Are you sitting comfortably? It’s time to flex your foresight muscles, says Patricia Lustig, author of Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future

Copy of article on BA Business Life Blog today

If you are travelling on business today, your choice of destination was likely relatively easy to make. Maybe you decided to expand your business out into new markets, or a supplier invited you to attend a conference, or, a customer asked you to visit to discuss a new project or to review the finer points of a contract to be signed.

Whatever the business reason for your flight, it is highly unlikely you sat in your office with a map of the world and a pin and thought, what the heck, let’s just head anywhere and hope it works out. You had concrete reasons that you felt pretty certain about.

Business leaders rightly feel they need a destination for their organisation to aim for, too, and set a fixed course aligning all of their people, resources, investment, product innovation, marketing budget and everything else at their disposal to ensure they get there.

But in today’s constantly changing, ever more connected, digitally disrupted, politically challenging and uncertain world, is it wise — or even possible — to set a single strategic course and follow it unwaveringly? How do you perform due diligence on the future of your business? How do you ensure that your business grows and thrives when you know that future is uncertain at best?

The film Back to the Future II is a great example of how you just can’t predict the future. Twenty-six years later we can see the film got many things right, but there were also many things it got wrong. Most importantly, it missed something huge; our ubiquitous smartphones… but then 1989 was the year that Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web.

The point is that you can’t predict the future. But you can use strategic foresight to get close enough to ensure that your business future is bright.

Strategic foresight helps you get as much right as is possible by developing a range of possible futures and using structured frameworks to minimise what you might miss. So where do you start?

Firstly, you need to look at emerging trends and keep your eyes open for new things. Which of them might disrupt your business? How might different trends combine and what would that mean to you? What advantages could you develop? This must be an ongoing activity.

Uber and Airbnb are, for example, two companies that caused uncertainty and business disruption. Uber took taxi firms and governments by surprise, but the growth in smartphone usage, the rise of the mobile internet, real-time location tracking, greater levels of self-employment, and a sharing economy all gave major signposts to a disruption. Yet how many existing taxi companies and government regulators were able to see these trends coming together? Did they ignore the signs or did they just assume that the way people book and pay for taxis would never change?

Secondly, develop a range of possible, probable futures based on how trends may unfold. Do not include a direct extrapolation from the past — that is wasting your time. Exercise your ‘foresight muscles’ and think out of the box. Add a wild card future — one with a highly improbable event. With the Fukushima disaster, it was not that they hadn’t thought through various catastrophes scenarios, it was that three of them hit at the same time and that had been considered so unlikely that no plans had been made.

Next you need to identify how you would know that one of the futures you had developed was actually emerging. What early warning signs would you see that indicated you were heading towards each future? These will help you to recognise when you are approaching one of the futures you’ve thought through.

You also need to develop a plan for each of your range of futures. If this future emerged, what would you do to take the best advantage of the situation? What would you need to stop doing? How can you innovate?

And finally, you need to monitor for the signs that a particular future is unfolding. Your early warning signs will help you to recognise it and then you can execute the appropriate plan for that future giving you the best opportunity to thrive.

So if you conduct your future due diligence, keep watching emerging trends and explore several potential, probable futures. You will get some things right. You will likely also get some things wrong, possibly because you missed a trend or you didn’t consider how two different trends might combine. Keeping an eye on not just how the future unfolds in the present, but and also how trends could emerge for the future will enable robust decision making for an enduring future.

So, grab a pen and paper and write a list of emerging trends that you’ve noticed and think how they might change the future of your business. You can start to create not only your Plan A, but Plan B, Plan C and Plan D, which will help you to think more clearly about where your business might go next.

Patricia Lustig is a widely recognised practitioner in strategic foresight and strategy development, future thinking and innovation. She is the author of a number of respected books and is the founder of international business consultancy LASA Development. Patricia’s most recent book, Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future is published by Triarchy Press