Orchestrating Conversations about the Future

May 15, 2017

The Future Exit SignAs I say almost every week:

Smart leaders in 2017 don’t design good conversations, they orchestrate them.

I’ve also commented often that organizational leaders spend very little time thinking or talking about the future beyond the next quarterly earnings report.

In their classic book Competing for the Future, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad reported that most senior executives spend less than 40% of their time focused on the world outside their own organization, only about 30% of that future-focused time thinking about the next three to five years, and no more than 20% of that time talking with their colleagues about the future. In other words, only about 2.4% of management time (40% x 30% x 20%) is focused on building a shared corporate view of the future (Competing for the Future, p. 4.).

I’m convinced this inability (or unwillingness) to pay attention to what’s around the corner is the major reason the future seems to surprise us so often.

Yet most of the time what’s coming is relatively easy to figure out. As the science fiction writer William Gibson once said, “The future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed.”

Yes, sometimes there are sudden breakthroughs or changes that catch all of us, or most of us anyway, by surprise. Yet most disruptive changes are predictable to those who are paying attention.

As a case in point, last week I came across an incredibly powerful look at the future of transportation – in particular the automobile industry and its partner, the fossil fuel industry. The report, “Rethinking Transportation,” takes an in-depth look at current trends and potential disruptions in the transportation sector of the economy (the 70-page report, produced by the think tank RethinkX, is downloadable for free at this link).

(Note: I am still reading the report; I intend to write more about it soon as I can sort out what it means; today I am just using this study as an example of the need to spend time understanding – and talking about – the future. However, I do encourage you to download the report and begin thinking about what it suggests regarding the future of transportation; don’t wait for me!).

If you are an organizational leader in almost any industry, you owe it to yourself to pay attention to “Rethinking Transportation” and to encourage your colleagues to read it as well. After all, what industry, or what business, will not be affected by changes in the ways we move people and things from one place to another?

Here’s how I would orchestrate a conversation about the future of transportation:

First, I would be regularly scanning the news and selected websites for any stories or reports about the future. But I can’t watch everything, so I would develop a framework or category system of topics to be on the lookout for (and transportation would of course be on that list).

I think of this process as cultivating peripheral vision – watching a wide range of topics that are not directly central to your business but could conceivably impact it in a significant way.

Second, I would find (or create) short, succinct summaries of the developments I’m paying attention to, and I’d send those summaries to my colleagues with brief handwritten notes about how this topic (whatever it is) might be something we should talk about.

Third, I would look for opportunities to chat with my peers over coffee or lunch about the questions that the issue raises for our organization. I’d approach those informal conversations with several “What if?” questions, and engage with colleagues in speculative dialogue.

For example, if I were part of a leadership team in a consumer products organization, I’d be asking my colleagues to think about how an 80% drop in the cost of transporting our products to retail outlets could affect us. I’d encourage some brainstorming about what might change (beyond our transportation costs).

I would also ask lots of questions aimed at teasing out second- and third-order consequences of a shift to Transportation as a Service (TaaS) – the “Big Idea” in the RethinkX report.

Finally, if it was becoming clear that the shift could be significantly disruptive, I’d schedule a serious, lengthy executive committee conversation about the possibilities. I’d also ensure that the whole C-Suite team was involved and actively engaged with the new challenges and opportunities that might be facing us.

Of course, you can never anticipate every critical disruption or recognize all the important longer-term trends, but if you remain curious about the future and actively focused on talking about it with just about everyone you know, I guarantee you will be surprised far less often.


Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware designs collaborative conversations that enable organizational leaders to make sense out of the future.

Contact Jim today, or call him right now at +1 510.558.1434 to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and expertise in orchestrating powerful conversations can futureproof your organization.


 

 

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