you uneasy, then I’ve done my job today. Designing your organization’s future is not easy, but it is essential. If you don’t take charge of tomorrow, you are going to drift into the future, and that’s no way to create value for customers, for shareholders, and for employees – let alone to survive.

What can you do to “futureproof” your organization? Of course there are no simple answers, but I do have a few suggestions.

First, recognize that futureproofing isn’t something you do tomorrow, or just once; today is the only opportunity you have to take meaningful action, but you have to do something about tomorrow during every one of your todays. As I noted last week (“Just Do It – Right Now!),

Peter Drucker once observed that planning for the future isn’t about what is going to happen at some distant time beyond tomorrow; no, it is about what you do today to prepare yourself and your organization for the future you think is going to happen.

Every organization has to find the right balance between carrying out today’s routine activities (production operations, customer service, sales) and inventing tomorrow’s new capabilities (product development, new marketing campaigns, recruiting new staff, developing tomorrow’s leaders). It’s too easy to get caught up doing the routine things that are there every day; make sure you are also spending some time today, every day, laying the foundation for the business you want to be leading tomorrow.

Second,Future Exit Sign 000018627375XSmall develop a capacity for peripheral vision. It isn’t enough to pay attention to the critical factors that affect your business today; you must also spend time consciously tracking things that don’t appear to have any impact at all right now.

For example, have you thought about how the Internet of Things could change the way you interact with customers, or track the way your staff moves around your corporate facilities, or how you could monitor movement of your products through your distribution channels?

Third, and maybe this should be first: keep talking about tomorrow. The best way I know to develop peripheral vision, and an open curiosity about the future, is to engage in open-ended, exploratory conversations that force you to think about tomorrow’s possibilities.

And don’t just talk to your colleagues. Look for opportunities to talk with (actually, to listen to) customers, non-customers, employees, future employees (e.g., current college students; teenagers; your own children), suppliers, and anyone else who has perspectives on what’s happening in the world today.

Make a special effort to have conversations with people who come from different backgrounds and lead vastly different lives than you do. I heard recently that one very successful high-tech company has included a professional musician on one of its software development teams. He’s wasn’t hired to write code; but he’s enriching his team’s understanding of how its products will impact the marketplace.

Meaningful conversations about the future will, over time, create a trusted community—a community that includes not only your direct employees but also your external business partners and a broader network of independent thought leaders.

Futureproofing is about sharpening your peripheral vision through meaningful conversations that leverage the diversity within your own organization and the extended community.

Finally, a caveat: it’s difficult to hold meaningful conversations about the future on your own. The most effective future-oriented organizations I know regularly engage with external experts and skilled meeting facilitators to help them have those conversations and build strategic planning processes that keep them focused on tomorrow. Don’t do it alone; form an external Advisory Board of independent thought leaders and futurists.

And by the way, that’s precisely the way I spend much of my time. If you are ready to start taking the future seriously, please give me a call. And don’t stop talking about tomorrow.

Contact me for a free one-hour consultation about how you can design and lead corporate conversations that focus your attention on tomorrow. Download this brief overview of my Talking About Tomorrow program to learn how you can futureproof your business.

Special Note: The week of September 8 I’m going to begin live broadcasting several times a week about the future of work using Periscope,the new smartphone app from Twitter. Download the app and follow me on Periscope and Twitter (@thefutureofwork) to receive notice of when I am “on the air.” It’s an experiment; please join me for a next-generation social media experience!