“What can a business leader do to future-proof their business?”

This is a question I’m seeing and hearing everywhere. It pops up in the questions that I get from clients, interviewers and audiences. Authors and thought leaders are posing it in their content and in publications.

This has made me start to think more deeply about the question and, importantly, the pre-conceived ideas that sit behind it. And as a result, I’ve reached the belief that…

You should NOT try to ‘future-proof’ your business.

At the heart of this idea is the perspective that you can do something today that protects your business from the variability, change and disruption that the future holds. That you can build a shield or develop contingencies to protects your organisation from all that the future holds. That you can create certainty for your business in what is ‘certain’ to be an uncertain future world.

Is the future something you need to be protected from?

I understand that confronting uncertainty is threatening and breeds all manner of trepidation – particularly in a world where it feels like business and team leaders are expected to have all the answers. But when we see the future as something to feel threatened by – to be feared – our natural response as human beings is to either run and hide or stay and fight.

But these ‘limbic responses’ can do more long-term damage to the business than any future uncertainty that you’re trying to protect it from. The future will impact your business in one way or another. But if you wait for that impact to show up on your P&L reports or in your sales numbers, it can be too late to catch up in today’s fast-paced business world.

“It’s just a fad…it’ll pass”

Often our ‘flight response’ is to double-down on core business and retreat into a cocoon of what we have always done – fortifying it to make it even more robust. Because we believe that once the tide of change has washed over us and the vagaries of customer and market trends have passed, what has successfully gotten us to where we are will eventually take us to where want to go.

For some businesses, it might. But the price of being wrong can be catastrophic. A lesson that Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry (RIM) and now General Electric have learned the hard way.

“A strategy that will withstand the test of time”

Our ‘fight response’ is to build protections that separate the business from the negative impacts of a changing future. However, that’s simply not possible. It would require the ability to predict the future and then construct a business model that will thrive both today as well as in that predicted future environment – the strategic planning approach. Or it would require the prescience to see all the potential paths that the future might take and pre-conceive the business’s response to each of those alternative futures – the risk management approach.

However, in today’s ever-changing business landscape, none of us can accurately predict the future with any level of certainty beyond a few months into the future – much less the years of foresight that these sorts of strategic approaches require. At best, only about a third of businesses can translate their strategic plans into meaningful business value in the near-term. What chance do they have of making it work over the long-term? Or more ambitious still, rolling out multiple strategic scenarios in order to response to whatever direction the future takes us.

A threat to him is an opportunity for her

What gets lost in the fear that uncertainty can foster and cynicism that a constantly changing future can create is…optimism!  The uncertain world in which a business leader must operate is a matter of perspective. One business might see a change as a threat to defend against while another might see it as an opportunity to be seized.

One thing that is certain is that the future will happen. And it is highly likely that it will be even more dynamic and uncertain than the environment in which we work today.

In order to realize your business’s aspirations, you will need to be vigilant and adapt to these uncertainties as they manifest themselves.

But there’ll also be a steady stream of opportunities that you’ll want to be open to. Because opportunities will not seek you out – you will have to go looking for them and be in a position to seize them when they are found.

Interact with the future as it emerges, don’t protect yourself from it

Successfully navigating the turbulent waters of the future doesn’t come from building a business that is robust enough to stand in even the most powerful tide. It comes from being resilient and adaptable enough to move with the flow – steering clear of the dangerous eddies and catching the biggest waves.

You don’t want to isolate yourself from the future. You want interact with it. You want to understand and embrace its dynamics so that you can adapt to it. When you adapt to the disruptive forces that enter a traditional marketplace, you gain an advantage over your traditional competitors and keep pace with the new competitors that are entering the market.

This means establishing a consistent, persistent level of strategic activity that deals with the ‘emergent’ so you’re constantly scanning the horizon – the future – for change as it begins to unfold. This provides you with insights that will allow you to shape the business in response to it – not merely react to its negative impacts.

When you sift through the emerging changes you will start to see opportunity. Opportunities to become the disruptive force that competitors are defending against, the customer experience that the market is seeking out or the workplace that attracts and retains the best people.

Aspiration is the ideal companion for uncertainty

Rather than developing a carefully curated illusion of certainty about the future, create an aspiration for the future of the business – as ethereal as it may be – and accept that it’s probably wrong. This allows you to continuously re-shape your business’s strategy based on intentional steps toward that future. Your strategy-making can be focused on the improvement opportunities that serve your aspirations not holding onto what you’ve always done. Importantly, insights from this strategic activity can be used to create ever-greater clarity around your aspirations.

Too often business strategy is like walking backwards into the future, where we only see what’s behind us as the means to respond to the things we bump into. But if we turn around, we can walk backwards into the present, using what we see ahead of us to inform what we need to do today to prepare us to thrive in that future.

As the leader of a team or business, it’s not your job to protect your organisation from the future. It is your role to lead your people into that future in a way that allows them to adapt to the change that might have negative impacts on the enterprise. Most importantly – and this is crucial in today’s rapidly changing business world – give them the ability to create opportunities that will have a positive impact on your customers, your business and the workplace that serves both.

Do you see change in your business environment as a threat or an opportunity to be seized? Are you open to improvement opportunities that serve your business aspirations? Are you in a position to seize new opportunities? Is your business adaptable to change? Does your business undertake strategic activities that deal with emerging forces? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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