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How futurist thinking can help you and your organisation prepare for change

We speak with Futurist David Smith on how futurist thinking could be the key to unlock your competitive advantage

When your days are busy and calendar full you can fall into a pattern of not planning too far ahead. For David Smith, Chief Executive and a Futurist at Global Futures in London, his day-to-day life is looking 3-5 years into the future.

Futurist thinking is all about imagining a future that looks different from today and preparing for the potential consequences that could occur.

Smith works with clients to identify how changes in technology, environmental factors or consumer behaviour could potentially impact their business. He explains, “futurist thinking is about holding on to the present lightly, but not abandoning it. Asking yourself – what is driving the likely change to your context in the next two, five or more years and what can you start doing about it?”

Half the battle can be changing short-term mindsets to look at what’s coming further down the road. As Smith explains, people can find it challenging to accept that the future is different from today. “Most people are in the present, they are in the current quarter – they’re trying to grow and not go bust.” Companies need to employ foresight to evolve and adapt to a changing business environment.

The risk of adaptation

Smith cites Kodak as an example of a company that is synonymous with a failure to adapt. “Everyone says Kodak couldn’t see it coming but they made the first digital camera…unfortunately, they couldn’t move on from their core business. They angled digital to professionals but kept marketing their film products to the public.”

Adaptation can sometimes mean taking a risk. When IBM’s primary product was a typewriter, they saw the rise of the word processor. “Instead of making a better a typewriter, they started making word processors and abandoned typewriters. They could see their core business was no longer viable.”

Usually, big companies are aware of burning issues, Smith says, but they just won’t react. He believes it’s the job of futurists to paint a very convincing picture of what the future might look like, and present it in a way the business will want to embrace.

Tools for future planning

Adopting futurist thinking requires a change of attitude. Smith shares a number of tools and approaches that are valuable when assessing and planning for change:

3 Horizons

The 3 horizons model is a growth strategy tool developed by McKinsey. Use three timescales to assess your business and drivers of change – the now, the near and the far. The model can help with visualising stages of development or growth. It’s a simple tool to visualise future plans.

Inference Wheels

Inference wheels are a powerful way of brainstorming possible consequences of an issue. Identify the critical issue you would like to examine and place it in the centre of a circle. Branching out from this – ask yourself; What is the implication of this issue on me or my business? What is the implication of those implications? Smith explains, “by the time you are three or four levels out, you have a deep understanding of the potential impact of the issue.”

Scenario planning

Scenario planning involves identifying what drives the future of your business environment, what it could look like and preparing for the potential change. Start by identifying what issues that could affect you or your business and then assess which are the most likely to occur and the most impactful. “It’s about looking at the consequences of issues and writing potential responses to those scenarios. If they occur – you’re more aware and prepared for those situations.”

Prepared for change

For businesses, there are clear rewards for employing futurist thinking. Smith shares an example of Bank National de Paris in Brussels who carried out scenario planning some years ago.

One of the least likely risks that emerged from the exercise was a pandemic but it was likely to be extremely disruptive should it occur. “As a consequence, they purchased four million masks for their staff. So, when the pandemic hit, they weren’t in a queue to buy masks for their staff – they literally pulled them up from the warehouse that afternoon, distributed them to their team and gave a few hundred thousand masks to the local hospital.”

For organisations with a need to evolve and adapt, having employees with the right mindset for change is critical. He believes rewarding and recognising people that are innovative is very important. “We tend to promote people who run things well. That sends a message to other people – don’t rock my boat. Don’t introduce new things that might be risky and not work. If you keep doing that as a leader, you’ll get what you always got – or less.”

Look ahead to opportunity

How can financial services professionals employ futurist thinking? Smith believes that there is a big opportunity for employees to identify trends or potential change drivers and proactively seek to understand their impact.

Whether it’s machine learning, quantum computing or evolving consumer behaviour, becoming someone that understands and plans for change can make a real difference. “If you’re the one who can understand these elements and be able to present it to your boss, then you’re going to be an incredibly useful and valuable resource in your company.”

One thing Smith can guarantee, the next five years are going to be very different to the last five years. So, why not start thinking about what that could like?

Join David Smith for a masterclass in futurist thinking

Join David Smith on September 23rd for a masterclass in futurist thinking. This masterclass from the Executive Education 2020/21 Masterclass Series is designed with busy executives in mind, offering them the opportunity to be immersed in the specialised topic of interest during a short and practically focused session.