Entrepreneurs have to be resilient, gritty and forward-thinking in the best of times. But as governments, institutions and businesses are quickly learning during the COVID epidemic, preparing for the worst-case scenario can literally mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy.
That’s why an increasing number of them are turning to a group of so-called “foresight” experts — futurists, designers and consultants whose job it is to get institutions thinking long-term and to help them prepare for disruption.
To find ways to better navigate this situation, we spoke to Robert Bolton, a foresight strategist who works for such clients as Cisco, Toyota and the Government of Canada.
Planning for the unexpected is essential in good times and bad. But how can you plan for the worst if you don’t know what the headlines will be next week?
Foresight experts use a variety of methods to get their clients thinking about the future, including surveys, brainstorming activities, prototyping and science fiction writing drills. When Bolton was hired by the Government of Canada to teach foresight to public servants in 2015, for instance, he and his team created a board game to help them learn. The point of all of these exercises is to recognize “signals of change” (warning signs) that you might miss if you aren’t open-minded enough or paying close enough attention.
“I always say strategic foresight is, among other things, the practice of developing good taste in information,” says Bolton. When you first begin researching a potential problem — say, the impact that COVID and remote-working practices might have on your business — everything you do should be firmly grounded in facts. At the same time, you need to think critically about the information you unearth during your research.
Bolton calls this process “scanning.” To do it well, you need to bring together facts from credible sources — academic research, news reports, etc. — while also making sure to recognize what voices and ideas are missing from the discussion.
“I think it’s very valuable to practice what one of my colleagues has called epistemic hygiene — making sure you’re better at reading signals. What were the signals we missed, and how could we have been better prepared for this moment already?”
Back in 2015, one of the world’s largest meat producers, Tyson Foods, hired a team of consultants, including Bolton, to help them develop a long-term strategy for the future of food technology. Tired of relying on vague consumer trends reports, the company wanted to overhaul its long-term outlook. It wanted foresight.
Bolton credits the engagement with inspiring the company to begin investing in plant-based meat technologies and startups, and from shifting from being a meat company to a protein company. That’s no easy feat for a company that traces its roots back 80 years to an Arkansas chicken farm. “Tyson’s own CEO acknowledged that investing in alternative proteins felt counterintuitive for many within the company,” says Bolton.
So how do you shake assumptions that are that old and deeply held? It all comes down to the conversations that foresight makes room for — conversations that might normally feel inappropriate or even uncomfortable in short-term context. The ideas that can come up during the foresight process can seem outlandish and even ridiculous. As futurist Jim Dator says, “any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”
Distilleries are currently shifting production to hand-sanitizers, restaurants are pivoting to selling groceries and automotive manufacturers are switching to ventilator production — company leaders are quickly learning that it’s better to have those conversations earlier than be forced to have them by a pandemic, a recession or technological disruption.
During a crisis, it can be tempting to shift all of your thinking to the short term. What does my business have to do now to survive? But Bolton says it’s crucial to not lose sight of the long term, especially at a time when you’re making decisions that might define your business for years to come.
“It’s worth taking a look at what you can do right now to be useful,” says Bolton. “Do what you have to do to survive, but rather than looking to make a quick buck exploiting a crisis, consider how you might plan for long-term growth and resilience. Think about the world you want to create coming out of this period, three to five years out.”
Foresight experts call this process “scenario planning.” The best kind of scenario planning, Bolton says, involves thinking about the worst-case scenario and getting comfortable with uncertainty and change. “Some people describe scenario planning as ‘rehearsing for the future,’ but I think ‘rehearsal’ assumes that you’ve got some sort of a script. I think it’s more like conditioning,” he says.
He brings up the example of athletes like Michael Jordan, who would famously switch sides to the losing team during scrimmages in order to simulate game-time pressure. “Jordan saw the practice scrimmages as an opportunity to rehearse a broad scope of possible scenarios,” Bolton says. “For him, practice wasn’t just about improving his skills and learning the plays. He competed with playoff-level pressure so that at game time he and his teammates were prepared for the most challenging situations.”
Organizations dealing with shortages, disruptions and broken supply chains as a result of COVID are learning the importance of planning the hard way. If you have the bandwidth and the resources to do so, now’s the time to take the long view and consider those uncomfortable scenarios. Plus, he adds that it’s often easier for people to agree on a plan the further out in the future it is. It can, in fact, be a good way to achieve increased alignment.
“In almost every instance — whether it’s nontraditional competition, emerging technology, or anything else that threatens your business — whatever threat you’re looking at can also be an opportunity, depending on how early you act,” Bolton says. “Being able to think that way has to do with being comfortable with change, not being so stuck in your current ways just because they’re working right now.
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