Think like a FuturistBy Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

If no one person truly knows what the future holds, why try to predict what tomorrow will bring?

It’s a reasonable question. Human nature causes society to feature what can’t be controlled and be distrustful of what can’t be influenced. And yet the long-term success of companies and organizations is reliant on what’ll happen next week, next month, and in the years and decades to follow. Organizational leaders assume the responsibility of investing time, energy and resources in planning for the future and anticipating what’s to come. And while they don’t know exactly what’s around the bend, the task of predicting the future ultimately allows those tasked with doing it to determine where a company is, where it wants to go and – perhaps most importantly – how it’ll reach its desired destination.

“The first tip for thinking like a futurist is not to be afraid of the future,” said Sheryl Connelly, who has been employed in such a role for the Ford Motor Company for nearly 16 years.

Connelly shared her insights on what it takes for organizational leaders to think like a futurist, and how doing so can help organizations of all types and sizes attain long-term goals and achieve sustained success at AEM’s most recent Annual Conference. And, according to Connelly, while the vast majority of organizational leaders are adept at many aspects of shaping the future of their respective companies, many often overlook a critical strategic component: anticipating the environment in which an established plan must be executed.

“That’s invariably where things fall apart,” said Connelly. “You encounter things outside your control and influence, and it throws your plans off track.”

In order to plan for (and, with some degree of accuracy, predict) the future, organizational leaders must take it upon themselves to think like a futurist. And, according to Connelly, they can do so by following 5 steps, the first of which – as previously noted – is:

Step 1 -- Don’t Be Afraid of the Future

Not everything can be controlled or influenced, and organizational leaders must recognize this fact. More importantly, however, they must embrace it. Because if they don’t, any effort to try and think like a futurist will fail before it ever really gets under way.

Step 2 -- Beware of the SWOT Analysis

A commonly used business strategy tool, the SWOT analysis calls for companies to identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Ultimately, it’s designed to helps organizational leaders more accurately answer questions such as “What do we do well?” and “How do we continue to leverage our strengths as an organization?”

Unfortunately, said Connelly, conducting a SWOT analysis often leads to organizational navel-gazing.

“The focus (of a SWOT analysis) is very internal,” she continued. “And it blinds you to the facts changing outside of your industry, outside of your company and outside of the competitive ranks – and these are the things that will catch you off-guard.”

Step 3 -- Be Generally Right, Not Precisely Wrong

Organizational leaders who are uncertain about what the future holds often consult the past in an attempt to find answers. It’s no surprise why. Sophisticated modeling has been developed to allow companies to determine the trajectory of their sales rate, where market share is headed, what interest rates or financing terms will look like in the future, and much more.

The common thread? All of it is based on historical data. That – said Connelly – is a problem.

“Relying on historical data is a bit like using your rearview mirror to guide your drive down the highway,” she continued. “And looking to the past will always keep you vulnerable to the future.”

Step 4 -- Be Provocative

“And at the end of the day, that’s really the goal of a futurist,” said Connelly.

While accurately predicting the future is no small task, it’s something everyone does on a fairly regularly basis – in both big and small ways.

“For instance, when you get married, you assume it’s going to be for your lifetime,” said Connelly. “When you make an investment, you assume it will pay off in the long run. Where it gets problematic, though, it when we tend to think the things that made us most successful will guarantee our success moving forward. A big part of being provocative is challenging the status quo, and a great place to start is talking about wildcard events.”

What makes a wildcard event? It must have a low probability of occurrence, but also a high probability of transforming the human condition. A prime example is natural disasters, but wildcard events can also be positive: the advent of the Internet, the proliferation of mobile technology, or decoding the sequence of the human genome.

All were one-in-a-million occurrences. All challenged the status quo. All fundamentally reshaped the world.

“And all were wildcard events the marketplace is still trying to unravel and understand the true implications on society,” said Connelly.

Step 5 -- Be Plausible

It’s one thing to try and predict what tomorrow will bring. Convincing others to buy into your vision for the future is something else entirely, and it starts with being plausible.

According to the longtime Ford futurist, being plausible means examining the trends poised to shape the world for the next two, three or four decades to come. Trends put pressure on what’s to come, and they occur in a variety of arenas – social, technological, economic, environmental and political. More than anything else, though, trends have a transformative impact on societal values.  

“If you want to bring people along for the journey, you have to be logical,” said Connelly. “You have to be transparent. And you have to back up your reasoning so people can follow where you're going.”

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