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Anticipating the future in uncertain times

Kenny MacIver — March 2021

Quantitative futurist, business school professor and bestselling author Amy Webb argues that it is now more important than ever that business and public service leaders are able to reimagine their organizations with a deeper understanding of what the future might bring — and the signals and trends that point the way there.

The unpredicted events of the past year have exposed a harsh reality to many leaders across business and society: while none of them can expect to predict future events, there are always pointers to the way these will unfold, enabling leaders to steer their organizations towards positive outcomes.

As a quantitative futurist who advises some of the world’s largest companies and government agencies on how to anticipate disruptive trends, business school professor Amy Webb has never seen a more apt time for organizations to appreciate why they need to be able to more accurately read and prepare for future scenarios. The global pandemic, the impact of climate change, the digital disruption of whole industries and pressures for greater equality and diversity — among other major changes — just underscore the importance of that, she says.

But, as Webb highlights in our Big Thinker video interview series, equipping your organization with the capability to anticipate and take advantage of future developments and trends is something that has to be built deep into its business model. And it demands that CxOs start thinking like futurists and create the structures and tools that help them make sense of the future.

“The future doesn’t simply arrive fully formed overnight,” Webb outlines in her bestseller, The Signals Are Talking. “It emerges step by step… first at seemingly random points around the fringes of society [but] never in the mainstream.” Over time, these signals from the edge come into focus as trends that reveal a direction, a force that “combines some human need and new enabling technology that will shape the future.”
Pathfinders to the future

To see how organizations attain a clear sense of what the future might bring, it is useful to look at the approaches of companies who do this well, creating a blueprint for their enduring business success — organizations Webb calls Pathfinders.

“Pathfinder organizations excel even in the wake of disruption because they have people dedicated to strategic foresight,” she says. “They are continuously monitoring forces, signals and trends. They are quantifying those to calculate their timing and trajectory. And they are thinking about next-order impacts, all for the purpose of making decisions and [formulating] strategy.”

Such organizations have core characteristics and approaches in common, Webb highlights.

“Pathfinder organizations have all created a methodology and established frameworks to help them think about and plan for the future. Not just to help them collect information but to use data and evidence to model what the next-order impacts might look like, so that they can create strategy.”

“When the C-suite has established a structure that allows them to track signals and trends and map out next-order impacts, they can build action plans that allow their organization to thrive — not just occasionally but repeatedly, and even in the face of disruption.”

Such organizations — Amazon, Nintendo and communications infrastructure company Crown Castle are just three examples she likes to cite — have typically set up departments dedicated to undertaking such work. In some cases, the responsibility lies with their strategy department, in others it falls under risk management, in yet others it is the remit of R&D or innovation teams, she says.

But while tracking and modeling the future may sit within a specific department, such activities should not be undertaken in isolation, nor with a narrow focus, she argues. “One challenge is making sure that this work is not being done in a silo: the [future-focused] department should be a nexus for information sharing, strategic thinking, and, obviously, action across many parts of your organization.”

And it should embody diverse skillsets and viewpoints. “This work is best done in a cross-functional team because, ultimately, you need myriad perspectives and an understanding of all of the different capabilities and strategic directives in your organization,” says Webb.

The result is an empowering core competency, says Webb. “When the C-suite of an organization has established a structure that allows them to use data to methodically track signals, calculate the timing and the trajectory of emerging trends and map out next-order impacts, they can build scenarios, strategies and action plans that allow the organization to thrive — not just occasionally but repeatedly, and even in the face of disruption.”
CxOs as futurists

In essence, that means every CxO needs to have the basic capabilities of a futurist — just as they possess other indispensable business skills.

“Think for a moment about the people in your organization who are charged with making major decisions. You want them to [have core skills] in understanding business, to be able to read a P&L, and so forth,” says Webb. “Likewise, they should have foresight skills. They should understand the difference between what’s a signal and what’s a trend. They should understand why longitudinal trends [trends observed over time] matter. And they should have the ability to do next-order thinking.”

And in an era of dynamic change, “these should be skills that every CxO now has,” she adds.

“The world's most successful, profitable companies — and their executives — know how to do this, and they do it regularly and repeatedly.”

Not that the operational work behind that has to be undertaken by the C-suite itself, as Webb points out. “This activity actually takes time — the models you build can be complicated and the amount of data gathered excessive. So leave that work to [the specialist teams you’ve appointed].”

But, ultimately, responsibility for making the all-important bets on future scenarios lies with the C-suite. “Signal tracking and next-order impact modeling of scenarios that describe plausible futures have to be a part of your process as a CxO,” says Webb.

“And you don’t have to take this [guidance] from me. The world’s most successful and most profitable companies do this. Their executives know how to do this, and they do it regularly — and repeatedly.

• Portrait photography: Elena Seibert

First published
March 2021
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About: Amy Webb
A polymath, whose academic background and passions range from game theory, economics and computer science to classical clarinet, Aikido and sci-fi, Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist who, as head of the Future Today Institute, helps businesses, government agencies and social enterprises around the world to spot, make sense of and plan for (often-unanticipated) transformational changes. An in-demand keynote speaker, she is a professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business and the author of several bestselling business books, including ‘The Signals are Talking’ and ’The Big Nine.‘

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