Why is it so difficult to focus on the future? Or at the very least, avoid getting blindsided by it? For disrupted companies like Kodak or Blackberry, the problem was clearly not a lack of effort or ability to innovate. As it turns out the problem lies in how we’re all hard-wired to think.
You probably know the Kodak story. It’s an iconic example of a company that failed to embrace future focused opportunities. At its height, 85% of all cameras sold in the U.S. were Kodaks. Some 35 years later, the company was bankrupt. Digital photography was to blame. When most people hear this story, they assume leadership was simply blindsided, unable to respond quickly enough. Yet, it was a Kodak engineer who first invented the digital camera – back in 1975! But Kodak executives were convinced that “no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set.”
It begs the question, what do companies that fail fundamentally do wrong? As Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, answered, “They usually miss the future.”
Yes, but why?
Disruptions like these happen all the time. And they’re occurring more frequently and more rapidly. For example, think back to the cellphone industry in January 2007. The market leaders were Motorola, Nokia, and Blackberry. Just 900 days later, they were all bumped, and the front-runners were Apple, Google, and Samsung.
For Kodak or Blackberry, the problem was clearly not a lack of effort or ability to innovate. So, what really happened?
As it turns out, the problem lies in how we’re hard-wired to think. Most of us are simply not future focused.
- Some of us are past focused. 14% of us look at a situation and say, “I can see how that’s happening, but it will go back to the way it was. It’s just a blip.”
- Most of us are present focused. 70% of us see the same situation and say, “I know we need to change, but we have too many tactical things to deliver on this quarter.” They know they’re driving off a cliff, and they keep driving anyway.
- Only 16% are future focused. They see that the world is changing, and make the conscious decision to change with it.
So, yes, the Kodak executives missed the future. But they did so not because they didn’t see the future. But because they did see it, and in their case, they saw it as just a blip.
Five Ways to Lead with a Future Focused Mindset
Five Ways to Become More Future Focused
The good news is that you can rewire your brain. Like all investments, it requires time. But with practice, a future focused mindset will become the greatest tool in your leadership arsenal. Here are five ways to get started:
- Don’t Try to Predict the Future
- Consider the Unlikely Possible
- Envision Changes in Cultures and Societies, Not Just Technologies
- Find the Future Now
- Trade Away Everything That Doesn’t Matter
1. Don’t Try to Predict the Future.
Because our brains crave certainty, it’s natural to think something is definitely going to happen. And people frequently do. But how often are their predictions actually right? The idea of employing a futurist is a myth. No one can say exactly what is going to happen. A better idea is to plan for multiple scenarios that could happen so that you’re in position to prosper, whatever comes to pass.
At strategy meetings, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was said to be relentless in forcing executives to think about the future; at one point, regardless of what plans they brought forth, he pressed them to articulate how they thought machine learning would affect them. To most technology leaders, this makes sense today. But these meetings were in 2008 — almost a decade before most people even knew what machine learning was!
To build your scenario planning capabilities:
- Reject dogmatic statements from your team that predict what will happen. Challenge them to envision at least five alternative scenarios and ask them how those different futures might affect what you do today.
- Constantly ask the question, what are we not thinking about?
- Before setting priorities, discuss what you might be ignoring about the world by doing what you’re planning to do.
2. Consider the Unlikely Possible.
As often as we feel certain of what will happen, we also feel certain about what definitely won’t. If someone had told you prior to it happening that a global, novel virus or a war in the Ukraine would reshape our early 21st century society in lasting ways, you probably would’ve thought, “that will never happen.”
The problem is that our brains struggle to think in probabilities. When something seems improbable, we frequently dismiss it and assume it to be impossible. While neither of the events previously mentioned felt probable at the time, both were clearly possible. In fact, just about anything is possible. The best way to combat this problem is to act yourself into a new way of thinking.
To explore the unlikely:
- Identify the longer-term challenges and market forces your industry needs to focus on. For education, it may be the explosion of online learning. For energy, green technologies. For retail, new consumer preferences for digital-first interactions.
- If someone on your leadership team says something will definitely not happen, change the conversation to talk about how that very thing might happen. Then talk about what it could mean for your organization if it did.
3. Envision Changes in Cultures and Society, Not Just Technologies.
In 1985, it was easy to imagine mobile phones, but hard to imagine the USSR would fall within 5 years. While many of us find it easy to imagine technological changes, we find it exceptionally difficult to imagine changes in culture and society.
For hundreds of years sci-fi storytellers have given us a vision of what technology might look like in the future — flying cars, distant space travel, teleportation. Somehow those same storytellers can hardly imagine any changes in gender roles or family structures (remember the Jetsons?). If it’s a challenge for some of the most creative among us, we can all use some help rewiring our brains in this way.
To begin thinking about cultural and societal changes:
- Browse for future trends. The next time you’re in the airport or grocery store, pick up a magazine on a topic you’ve never read about.
- Explore a sub-culture, group, or experience in or near your own community. Pick something that’s outside your comfort zone or entirely new (e.g., attend a sound bath, go to a gun show, visit a mega-church) so you can see different perspectives and changes that are happening right around you.
- Travel to someplace you’ve never been; experience the culture and what’s going on.
4. Find the Future Now.
Fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future exists today. It’s just very unevenly distributed.” It’s not easy for most of us to imagine the future, but usually we can find a glimpse of what the future might look like somewhere in the world today. We just have to find it.
To spend more time in the future today:
- Use your off-sites as an opportunity for you and your team to visit someplace where you can learn something interesting and push yourself outside your comfort zone.
- Do a market visit with a trend scout.
- Go out there and find where the future exists today. It’s somewhere — you just need to figure out where and then study it. If you’re trying to figure out grocery, go to Asia. If you’re exploring future trends in gaming, spend time in South Korea. Payments? Visit China. Sustainability? Go to Sweden or Denmark.
5. Trade Away Everything That Doesn’t Matter
To be future focused, you have to develop a vision of what your organization needs to look like in the future. Then you must be willing to trade everything else away. Often, you even need to be willing to disrupt yourself.
In its early years, Amazon built its business on selling physical books online. Along the way, founder Jeff Bezos recognized the promise of media-related technology, and he quickly chose to trade away physical book sales. In fact, he literally set them on fire, naming the company’s e-reader the “kindle.” This success led Amazon to invest in many other areas, such as cloud services and groceries. Jeff Bezos and his executive leadership team had a clear vision of the future and chose to lean into it, even though it disrupted their existing business model. They were willing to trade away everything that didn’t matter.
To pursue your future focused goals:
- Get clear on the biggest changes you must make as an organization; focus on the few things that matters most and put all your energy and resources there.
Lean Boldly into the Future
The future is inherently unpredictable, and we’ll never have complete certainty about what it will bring. But understanding our brain’s wiring — and learning how to think more effectively about the future — can better equip us to face any uncertainty.
As a future focused leader, you can help your organization:
- Become more nimble, strategic, and competitive
- Identify previously unseen growth opportunities
- Engage customers and employees more effectively
Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard enough wondering what the next 24 hours will bring. But a future focused mindset can help you go beyond the one-, two-, or three-year strategic plans that have become the staple for so many organizations. Imagine thinking five, seven, or ten years out and being a first-mover on opportunities that others never even thought existed.
After all, when you compete on a longer time horizon, you’re competing with a much smaller group of companies.