Building an Unpredictable Business Future with a Long-term Vision
NICK DORMON | December 20, 2021
A new business, right from the onset, is usually scaffolded by a well-thought-out plan, mapping out strategies to achieve growth goals in the short, medium, and long term. Such plans are always idealistic. In reality, as we navigate our business journey, life will throw us challenges and curve balls to the point where we may deviate from future planning due to our preoccupation with the here and now. The danger lies in this absorbing all of our attention. It is critical not to lose sight of that original plan. Amid the day-to-day melee, we must scan ahead towards the horizon to gain "future vision." We must acquire a felt sense of what our business could look like in two, five, or even ten years.
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Preparedness Is the Key to Business Survival
A decade can seem both long and short, but emerging technology and services have seemingly blasted out of nowhere, changing how we communicate and interact with one another forever. Some industries seem more insulated from the rapid advances of technology, but that does not mean that change and innovation won't suddenly happen. Wrigley's Spearmint is a case in point. The heritage gum brand, which launched over 128 years ago, seemed invincible. Yet, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, it has seen a 15% decline in recent years because the brand is no longer noticed at the check-out. Why? Because consumers are all engaged with their phones while they wait in the queue. Technology will have a direct impact on your business, but also an indirect one through behavioral change.
The Future Vision of Business
What happens when a business buries its head in the sand, so it is blind to the innovations emerging from the horizon? When digital photography emerged and made rolls of film redundant, Kodak clung onto tangibles like manufacturing as its business foundation. A better tactic would've been to embrace change and see how the intangibles, like brand, can help forge a new future for businesses impacted by new innovation. Kodak's expertise in photography went beyond developing chemicals in the eyes of their consumers and could have been a reassuring ally to them in the complex, changing world of photography. Future visioning isn't about predicting, per se, but in contending with the unknowns of the future, we can still help shape and influence our destinies, and to a certain degree, we can design them. Consciously or unconsciously, every action we take nudges the future in a new direction. Ten years is a reasonable number to aim for in preparation. It's far enough into the future that you can unencumber your mind from daily strife and dream of what you would like to become, but close enough that the future is already emerging around you in the present day. In navigating the uncertainty, we must be anchored by a mission to drive us forward, and we must be aware of emerging opportunities to avoid possible pitfalls. Keeping abreast of trends is all very well. The most important part of this process is determining which trend will become the causal force on our business—either by exerting pressure, like competition or by energizing the business through new technology and shareholder ambition. These forces can be classed as either 'fixed', like legislation, that will happen, or 'variable', like consumer behavior, that might. Peter Schwartz, who pioneered scenario planning at Shell in the 80s, explains this process well in The Art of the Long View.
You Should Have a Future Plan
To future vision effectively, one must collate the most potent causal forces together as three plausible future scenarios and prepare a plan for each. Three seems to be the optimal number, as it represents enough breadth to capture the most likely outcomes and few enough that they can be easily recalled. Often, future visioning is kicked off as a project with the three scenarios as an outcome. However, in reality, it becomes a continuous affair, with the scenarios revisited and adjusted over time as new casual forces emerge and others decline. It is always a work in progress. Future visioning is something we effectively practice in our organization; we explore these scenarios through the eyes of the consumer, populating profiles with the behaviors, environments, and technologies identified. From this place, we can better see the role that brands and businesses will play in their worlds. In the 90s, I worked for the world's largest office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase. Their business was built around the fixed partitions that routed power and data cables. However, they identified the emerging trend of cordless technology as a significant causal force in their business. As the furniture became less specialized and more freestanding, we helped them respond to this by focusing more on their expertise in 'work' organizational design as a differentiator to fend off the likes of IKEA. Future visioning comes into force when longer-term investments and changes are required. Looking after our planet represents the single most important driver for the long-term changes we face. It is simply not possible to solve it in the short term, as supply chains will take decades to change in many cases. It can seem like an insurmountable problem, but when aligned with other causal forces, new opportunities emerge that allow a reframing of business to absorb the costs and provide consumers with new benefits. LOOP, as a fledgling packaging system, is an example of this, as it has the potential, over time, to replace single-use packaging with durable systems offering new consumer benefits.
Update Your Business Along with Circumstances
We live in an unpredictable world today, with polarizing politics, pandemics, and a global rebalancing between east and west. Yet, change is always happening, and we need to keep our eyes open for opportunities. Dinner jacket rentals business, Moss Bros, shrugged off its traditional image to target post-pandemic Millennials in their sweatpants, who may not be going to a dinner dance but do require a hire suit to impress in their upcoming job interviews. Building on its core business whilst targeting new consumers with a refreshed image, new products, and agile digital platforms will secure its future. The one constant here is that, despite what you hear on the news, humanity is prospering. According to the late Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness, the so-called developing world, as defined in the 1960s, no longer exists. We are all living in developed societies. This means that while future visioning can protect against dangers, its primary purpose is to find opportunities to prosper. So, while serial entrepreneurs will find opportunistic businesses in the present, entrepreneurs who cast their eye further forward will surely become our next captains of industry.