As the economic climate changes and competition grows, today’s organizations are being consistently challenged to focus on meeting short-term objectives, such as quarterly numbers, while fundamentally transforming the way they do business. While most of us work on the day-to-day operational details and focus on hitting the metrics, we often assume that there must be someone in the company that is thinking about the future. Whether we assume it’s the board, senior executives or perhaps the corporate strategy team, we somewhat believe that somewhere above our level, both the foresight and plans exist to stave disruption, capitalize on new opportunities and figure out exactly how the company needs to change to either survive or achieve the next paradigm of growth. This, however, is a fallacy that lands organizations and individuals in a lot of hot water. While most of us are in roles where we are focused on exploiting the current business model, nowadays, everyone’s job, regardless of level, is to be somewhat of a futurist who is able to foresee where the business is going and internalize the change by creating and executing their individual plans.
Everyone needs to be a futurist.
Per Wikipedia, the term “futurist” most commonly refers to authors, consultants, organizational leaders and others who engage in interdisciplinary and systems thinking to advise private and public organizations on such matters as diverse global trends, possible scenarios, emerging market opportunities and risk management. In order to thrive and effectively transform in today’s climate, we must not limit this role to just authors, consultants, organizational leaders. Everyone needs to assume his or her part in understanding what the future may look like.
Yes, we all have full-time jobs and enough on our plates to keep us busy, but without an investment in gaining the foresight and our own personal meaning on where our company, industry and roles are going, how might we proactively keep ourselves relevant? Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and most of us prefer to be in our comfort zones, but we’ve all seen the recent wake-up calls from companies such as Nokia, New York Times and Blackberry. When it gets to a point that senior leadership has to write a manifesto that calls for drastic change, it is likely too late to start shifting yourself to adjust to the new realities of your company. Only by being proactive, can we effectively internalize what it may mean for us individually and create the runway necessary to make the shift.
Bottom line: If you’re not spending some time understanding the future and what it means to you personally, you are effectively putting yourself in the position of being tapped on the shoulder one day and being told that you are no longer relevant to where the company is headed.
But there aren’t enough hours in the day.
While some companies such as Google, Amazon and 3M allow employees time to think about the future and experiment, most of us have plenty to do to hit those short-term objectives. Despite what the description of the task may sound like, being a futurist of your own domain does not necessarily mean becoming the “authority” or “thought-leader” on a topic. Rather, knowing enough to be able to understand the trends and contextualize what it means to you and your role.
At this risk of sounding like a bit of an infomercial, you can start by dedicating just 5 minutes per day to close the book on the current, read and digest some key information and think about the future. Given the vast variety of tools and apps available, gathering insight becomes almost effortless. It is then just a matter of spending those 5 minutes per day to effectively consume an article or two and internalize what it means to you (and your role). Once you have a sense of where the future of your industry or your role is going, frame out provocative questions. For example, “How will we collect receivables in 5 years?” “How will we sell in 2020?” “How will people buy cars in the next decade?”. Your answers will guide you to the next step, which is defining what skills and capabilities you’ll need to have to stay relevant. From there, map them to your current skills and identify the gaps you need to cover. The essence of this is not to do a one-time exercise, but turn this into a regular habit – 5 minutes every day. The pace of change can sometimes be so rapid that a plan from 6 months ago may be completely irrelevant today. Can you afford 5 minutes per day to protect your career?
Leaders: Think Big, Start Small
As a leader, you have to think big and set the bar as someone who thinks about the future.
- Leaders have a responsibility to set and explain the boundaries by which employees can both see and act upon the future (it works like strategy – it must cascade).
- Leaders must provide the raw materials for employees to think and act on the future (the practical details of how differ by situation but in general they are time, collaboration, encouragement and fairness)
When it comes to your team, frame the challenge and encourage people to invest the time and share their insights with their peers. As your team adopts spending time thinking about the future, devote agenda time during each team meeting for people to share what they have learned. Keep your meetings balanced: 80% of the discussion around current business, 20% speaking about the future and sharing ideas and insights.
Another important factor to consider are your incentives and how you measure performance. If you are strictly evaluating your people based on short-term accomplishments and are lacking longer-term components that allow people some of the freedom and liberty needed to invest in thinking about the future, it will be challenging to get results.
It doesn’t take much to get started, so think big, but you can certainly start small.
As our status quo is constantly being challenged. In many ways, imaginative processes and business ideas, are constantly needed just to keep ahead of the competition. What’s worked in the past, won’t work in the future and big, bold thinking about the future is becoming a must at every level of the organization. Employees have a responsibility to see the future – but leaders have a responsibility to guide and foster those insights in a way that benefits the employee, customer and the shareholder.
It’s time for all us to become futurists.