March 29th, 2016
1) Bring in outsiders to challenge your world view
The greatest risk to any business is institutional blindness. The greatest risk to any leader is being seduced by one’s own world-view. The greatest risk to any marketing department is believing your own slogans.
When too many bankers spend too much time with bankers, the result is a sub-prime crisis. Too many generals playing too many war games with too many other generals in the same nation, and the result can be disaster.
So seek out advice from experts, consultants, innovators – people who think very differently to you and others in your company. Take them out to dinner. Include them in key strategy discussions. Hire them into your teams.
2) Listen to your customers – but don’t believe them
Always take what your customers tell you seriously. Fix their problems. Make life easier. Thank them for their feedback. But don’t believe them when it comes to predicting the future.
Get to know your customers well, with deep insights into how they think and feel, and then try to imagine how they may behave in a very different kind of future world. Take online banking for example: in many nations most customers told banks a few years ago that they were not interested in online banking or making payments using a smartphone – and if banks had listened to them, they would have missed one of the greatest transformations in retail banking for decades.
One of the best ways to find those insights is to pretend to be a customer in your own business as a “mystery shopper”. Every senior manager should do that at least once a month. Mystery shopping is often shocking to business leaders – not so much how they are treated as customers, but what it feels like to be that customer.
3) Read widely – and be curious about all you meet
I wrote The Future of Almost Everything as a one-stop guide to the future of every industry, region and market. Many of the insights came from reading everything I can get my hands on – unfamiliar magazines in airports, blogs by influential people, newspapers like the Financial Times, and other key publications like the Economist.
The key is to challenge your own views on the future, rather than just absorb the forecasts made by others.
When did you last have a conversation with someone that really changed how you think?
One of the fastest ways to stay ahead of change is to be constantly curious about the lives of those you meet. For example, when you arrive in a new city, talk to your taxi driver who will likely be a very reliable guide to what is really going on, if the local economy is picking up, who is spending what and where.
Every person has unique insights and personal experience. Their own way of viewing the world. High school students, mothers with children at home, people who are retired, shop assistants, bus drivers, car mechanics, journalists, pharmacists and so on. And in each town or city, in every nation, the answers such people will give will be different.
4) Review your strategies every year
The world is changing faster than you can hold a board meeting, which means that you need to have more than one strategy. Bring your team together regularly to think again. Develop contingencies to stay ahead of constant change. What are you going to do if….
The smartest corporations and teams all have multiple strategies. They already know more or less exactly what they will do if a particular event takes place.
Focus on major long-term trends, which change relatively slowly and you already understand most of your future. Things like demographics, growing life expectancy, the relentless fall in price of most technologies, rapid pace of globalization, rise of emerging markets and so on. These things form the foundation stones of every corporate strategy or government policy.
The rest will be driven by Wild Cards – low probability, high impact events – but there are a huge number of them, and in a hyper-connected world, their combined impact can be awesome. Remember that in every risk or challenge there is a new business opportunity.
5) Be agile!
And finally, prepare for rapid change, by developing more agile teams. That means simplifying decision-making, giving more power to local teams to innovate, diversify and respond to events rapidly. Recruit and promote leaders who cope well with ambiguity and uncertainty, who enjoy taking initiative, have courage and are great collaborators.
It is shocking how many organisations still have a very top-down culture, where managers basically do as they are told, and where many leaders are reduced to mere implementers of someone else’s business plan. Part of agility is encouraging innovation: creative thinking, new solutions to old problems, radical steps to serve customers better.
Agility is so much easier when you have completed steps 1-4 above. When you have a dynamic view of your future and have mapped out different possible directions depending on what happens around you.
Patrick Dixon is a futurist, keynote speaker author and adviser to boards and senior teams on strategic impact of global trends, innovation and risk. His latest book, The Future of Almost Everything, describes hundreds of key trends which will impact your business and personal life, and explains what it all means for our wider world. http://www.globalchange.com