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Thinking productively about the future

Asking the right questions today will allow leaders to be better prepared for — and even gain insights from — uncertainty.

If you are like most leaders, you were unprepared for the novel coronavirus and the disruptive impact it has had on lives, livelihoods, and business. You may have taken part in crisis management training, and you probably had scenario-planning exercises in place in your organization. Even so, we bet you were surprised, if not blindsided, by the pandemic, how fast the crisis unfolded, and what your leadership team needed to do as a result.

In today’s world of accelerated change, companies frequently will find themselves in situations in which they don’t know what is going to happen next. With so much uncertainty and few straightforward answers, it is easier to focus on near-term actions and “getting things done.” Preparing for an unknowable future is another matter entirely, but it’s just as important — it can show you new opportunities and prepare you for potential disruption, which are both outcomes that can lead to greater success. But this kind of preparation requires a different mind-set than the one that reacts to events; it needs a new set of practices that allow you to explore topics that are not yet important to your business.

Traditional approaches are all ultimately about control: Prepare for a crisis so you can control the message. Run potential scenarios so you can control the decisions at key junctures and mitigate risk. Hire experts so you can control knowledge and execution. But preparing for an unknowable future, as opposed to trying to control the outcome of that future, is different.

Preparation of this sort comes from scanning for the signals that already exist, embracing unknowns, and being curious about new ideas. Leaders need to hold the tension between two extremes: control on the one hand, and exploration on the other. A future-oriented mind-set is one that accepts this paradox.

Exploratory learning

To prepare effectively, you need to practice what we call exploratory learning: Gather information not knowing how it will be used or what insights you will gain. The most valuable untapped skill is the ability to learn — genuine curiosity paired with openness.

Leaders need to hold the tension between two extremes: control on the one hand, and exploration on the other. A future-oriented mind-set is one that accepts this paradox.

With your team, pick a trend, theme, or current important topic, one that is not yet impacting your business. Maybe you think it will — maybe you aren’t sure. Then, explore and solicit opinions from a broad range of viewpoints; try to see opposing sides and define the axes of the problem. Get curious, but do not move to action or reach a firm conclusion. Simply engage your team in exploring what is out there.  

For example, consider the current pandemic. Whatever plans you made or scenarios you outlined were probably inadequate for the way events unfolded. Imagine if you had explored more thoroughly what it would mean to have everyone on the team being virtual, testing the limits of what we know about virtual work, or if you had looked at your whole supply chain as being vulnerable to disruption.

People have been discussing what makes virtual teams effective for decades, but you may never have thought your company would operate that way. Imagine if your team had talked about what would happen if travel were disrupted (for whatever reason). There were opportunities to see the impact of this when a volcano erupted in Iceland in 2010, leaving people stranded for days on end in certain parts of the world.

Your topic for future exploration could be as broad as a pandemic or as narrow as a particular ingredient or component in a product you make in the future. Ask yourself these guiding questions to strengthen your inquiry:

  • Does anyone or any institution know all there is to know about our topic?
  • Who has an informed view, and what do they have to say?
  • What are the competing views on the implications or the indicators?
  • What other trends might impact this?
  • Who else is thinking about this, and why?

Take any direction. Cast a wide net, and engage different points of view. The point is to learn, to think, and to know more about what others are seeing. Afterward, ask yourself and your team about implications for your business:

  • Are there small experiments we should try now?
  • Are there insights to retain?
  • Are there signals to monitor?

The discipline to ask questions, explore, share insights, and allow one thing to lead to the next is how you keep your thinking sharp. Then, do it again and again. This sort of exploration means that you will gain perspectives. Try some small experiments before having to put new practices in place becomes a matter of urgency.

If, for example, ahead of the pandemic, you and your team had delved into research on stress and how best to manage it, would that have helped? Although it is unlikely that you would have predicted the current pandemic, you would have been more prepared for what has happened simply by exploring trends that have emerged over time.

The future is comprised of the small signals that are all around us right now. If we build the capacity for curiosity, those signals will help show us where to turn when the time arises. Exploration is the key to being ready when we cannot know what we need to be ready for.

In a conversation we had with a well-known CEO who was transitioning to another position, we asked if he regretted anything about his previous role. Without hesitating, he answered, “I wish I had spent more time thinking about the future.” The leader’s job is to think about the future and challenge others to do the same. Good leaders, as it turns out, are good explorers.

Author profiles:

  • Stephen Newman has been a teacher, trainer, program director for executive development, and an advisor to companies on learning. He was the cofounder of the Future of Learning Forum at Columbia Business School and the originator of the Magnet for Global Innovation program in Silicon Valley.
  • Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast Out of the Comfort Zone and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.
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