In a bit of serendipity, there were three different articles published this week on futures and foresight work, detailing what a futures company concerns itself with and how these firms go about their work. Writing in Quartz, friend of Foresight Alliance Scott Smith detailed some of the reasons why the futures field has seen a surge of popular recognition in the business world. He states:

Short of world wars and oil embargoes, we haven’t until recently sensed every shake or shudder in another part of the world. But when a new smartphone or piece of code released in one country this morning can be in the hands of another by tonight, or supply chains are disrupted quickly by unexpected events, or a biological innovation can be knocked off quickly by semi-pros working in a closet, not only do business and governments look for advice, but societies also seek some kind of orientation.

Andrew Curry, of The Futures Company, blogging about an article on futures firms that ran in Fast Company, laid out his view of what makes  a good futures firm:

It Looks Outside Its Industry Firms that focus on only one industry may miss developments outside their purview that either could heavily impact your industry or provide new business approaches to follow.

It Can Work Both Fast & Slow “Culture operates at two speeds–fast and slow,” says Terry Young [of agency sparks & honey]. “Monitoring macro trends helps companies build an arsenal of content that is ready to adjust to emerging trends, memes, or breaking news.”

It Gets to the “So What” Make sure that whomever you are looking to for help can provide what you need to get to the “So Here’s What We Do Now.”

It Doesn’t Get Carried Away Remember how Segway was going to hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history? As Walker Smith says, “While your head is in the clouds you need to keep your feet on the ground.” (From a Futures Company perspective, the way you do that is to look at the 360 degree picture of how change happens – some layers of change, such as infrastructure or social behaviour, are slower than others.)

Taken together, Smith and Curry lay out a succinct argument of why foresight is needed, and who you should look to for help. I can add that Curry’s four qualifications are met by Foresight Alliance.

A slightly different piece by tech writer Veronique Greenwood in Aeon Magazine comes from a more personal point of view, as she discusses what it was like growing up in the home of a futurist. Her final paragraph is an encomium to those in the futures field:

That said, I would never want to be too far away from those who live and work perpetually in the vanguard, who have chosen that risky, Schrödinger’s Cat-like existence. Even after growing up with my mother and the remains of a hundred half-baked ideas, such people’s willingness to ride the wave, their foolhardiness and their bravery, still provokes awe in me. It’s not a thing I can profess to understand beyond a basic respect for their guts and their kind of crazy hope that the future will be weird. But that’s something I can get behind.


Image: Don McCullough, Flickr.

Image: geishaboy500 (Flickr)

In an earlier post I described how Ernie and Mr. Hoots, of Sesame Street fame, reminded me of an important strategy principle. Ernie is having trouble playing the sax while holding onto his rubber duckie, and Mr. Hoots tells him (in a wonderful musical number), “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.” In other words, you need to focus on just one thing at a time. That’s a key principle of strategy as well as saxophone playing, one that my Foresight Alliance colleague Terry Grim stresses when she teaches strategy.

But it seems to me that there is more to be learned from Ernie’s duckie vs. saxophone quandary. Why is it so hard for him to put down the duckie? Well, it’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s reliable. Ernie probably can’t remember or imagine life without his favorite duckie. Many organizations have their own rubber duckies—product or service offerings, business models, or commonly accepted beliefs about the way their industry works (Gary Hamel calls these “orthodoxies”) that have served them well for many years. When it comes to a strategic choice between the rubber duckie and something new, it’s hard to imagine putting down the duckie.

Of course the saxophone—the new business strategy—is also very attractive. The saxophone is shiny and new, fashionable and sophisticated, and offers a myriad of possibilities for improvisation and invention. At the same time it’s unfamiliar, and it has a tendency to squeak at inconvenient moments. Learning to play the saxophone takes a lot of practice and hard work, just like developing a new product, adopting a new business model, or overturning a closely held orthodoxy.

Saxophone or duckie? It’s a tough choice. The bittersweet subtext of Ernie’s encounter with Mr. Hoots is that shifting from the duckie to the saxophone is part of growing up. Likewise, if you want your organization to grow, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.”

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