Five keys to helping executive teams think about the future
My single biggest client-facing activity this year has been speaking to executive teams about the future of business. These presentations are usually scheduled during strategy offsites or retreats, though sometimes are embedded into leadership development programs or a scheduled presentation within an ongoing transformation program. Sometimes I run a full-day workshop, more often I have 45-90 minutes to work with.
The intent of inviting me is largely to stimulate executives to think beyond the everyday, get new ideas, and develop an optimistic mindset about the challenges and opportunities afforded by the extraordinary pace of change today. Many have latched onto the title of one of my presentation topics, Embracing the Future, as the attitude they wish to engender.
There is only so much you can achieve in a brief presentation. However I have to work with what I am given, do the best with that, and do what I can for the session to result in lasting energy and initiatives. Here are some of the approaches I find effective.
Use industry and in-house examples. As part of my briefing I try to uncover the situations and stories that are currently prominent in the organization. While I will always refer to industry-specific examples from outside the company, it is also valuable to bring in the issues that people can recognize as their own.
Create participation. Rather than do a presentation and have Q&A at the end, I often structure my time into three short presentations, each followed by a specific question for groups to discuss, tailored to the company’s situation and challenges. Engaging with the issues while I am there means it is far more likely those conversations about the future will continue.
Balance awe and inspiration. These days it is easy to blow people away describing the extraordinary things that are happening in online sharing, genomics, robotics, augmented reality and many other fields. It is good to help people understand quite how fast things are changing. But that can easily become frightening. The real emphasis has to be on what actions taken now can tap opportunities and possibilities and build success.
Demonstrate that new thinking is necessary. Talk about collaboration and openness is cheap. Showing the success of companies that are successfully embracing these attitudes and practices, and contrasting that with the challenges that those that are not is more to the point. In a recent session on the future I did for the leadership team of an FMCG company, real-life examples led to genuine discussion on how to change the organization’s way of working.
Create an appetite for structured future processes. I far prefer to work with organizations on more significant futures projects such as implementing scenario planning or other long-term strategy tools. Most senior executives do not have this on their priority list, and are prepared to go as far as hearing from a business futurist at an offsite. Creating an understanding of the value of systematically exploring strategic uncertainty and developing scenario thinking should be part of any presentation on the future. I’m more than happy for others to do follow-up work as long as the need is recognized.
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