The future is a verb: learn how to use it and power your desired trajectory

This is part one of a two-part article.

A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly forced urgent and frequently changing responses. Despite the best of intentions, this erratic behaviour from both the private and public sectors often results in inappropriate responses.

Of course, the current global pandemic makes the inadequate all the more obvious. And that’s a more fundamental problem. For too long we’ve relied on ‘data’ and predictive modelling – projections and promises of so-called certainty. Being agile and responsive has been interpreted as being ready to react – or too quick to think twice – and as a characteristic and a consequence of short-term thinking, it often brings outcomes that further inhibit our ability to think and act for the longer term.

While a ‘watch and wait’ approach may not seem any more viable or practical in what is perceived as increasing uncertainty, we need to direct our efforts to adapting and navigating the unknown and anticipating the unexpected.

Uncertainty is the underlying context for our world, not certainty – and least of all the assumed all-too-comfortable certainty of ‘the market’.

Indeed, for the kind of changes we are experiencing, the usual strategic planning does not cut it. We need something to help us imagine what could be in an unconstrained way, while providing enough structure to create a clear yet adaptive way forward. This is where foresight can play a meaningful role in helping us make sense of, and even shape, what comes next. Satisfying the imagined future needs of a customer or client is a tough starting point. But it’s a necessary challenge. Adding foresight to the marketing mix, and an ‘F’ to the ‘4Ps’ extends time-frames and possibilities, giving a broader understanding of how different futures may possibly evolve. Perhaps it’s time for a fifth P – Potential, Possible, Preferred or Preposterous?

 

On the application of Foresight and Futures Studies: longer-term thinking over short-term ‘fixes’

Whether you’re an agency or a brand owner, strategist or creative, the ‘business as usual’ (BAU) reductionist, simplistic viewpoint may sell in the short term, but it won’t create real value in the long term.

This is where futures thinking and foresight comes in: being focused but not inflexible, aware but not too easily distracted by trends or whatever is being pitched as the ‘next big thing’, and especially thinking beyond the next brand launch, sales cycle, quarterly report or financial year.

Strategic foresight and futures thinking are research-based ways to investigate, not predict, the future – indeed nothing can – but they do help us think more deeply about multiple alternative ‘futures’, our role or agency in creating them, and how to make better decisions about what may lie ahead.

Strategic foresight and futures thinking are learned disciplines just as strategy, design, marketing and economics are. It draws on global knowledge bases built over time with tools, methods and theories that can be applied with proficiency and elegance, so they need more than this read or a boot camp to be learned and understood. Responsibility comes with risk. Would you consider yourself an expert in a field after reading one article or ready to influence a global strategy following a one-day course?

Confessions of a foresight convert: reassured by structured thinking, compelled by unconstrained by Norike Ganhão (General Manager Strategy at Powerlink Queensland)

I was introduced to futures studies when I attended a ‘Leading for Strategic Success’ course at the Melbourne Business School. Specifically, a TEDx talk on Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) by Professor Sohail Inayatullah resonated with me, as it seemed to have both structure and soul. From a personal perspective, the nature of the work spoke to both my logical engineering side and my creative lateral thinking side. As a power systems engineer I understand the need for structure and systems that are designed in an integrated way and that can shift and adapt as the environment changes, just like the power system. As a creative human, I understand the need to connect to your purpose and your soul, as well as being part of creating a better future rather than just responding to the environment. Futures studies provided both of these things. I was particularly drawn to CLA because it addresses the change needed at all the levels required. The power of metaphor truly sets us free to properly understand who we want and need to be in the future. CLA understands that change is required, not only at the litany level (what we observe on a day-to-day basis), but also at the systems level. CLA grasps the machine of people, process and technology that produces the outcomes on a day-to-day basis. CLA then goes deeper still to help us understand who we need to be for our customers and other stakeholders – the cultural shift required at the worldview level and then brings it back to metaphor. Once we connect through metaphor to who we need and want to be, all levels of an organisation are examined, so we can assess what needs to be done at every level to achieve change.

 

Brands and organisations can thrive if they learn to adapt amid change

No brand is static. And making decisions on a brand’s future based on only past and current performance data and analytics means you’re starting from behind.
Unfortunately, there are no ‘future facts’ to work with, so we have to use our imaginations and foresight tools – and avoid making predictions, projections and big decisions – based only on large amounts of historical data.

Create space for strategic conversations about preferred futures
Don’t limit conversations or scenarios to plausible or probable. Be brave. Foresight methods not only ask questions about what people (and other stakeholders in our world) want and need, but also how belief and behaviour may change over time in response to social, cultural and technological forces. This helps us understand how people (and the market) may react and change, what new products or services may have meaning and utility, and how a brand and value proposition must evolve to adapt to emerging realities.

