Imagine you’re in a room with a team of executives and one of your product engineers has brought you an innovation they are excited about. The year is 1970 and your company makes 35mm film and your engineer is bursting at the seams to showcase to you their idea for digital cameras. The team decides without much analysis to move on and continue with what you do best, to stay the course and keep doing what you’re doing. What can go wrong?
That situation seems laughable now, but Kodak passed on an opportunity to lead the way on digital photography and it resulted in them filing for bankruptcy 40 years later. This is yet another example of a company who did not invest in strategic foresight as a way to lead their business into the future.
How often do you and your team take the time to think about where your business or career is going? How often do you remove yourself from the back-to-back meeting schedule and emails to think about the future?
I’m not talking about looking into a crystal ball and predicting what is to come. Strategic foresight is about identifying and evaluating various possibilities and outcomes for your business, analyzing the pros and cons of taking or not taking action. It is also not a one time deal – it is a continuous process of evaluating and refining various scenarios so as not to go back to the instinctive behaviour of doing “business as usual.”
Why does this matter to you? As a leader, you’re counted on to give direction to your team. No one wants to follow a person who is uncertain, reactive, and is apathetic to changes happening in their business. Based on Tom Rath, a notable author on human behaviour in business, “People have four basic needs in order to follow a leader, one being ‘Hope’ for the future. Hope gives followers something to look forward to and helps them see the way through chaos and complexity.” The last thing you want your team saying out loud in a meeting is: “How did we miss out on that opportunity?”
I recently facilitated a series of strategic planning meetings with executive teams to plan the next 1 to 3 years. Usually, everyone already knows what needs to be done because they were already doing it the previous year or based on what they see others in the industry do. So often, my clients look to the past (market research) or current trends for the guidance of what they should do in the future. Rather than scenario planning the various impacts of a potential opportunity/threat and identifying some key tactics to start implementing in order to be at the forefront of change.
How can you start flexing your Strategic Foresight muscle? One can start with the exercise of Scenario Planning.
- Outline 2-3 Future Scenarios – a positive future scenario, a negative future scenario and a status quo future scenario.
- Evaluate the Scenarios – Think about external and internal environmental forces that could change. Think about the assumptions you are making, the threats and opportunities that may arise, and the actions you would need to take or stop taking in the scenario.
- Update and Refine Scenarios – There are infinite possible futures and therefore this is not a one-time exercise. I would suggest continuing to revisit, refine your scenarios or establish new scenarios a few times a year.
As a practice, scenario planning does not only have to apply to your business. As an exercise, look at your career development or maybe focus on your team development. Once you’re comfortable, assess a business challenge that’s keeping you up at night. You don’t need to do it yourself, do the exercise with your executive team or your coach.
Working on this competency could help you enhance your leadership effectiveness to steer clear of the blunders of Kodak and so many other companies that wish they had the foresight to prepare for the future.