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Three ways to future-proof your organisation

Three ways to future-proof your organisation

2017-10-12 
| by Andrew Pope

Cross my palm with silver and I shall tell you your fortune. Or would you prefer to trust your fate in the (many) hands of my psychic octopus? 

As an innovation exponent and consultant, I'm often asked about what will happen in the future? If I actually knew, I would probably be sipping craft beer on the beach right now (or hunkered down in a very deep bunker). As much as we want to, we can't of course accurately predict the future. We're certainly getting better, as technology helps us to analyse trends and patterns, but the big shifts tend to come from left-field and are nigh-on impossible to predict.

We can, however, plan for the future. Without explicitly knowing what will happen, we can be as prepared as possible. Being prepared comes from three actions:

Determining potential future scenarios
Developing future skills
Being agile.

Crucially, these three things need to be done in the open, not by isolated teams. We have to help empower our people as future change catalysts as much as possible. I'll briefly explore what these three actions look like.

1. Planning for future scenarios

So we can't predict what exactly will happen, but we can identify a number of possible scenarios. This gives us the prospect of one of the scenarios actually happening. And we can have greater accuracy if we use current trends to guide us - some trends are actually pretty reliable, such as policies, investment trends and market shortfalls.

We can look at creating scenarios in two ways. Firstly, we can simply look for opportunities - examining trends to exploit market conditions. Secondly, we create scenarios based on current business, preparing ourselves by building resilience and influencing business strategy.

For both approaches, it's important that we create stories for each scenario. Stories help our workforce develop their own responses. Exactly what we want in complicated markets is almost impossible for one person to decipher and implement as a successful strategy.

With the first method, looking to exploit the market, it's best to look for well reported trends to give ourselves as much accuracy as possible. I've included an example below on one such scenario. Here, I've identified two significant trends: energy supply and digitalisation. The basis for these is that a huge amount of investment is being made in zero-carbon energy generation and storage, led by government policy (with one notable exception) and by finance. Banks are investing huge sums in zero-carbon energy, not because of a universal political goal, but because of the economics. It's simply getting cheaper to produce. The other trend selected, digitalisation, is again, backed by investment, but also by what we're witnessing year-on-year in terms of product development. I've created a simple model to see how these two trends combine.

In this case, the more futuristic scenario is actually quite likely given the strength of the trends. It's then down to us to determine what these scenarios look like and what we need to do to respond to these scenarios. Please note that these scenarios are purely demonstrative.

2. Planning for future skills

Just as important as we prepare for the future is to determine the skills needed. The skills we need today will not necessarily be the same in the future.

And as for creating future scenarios, we can use scenario planning to look at potential future roles, and create stories around them. Stories that allow us to think of multiple ways forward.

Anticipating skills based on trends is now critical given the pace of change affected by digitilisation and automation. And not for the reason we may think - putting all of our eggs in the technical basket may not be the best use of human resources in the future. So let's build some scenarios based on just that.

The scenario below tracks the progress on digital, from an elemental environment, accessing tools through to a high level of automation. We put this against a focus on skills - from technical through to creative. Okay, so this is quite ambiguous, but it is helpful to challenge expectations that we need to continue to train people in development skills. Actually, if the workplace becomes automated to an extent that developing is done by machine, then we won't need as many developers. We'll need more people to apply human skills such as empathy and curiosity to create business outcomes. To actually provide a purpose for this wonderful technology, leveraging the intelligence it gives us with the very human ability to make something novel through spontaneous connection. Again, the scenarios below are only demonstrative.

3. An agile workforce

This one is more fundamental. Rather than second-guessing what the fortune teller might say, we need to put our efforts into something that we have more control over. That is, the power to make the future ourselves. This power is our people and how they work, we just have to release this capability.

Anticipating the future is of no use if our workforce can't or won't transition from old ways of working to new. Old ways, like being chained to a task-based way of operating do not encourage agile, fluid working - actually, it's how we stay stuck in the present, or even the past. Instead, a focus on outcomes, being motivated by business goals and having a collaborative mindset is the key. That means a holistic understanding of what we are working on, combined with flexible working and an empowered workforce. Most of us struggle under the weight of expectations, working on what we 'should' be doing, with little opportunity to contribute to the work of others. Having a clear vision that extends beyond simple statements blu-tacked to the workplace walls is key to this. A vision that shows where we're going and why we're doing this - but let us figure out how to get there! And a vision that is enacted, with catalysts and actual events. Where we not only see, but we experience trying new things, failing, sharing. Learning.

Scenario planning and forecasting is fun, and is a great way of engaging people on the journey as we carry these activities out together. But it won't mean anything if we are still working in the old ways, rather than with a more collaborative and open mindset. Yes, disruption is rocky, and sometimes distracting, but if we are focused towards meeting the overall vision, our cumulative energy is already in the right place.

A bit of chaos here and there is actually a good thing. After all, we will never innovate if all we do is stay where we are and wait for the new ideas to arrive.

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