Purpose, truth, sustainability, transparency, storytelling, human-centred design, imaginaries, disruption – whatever the latest term is, it needs to be more than a buzzword
An organisation’s bigger vision to be sustainable (whatever that means) or to reduce emissions, or some other valid goal, can be thwarted by those who still prioritise the short-term wins in revenue or market share in other divisions or business units.

Building on analytical and strategic thinking to integrate more critical thinking Ask better questions, tap into weak signals of change and use that to anticipate what may be in our futures. We still need to get used to working in complexity, but over time we’ll learn to stop chasing certainty.

The Powerlink Futures use case and its critical success factors by Norike Ganhão (General Manager Strategy at Powerlink Queensland)

With such a long history of stability in the industry, our people are not used to change. In reality, the reasons people in our business keep showing up every day haven’t changed. They are values-driven and want to make a difference in society and the community. They are very proud to be part of an industry that supports and enables the economy, while creating jobs and a better way of life. They see electricity as the lifeblood of the economy and the community, powering every aspect of our lives. How then do we communicate the need for change to such employees? This needs strategy work that goes beyond the superficial level and speaks to people at a level that resonates with their values and passion.
We ran two futures workshops with senior leaders, facilitated by Professor Inayatullah, the objectives of which were to develop broader and deeper understanding of Powerlink’s plausible futures, enhance futures literacy within the organisation and investigate ways of using futures for strategy development. The process focused on joining Powerlink’s plausible futures to the organisation’s purpose and higher-level objectives. Recent and forthcoming disruptions were taken into account, while investigating the next steps, or the ‘three horizons’, for Powerlink. The key question was: as the world changes, and as organisations all around the world experience accelerating change and a loss of agency, how is that agency, the ability to influence the future, to be recovered within one’s own zone of control?Below are some of our learning highlights:

  • The Impossible Future: Asking questions such as, ‘What would be one thing that is impossible today, but changes everything for Powerlink if it becomes possible?’ stretched workshop attendees to think beyond BAU. It allowed participants to believe in a net zero emissions world with a stable power system where prices are driven to the lowest possible point and clean energy is available for all. This way, attention shifted to how to use that energy to solve problems and create prosperity rather than limiting ourselves to solving electricity problems only.
  • The Used Future: This was helpful to understand what things we keep on doing as an industry and business that doesn’t serve us anymore. This helped us identify not only where we should change internally, but also where we should focus our influence in the industry to shift the broader environment and value chain.
  • Emerging Issues: This exercise pushed us to identify generational shifts in the industry that aren’t necessarily noticeable by looking at individual trends and data analysis and relied on the wisdom in the room to interpret and integrate trends to see systemic change that we need to get in front of. The Futures Wheel exercise then followed, where the first and second order implications of emerging issues were investigated to create deeper insight and understanding.
  • Alternative Futures: Powerlink has already done some scenario exercises in a previous piece of work and developed four scenarios based on three major uncertainties faced by the industry. These are: decarbonisation, decentralisation and electricity consumption. The workshop introduced different scenarios to enhance and test our previous thinking. The first workshop focused on testing the futures against four COVID-19 scenarios, while the second workshop used: (1) no change, (2) marginal change, (3) adaptive change, and (4) radical change. This tested our own appetite for change and our willingness to push the envelope to create alternative futures.
  • Preferred Future and ‘Backcasting’: While the scenarios explored divergent thinking, the next part of the process focused on convergent thinking, moving toward a vision and strategy. Visioning of the preferred future helped us get in touch with our subconscious, articulating what is important and needed for the company and the ecosystem it operates in the world. After the discussion on the preferred future, participants engaged in ‘backcasting’ – a process wherein the starting point was the future (the year 2030) and the changes between that point and the present (year 2020) are ‘remembered’. This process appealed especially to the more technical people in the room, the engineers, project delivery and operations people, as they could start to see how this dream could turn into a reality and become tangible.
  • Creating the Enabling Narrative and Linking Metaphor to Strategy: The use of metaphor, narrative and story helps connect people at a deeper level so they want to be part of this imagined future and help create the change. Methods like CLA provide enough structure by turning a company’s preferred future into the preferred future of the collective of individuals directly involved in making it happen. This deeper dive allowed us to develop a shared and clear aspiration. A key learning was to go back to the metaphor to test the other layers of the CLA to see if you are pushing yourself far enough in your aspirations and in what you design into your strategy. One participant in the second workshop remarked that the metaphors all showed great aspiration, really taking control and making a difference, but that we then seemed to go back to a safer approach in the other levels in the CLA. They urged us to not do that, to go back to the metaphor, hold on to the feeling and go big, to be true to our dream – reach far and go big and then we stand a chance to realise our aspiration.

