Lead from the Future: How to Break the Barriers to Long-Term Thinking

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Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth. Copyright 2020 Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz. All rights reserved.

Everyone recognizes a great, visionary leader when they see one—at least in retrospect after their prescient ideas have been borne out by time. In history, Winston Churchill inspired the British in their darkest hour, and Nelson Mandela led the resistance to apartheid from his prison cell on Robben Island. In our own day, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos recognized the transformative power of new technologies and leveraged them to build vast enterprises that changed whole economies and ways of life.

Each of these leaders looked past the conventional wisdom of their day, foresaw a different and better world, and mobilized others to join them in their quests to create it.

Where did their vision come from? By what alchemy, besides sheer force of intellect, personality, and determination, did they bring them to life?

Well, the surest way to break free of the barriers to visionary innovation and change is to actually do the hard work of envisioning your future. The fact is, you don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t think about the future in a systematic way, you won’t think about or fully realize the threats and opportunities that await you. Once you begin to see them for yourself, you won’t be able to imagine how you could have functioned with such an incomplete perspective.

Developing and deploying an inspiring and actionable vision is a skill that can be learned. Beyond that, it can be driven into the cultures of even the most hidebound organizations, reigniting their entrepreneurial fires and infusing them with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

To help you do this, we’ve formalized a way of thinking and a set of allied processes that can help leaders think further out than the three to five years that most set as their planning horizon.

Future-back thinking, as we call it, is relatively simple: it’s about setting aside your assumptions about the way things work today, think carefully about your destination—your organization’s target end state in the future—and then develop and implement a step-by-step plan to get there.

Your first task is to explore what the future is likely to hold, grapple with the implications of that future for your organization, and assert a point of view on how to best respond to and shape that future, including the evolution of current businesses and the development of new ones. Put it all together and you’ve got a vision that’s ready to be translated into a future-back strategy:

Step 1: Paint a Picture of the Future Environment

Imagine the leadership team of a newspaper company in 2000 contemplating the impact of a future in which news will be available online anywhere, anytime—and classified ads will be free. This is the type of discussion you should start with. Identify the potential inflection points in your industry and focus on the timeframe when they are likely to occur—when new paradigms will mature to the point of significance and new technologies will converge to open up both potential disruptions and new opportunities. Perhaps your customers’ needs are shifting or low-cost competitors are emerging. When might these trends begin to tip?

Step 2: Identify the Major Implications of the Future for Your Enterprise

Now that you have a sense of the mechanics of the world you’ll be designing for, it’s time to put your company into it. You’ve asserted what your markets will be like; next, you have to figure out what that means for you. To do that, imagine how your current businesses will fare in that envisioned future. Will they still have a role to play? What will have to be true for them to thrive? What does that mean for your growth prospects?

At this stage leaders often realize that business-as-usual has a greater downside risk than they’d supposed and that there will be an unrealized upside, as new opportunities will arise that are beyond the scope of their current businesses. Projecting the current status and health of your core business into the future allows you to define your growth gap—the difference between what you aspire to (or are expected to) deliver and what you are likely to. The relative size of the gap bounds the relative size of the response you’ll have to muster.

Step 3: Envision the Future State of Your Business

Having developed a point of view on the future and come to terms with its implications for your existing businesses, it’s time to focus on what you will offer as part of your envisioned future state, how you will create value, and how you’ll address your looming growth, positioning, and capability gaps in doing so. We find it helpful to systematically think through three tried and true growth categories:

  • Core: Opportunities to extend or evolve your core offerings to maximize their relevance in the future environment.
  • Adjacencies: Distinct new products and services that can augment your core offerings or opportunities to take your core offerings into different geographies and markets, with either option (or combined options) leveraging the existing business model.
  • New growth: Growth initiatives that may leverage the core capabilities of the organization but in new and distinct businesses, typically with new business models.

At this point, you should be able to tell a succinct story about what the future will hold, what it means for you, and how your company will shape it. It should be exciting, galvanizing, and imbued with purpose, so it will inspire your internal and external stakeholders, breaking down at least some of the barriers to long-term thinking.

While our methods won’t allow you to predict the future with absolute certainty (no one can), they will give you the clarity that you need to meet its challenges and opportunities proactively, which, combined with proper planning and disciplined execution, will allow you to better sustain your organization over the long term.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth. Copyright 2020 Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz. All rights reserved.

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