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Two Simple Concepts for Thinking about the Future

George E.L. Barbee

George E.L. Barbee is one of the original Batten fellows at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. Before that he was a PwC partner for 20 years. This piece is adapted from his book 63 Innovation Nuggets (Innovation Etc., 2015).

 

Every business decision is an effort to create a better future: a future in which your operations are faster, more precise, and more profitable. If you can make that happen, you can sell more products or services, and you may even play a role in easing (or solving) some of humanity’s fundamental problems. Here are two steps you can take today to start thinking about the future more productively.

1. Build your “foresight network.” Find people in your organization who think in a creative manner. You know these people. They stand out in meetings, and you value one-on-one discussions with them.

Start with the few people who you know best or feel most comfortable with. Meet, talk, and share success stories. Then focus the meetings on discussion where your company might go, and the best path forward. At the end of each meeting, have each attendee invite two or three like-minded friends. Strive for functional, divisional, and geographic diversity. Continue to build your foresight network this way; let its members discover their own ways forward.

Now you have a group of like-minded people with whom you can talk more powerfully about the future. In your meetings, discuss your key customers and what is in store for them.

In the 1990s, I worked with some executives at GE who recognized that the company had new opportunities: The world was opening up after the fall of the Soviet Union, and GE had a great deal of executive confidence. International growth at the time was high on GE’s agenda.

I had a candid exchange with the executives. We talked about our various experiences with global expansion and its challenges — and how companies could organize themselves to ensure that they would not be isolated within any particular country.

We talked about our experiences in China, India, and Mexico. Among us, we knew Western companies that had expanded into China and India, and we knew senior people in Mexico we could talk to. We now had reason to reach out to our contacts in all three countries. Some of them joined our group. Our ongoing “blue sky” conversations continued to remind us of new opportunities and of our access to expertise.

Within three months, GE had projects or acquisitions under way in all three countries. Within six months, the cover of Fortune magazine featured GE opening up these and other countries around the world. These are the kinds of breakthroughs that are possible when a team begins to operate as a foresight network.

2. Improve your imagining practice. Imagine is a simple word, but it has huge potential to unlock vision. In your everyday meetings, listen for situations where it is appropriate to say “Imagine if....”

It can be very powerful to reframe the conversation that way. Now, instead of just discussing your next immediate problem or challenge, you are letting a deeper, longer-term concept of the situation slowly soak in. Imagining a future state can also take you away from thinking about your internal organizational concerns and into the mind-set of your customers.

Now you have a group of like-minded people with whom you can talk more powerfully about the future.

One professional-services company I worked with had a tradition of hosting its partners at an offsite retreat. The partners met in small groups of 15 to 20 to discuss the company’s challenges. At the start of these sessions, everyone would introduce themselves, naming the city they lived in and the part of the company they worked within.

In one meeting, we asked ourselves to imagine a different way of introducing ourselves: by the customer(s) we served. There was a long silence. We prided ourselves on a “customer-centered culture.” Suddenly we realized that our introductions were all about us, and not about our customers at all. So we introduced ourselves by saying, for example, “My customers are in the banking industry, mostly in the Eastern U.S., and they want help with improving technology.”

This sparked a remarkable conversation. Our customers didn’t care if we lived in Boston, St. Louis, or San Francisco. They wanted us anywhere our services would help them. And they wanted us to help solve their problems, without caring about which part of the company we represented.

We imagined a future in which we thought about customers first, before thinking about our own silos or geographies. That was the first step toward becoming a more global enterprise.

Try imagining. It may take you to some interesting places. Your foresight network will be richer.

I’d like to hear from you. Have you set up a foresight network? If so, how are you nurturing it to think about the future more productively? Leave a comment below or on Twitter at @InnovationEtc.

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Two Simple Concepts for Thinking about the Future