If you are a leader at a global corporation (or one of its subsidiaries) you don’t just dislike uncertainty. You loathe it. There is a reason that corporations spend billions of dollars each year lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal agencies. Whether the lobbying is aimed at the tax code, labor laws, environmental regulations, product and service treatment, or overall market parameters, the bottom line is always this: keeping the dragon of chaotic uncertainty at bay.
Unfortunately, the only certainty is uncertainty. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but you do know it will bring unknown variables that will definitely challenge and potentially disrupt your business. You need to be prepared. You need to future-proof your business so that it has the capacity to respond in real time to whatever the future throws at you.
Why Future-Proofing is Critical Now More Than Ever
According to the Federal Reserve, during the first year of the Covid-19 Pandemic business exits approached 200,000. This included approximately 130,000 firms. Well-known brands were forced to file for bankruptcy, including Hertz, Pier 1 Imports, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, and Aldo. If it could happen to them, it could happen to you.
Covid-19 was a “Black Swan” disruption event par excellence, but it won’t be the last. You need to be future-proofed against the next disruption, whether it is another global pandemic or completely different market forces. The good news is, we already have a perspective on the categories of disruption that the future could unleash. Technological advances, shifting business models, and the next generation Internet are expected to drive exponential disruption.
And there’s more good news. Yes, change is coming at your business relentlessly fast, but it’s also coming at your competition. You don’t need to conquer the future. You just need to stay ahead of the market curve and remain competitive.
Common Obstacles to Future-Proofing Your Business
As the kids say, “Future-proofing ain’t easy.” The first step is to recognize the common obstacles to future-proofing that all businesses face.
No Strategic Planning
Your business is under the gun. It has to make payroll, pay its vendors, and literally keep the lights on. The pressures to focus on short-term profits and goals are relentless and the stakes are existential. But when the short-term roadmap becomes a singular focus, it’s easy to neglect the strategic planning necessary to prepare for long-term changes and challenges. You need to stay informed about the trends impacting your business and its industry, while actively experimenting with emerging tech, disruptive practices, and new paradigms.
Resistance to Rapid Change
Your business most likely has a well-institutionalized resistance to rapid change. And the bigger the business, the slower and more rigid it is likely to be. You’ve built your business on established ideas, technologies, and innovations. The impulse to stay on course is strong, but that won’t help you navigate uncertainty and disruption. You need to be open to new ideas if you’re going to stay ahead of the competition.
Poor Talent Development
You’ve hired the best and the brightest. The problem is, you haven’t developed their abilities to adapt to unseen future demands. Your employees execute the plan, but what happens when the plan fails? What happens when the entire business model that drove your success can no longer drive adaptive behavior in the changing economic environment? That’s when you’ll need employees who’ve been trained to step up into the chaos and find new opportunities.
Lack of Innovation
Training the individual employees is not enough to ensure your business can survive and thrive in the incoming future shocks. You need to build a culture of creativity that incentivizes and harnesses their future-proof mentality. And you need to invest in a research and development capability that aggressively workshops the future.
Top Future-Proofing Strategies to Consider
Fortunately, overcoming future-proofing obstacles doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. It requires strategic foresight and a proactive approach, and there are empirically-proven strategies that can position your business for success in any future environment.
Imagine Possible Futures to Prepare for Change
No one can predict the future. And while we can contribute to it, no one person or one business actually creates the future. But we can anticipate it.
The way I work with companies is through an adaptive scenarios approach. I work with senior leaders to identify the outcome they would like to achieve and varying scenarios that may occur while trying to get there. We then synthesize threads that may exist across many of the scenarios and use those as strong signals to either watch for or to incorporate into their strategy.
I also have senior leadership go through outliers that they cannot imagine happening and identify any correlations between individuals. This helps me understand which skills senior leaders may need to work on to build organizational resilience. Future-proofing is being prepared for any situation. Transferable skills across possible futures is one way to do that.
Foster Cultural Readiness to Rapid Change
The key to developing the all important ability to react to rapid change is cultural readiness. Employees must be trained within a business culture that instills the ability to understand the mission and the flexibility to pursue it in real time. Inaction in the face of uncertainty is not an option, but the capability to act effectively takes training.
Resilience is admirable. Taking hits and not getting knocked down is impressive. But your employees need to be able to instinctively hit back. They need to develop the readiness to get stronger under pressure. This is the way of antifragility and it is foundational to a culture of readiness for rapid change.
Such a culture must empower employees, invest in innovation and experimentation, encourage collaboration and open communication, and build adaptability and futures-fluency. It’s a tall order, but once you’ve integrated this culture closely into your corporate community, the results will be worth it.
Balance Convention and Innovation
While you can anticipate the future, you can’t forget the past. Learning from established business practices and models still has value when you’re experiencing disruption and uncertainty. The need to balance convention and innovation is critical to a successful future-proofing strategy.
For example, the centralized business model is a convention that needs to be adeptly balanced with disruptive innovation. While centralized models tend to promote your efficiency, scalability, and control, they also risk limiting your inputs, flexibility, and security. When these limitations outweigh the benefits, a centralized model is no longer the right corporate responsible path. Based on what you identify as the future market reality and operating needs of your business, a more decentralized corporate model might be more appropriate.
Research indicates that consumers respond well to companies that take serious, meaningful and transparent Economic Social Governance (ESG) actions and publicize them. In fact, almost 80 percent of business categories exhibit a positive correlation between number of distinct ESG-related claims and growth rate. Bottom line, products that make multiple, accurate ESG-related claims grow almost twice as fast as products making only one claim.
Use Emerging Technology to Enhance Customer Experience
When it comes to establishing, maintaining, and growing your company’s relationship with its customers, trust is paramount. People have a strong desire to purchase products from companies they trust. And this goes far beyond the efficacy and cost of the product. People want to buy from companies that align with their values.
Young consumers in particular (the future, wink wink) have been shown to rate value alignment as more important than cost convenience, brand loyalty, and product functionality.
People also want to feel in control. One of the promises of emerging technologies is that they will empower consumers, shifting the asymmetric market power differential away from big firms. Embracing this new technology is existential for you and me.
Blockchain technology is a perfect example. As Web3 replaces the traditional platform Internet, customers are going to increasingly demand more ownership over personal data. Overall data privacy, scalability, and security will be a kitchen table issue. By integrating blockchain into your operations, you can drive both innovation and profit while giving customers something they deeply want.
Embrace Uncertainty as an Opportunity for Growth
The only certainty in business is uncertainty. And while future disruptions will force many businesses to make tough decisions, yours does not have to be at uncertainty’s whim. The key is recognizing that uncertainty = opportunity. Since change is inevitable, you must find innovative and profitable ways to embrace it.
Embracing short-term shifts can be uncomfortable, but you can ease that discomfort (and even turn it into productive excitement) by putting in the work for long-term preparation. The preparation you do today can lead to sustainable growth tomorrow and success when the inevitable next big disruption happens.
The future is going to hit you. Hard. If you want to be prepared to hit back, contact me and my team for support in developing the best future-proofing strategy for your business.