Beyond Agility: How your future is more certain when you know how to anticipate it

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, August 1st 2017

Autonomous cars. 5G cellular technology. Limitless computational speed. The forces of disruption can be paralyzing for even the most agile leaders. Agility is a valuable skill – but it’s still a reactive muscle. It simply enables a faster reaction to something disruptive.  But what if leaders learned to anticipate disruptions before they happened and, instead of simply reacting, took advantage of the disruption? 

I spoke with Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research and best-selling author of the forthcoming book, The Anticipatory Organization: Turn Disruption and Change Into Opportunity and Advantage, about how great leaders and organizations are doing just that. Says Burrus, “If we continue to solve problems after they happen, we’ll only struggle to keep up with more and more disruptions as they come.” The future may feel unknowable, but Burrus says we can nonetheless create pretty accurate predictions. “The future is far more certain than death and taxes. We have to learn how to see the future with accuracy. When we do, it gives us more certainty in an uncertain world. It changes how we plan and innovate. It introduces certainty and subsequent confidence to make better choices.”

Burrus suggests there are three major shifts leaders, their teams, and their organizations need to make to become more anticipatory, and therefore more predictive, of future disruptions that can be exploited. See which of these shifts you and your organization are ready to make.

1.Prepare for trends you know for certain are coming.  Burrus recalls, “I asked more than 100 tech CEOs how many of them were leveraging the speed of 5G by having apps that could be used for logistics, purchasing, and customer service. Only 3 raised their hands.”  The speed and scale of 4G is largely being used for social media and entertainment, but rarely for business application. He then asked them how many believed that would change within 3 years as 5G became more prevalent and the rest raised their hands.  But how many of them are acting upon that opportunity now? 5G is a certainty and will have exponential impact on multiple sectors. 

By naming those “hard trends” – things we know for certain that are coming, but we can’t change, and their likely impact on our current work, we can prepare accordingly. Burrus says, “It requires shifting from reactionary to anticipatory behavior.” Semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles offer a significant illustration. The next wave of semiautonomous vehicle will include taking blind-spot accident prevention to a new level. Instead of your driver seat being buzzed or an alarm going off, the vehicle will simply prevent you from being able to change lanes. Given the fact that 80% of car accidents that come to the Emergency Room are blind spot accidents, what will be the impact on healthcare systems and their patient volumes if there is a dramatic reduction in blind-spot accidents? Burrus says, “Healthcare CEOs can, and should, be thinking about this now, and building financial plans and strategies for when this inevitability becomes reality.”

2.Make innovation everyone’s job. Burrus says, “It’s human nature, especially within organizations, to fight for homeostasis. We want predictability based on what we know, not what we don’t know. We expect disruption to be uncomfortable, so we avoid it. Culture’s that encourage such legacy thinking can thwart innovation. ” In my 30 years working with leaders and organizations, I’ve encountered countless “not invented here” cultures in which new ideas are rejected before their merits are considered, and veteran employees squash change with the reflexive excuse, “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” To get past this, Burrus says, “Innovation has to become everyone’s job. By encouraging everyone to adopt a future-focused mindset and proactively solve problems, transformation can happen at all levels of a company and all levels of innovation as well.”  

A receptionist in one company illustrates a great example.  She notices that job applicants in a company doing extensive hiring are taking much longer before and during interviews, and many are getting frustrated with waiting while HR recruiters are giving them short-shrift. The result is sub-par hiring. She recommends consolidating a large portion of standard information about the company and the hiring process onto a short and engaging video presentation and loading them onto iPads that all applicants can watch in advance of their interview. Says Burrus, “When everyone in the organization feels like it’s their job to spot such opportunities, and those ideas are adopted, you will see your entire culture shift to a future focus.”
 

3.Redesign your processes from “protect and defend” to “transform and extend.”  When “rearview mirror” thinking gets embedded into organizational processes, they become sources of entrenchment that make change difficult to introduce. When people resolve that innovation is either unnecessary or not possible, protecting against change becomes the default posture. Processes and decision structures become rigid and bureaucratic. Unlike hard trends that reveal inevitable disruption, soft trends introduce changes we can actually influence before facing the negative repercussions of that trend. Says Burrus, “We can all relate to getting excited about new technology and change when we look at how long the lines are people will wait in for new product releases of their smart phones. Forward progress means we aren’t going backward. Once we experience 4G, no one wants to go back to 3G. Once rural villages in India experience refrigeration, they’re not going back.” 

Employers like IBM, Manpower, and Target offer excellent examples in combating the trend of increasing obesity and diabetes. These challenges continue to rise despite the ongoing push for greater health awareness and preventative care. This is an example of a soft trend because we can change it, and these employers set out to do just that. They gave Fitbits to their employees with incentives for tracking health progress. Some hold contests and offer prizes for various health achievements. In one company’s case, the nation-wide workforce is virtually “climbing Mt. Everest” together. Beyond a healthier workforce, declines in insurance premiums and sick-day lost productivity become visible evidence of change achieved through a “transform and extend” approach to work. 

Traditional brick and mortar retail offers another example. Says Burrus, “If you ask traditional retailers, they believe the ‘good old days’ of brick and mortar retail are behind us. So they are working to protect and defend same store sales and formats to eke out as much from them as they can before mall rent costs and cannibalization from online retailing forces inevitable death. Though Sears is closing 1000 stores, why is Amazon set to open 1000 stores?” If retailers believed the best days of brick and mortar retailing were ahead, they would act with less of a defensive posture and more of an offensive posture. The issue isn’t that consumers don’t want to go to retail establishments. The issue is that the experience of retail hasn’t been redesigned in 30 years, and it’s currently too time consuming and boring. Says Burrus, “With the rise of blended online and brick and mortar retail experiences, and the future of Omni-channel marketing (multiple blended shopping and sales experiences), the limitations within retail reside only within our own thinking.” 

Burrus proves through rich illustrations of anticipated change that the future holds more certainty than we’ve historically believed. While concepts like agility give us novel ideas by which to adapt to change that has already happened, true anticipatory leadership and thinking allow us to shift before disruption hits, giving us greater maneuvering room and a wider range of choices from which to construct the future we most desire.  Says Burrus, “When you see the future, you don’t want to be the one left out. When you know it’s coming, how do you not respond?”


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