 

Brand and Foresight: don’t be shy, neither shine… wedge in instead

It is not always the case that organisations will engage with strategic foresight practitioners or futurists to help take their businesses into the future. Despite a lack in futures literacy, in many cases, marketing agencies can be commissioned to do this type of work. The creative brainpower, analytical tools and deep understanding of their clients will often position agencies as innovation partners. The same is true for those in corporate strategy roles where future business forecasting is an ongoing exercise. However, this should be no impediment to those in agencies or in-house teams learning about and making good use of futures methods. Futures frameworks and methodologies can be ‘baked into’ the process of redefining a brand’s strategy, calibrating its budget, unearthing its purpose, repositioning for changing markets or when redesigning a brand’s architecture. In short, anything that relates to a brand’s future can be supported and enhanced by futures frameworks and tools.

For example, working with an incumbent energy company – not Powerlink – the task was to help redefine its enterprise-wide purpose. From the generic ‘keeping the lights on’ to something else able to ensure the company’s long-term relevance and alignment with its evolving corporate and product strategies. Importantly, with both business futures and corporate strategy units, the company’s vision was substantially formed and the journey that followed helped structure and crystallise its desired future, particularly in a category with, possibly, the most challenging and complex context.

It is not exaggerating to say that the world’s energy systems are transforming, and Australia’s energy landscape is undergoing the greatest transformation of the last century. It entails transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from centralised to distributed generation, from forecasting demand to supply with a regulatory and market system that was designed for a vastly different world. This is reflective, not just of market dynamics more broadly, but of fundamental change at a societal level. The transition is already underway with customers being offered more choice by new technology and service providers in the market, and advocacy from younger generations focused on renewable energies.

The transition to the new energy futures is seen as unprecedented generational change. It is moving rapidly and at the same time will extend over a long period, with the choices we make today setting direction for decades to come. These changes have turned an historically slow and stable industry for an essential service on its head, forcing the category to pause and rethink its role into the future – what it wants and needs to be and how to repurpose to make the biggest difference.

With this, the approach to strategy needs to adapt to allow unconstrained thinking about future possibilities and pathways, and to create clarity about how to create a preferred future.

The engagement was heavily consultative, allowing the most disparate points of view to provide a few hypothetical scenarios; however, before elaborating scenarios their ‘perimeters of meaning’ were also defined.

Unconventional

It was important not to alienate employees and the market about the company’s heritage in trading energy commodities. It was also important to create an innovative edge through product innovations, but without becoming a product-led company at the expense of brand. Third, parallel market acquisitions also meant that from one or few services, the new default offering had to be a multiservice one. Lastly, internal stakeholders agreed that the biggest competitive advantage would come from the deployment of experiences, not just the convenience of aggregated services.

Once defined, each ‘narrative quadrant’ (i.e. commodity, product, multiservice or experience) was stretched, helping envisage implications and possibilities within domains of meaning and required support to turning those into a desired future. This visualisation allowed participants to understand how to pull ‘meaning levers’ able to inform and communicate the company’s unfolding new futures.

From a total of eight scenarios, three were further refined. Mood boards were utilised to express the abstraction of energy, decommoditising it and creating new meaning able to point the organisation into distinctively different directions or, as we like saying, possible futures. Each image was purposefully chosen to express desirable factors within scenarios. The choice of images was informed by previous consultations and the analysis of the energy category. Mood boards were also paired with short purpose statements – two to three words able to encapsulate the meaning each scenario could potentially convey. The value of this approach lies in creating boundaries without necessarily imposing business limitations; they are all about meaning, hence all about brand. This way, participants are encouraged to bring their individual and collective responsibilities in a way that expands the development of scenarios, as opposed to contriving those due to specific mergers, divestments, corporate agendas, product innovation horizons and more. These factors are also considered and repurposed within each scenario.

By converting the scenarios into value propositions, those in the room realised they were just as essential as their ideas to make the company’s foresight narrative a possibility. Further, the exercise proved extremely pragmatic and grounded once scenarios were complemented with respective strategies and translated into customer storytelling.

The client who sponsored the project made an insightful point about the positioning of brand foresight towards its conclusion:

“I think something to consider is that the conversation we have been having about the future of the business is a massive strategic business conversation. One of the challenges you and I face is that these narratives and brand strategy decisions are driven by brand and marketing, but are actually quite senior competitive decisions, so with the demise of the CMO and CMOs frequently being pushed to be short-term focused and with high turnovers, who then leads that conversation? The CEO? That’s been a challenge. It is like the modern corporate structure no longer supports brand management as strategic enterprise marketing – where should brand foresight sit? Food for thought – no easy answers, just one of the challenges for those of us on the inside!”

 

Sérgio Brodsky is the executive producer of Futurecast and a leading brand and foresight strategist.
Bridgette Engeler is a Futurist, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Design, Foresight, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Norike Ganhão is the General Manager Strategy at Powerlink Queensland.

Artwork:

Original illustrations and artwork by Ken Shadbolt.