Thought Leader: Why managers must be futurists

In the past, managers who engaged in serious thinking about the future of customers, competitors, economics and government regulations typically relied heavily on external consultants. They did not have the education or experience in forecasting to do their own futuring.
Managers must now learn to become their own futurists. Why? Because leaders cannot rely on consultants to do futuring for them. And they have to know the trends and issues of futuring in order to achieve prescient strategic planning.
The recession has fundamentally changed many business models and operations, and turned thinking about the future upside down.
A large number of foresight consultants have gone out of business in the recession. Ironically, perhaps, the visionaries, trend extrapolators and scenario facilitators failed to anticipate the demise of their own industry.
In the meanwhile, managers have taken more personal interest in forecasting. They have had to. The recession has turned upside down lot of thinking about the future. Old trends and assumptions about the future as continuation of the past have turned out to be dead wrong.
Now managers have to do their own futuring because they may not have budgets for external experts. Many managers now rely on internet foresight services that provide trend information, expert opinions and forecasting tools. The fees for accessing online services are much less than the professional fees of consulting futurists.
This means managers have access to forecasting resources that they did not have before, but it also means that they have to rely more heavily on their own expert judgement to generate relevant and meaningful views of the future.
Futuring and visioning are fundamentally different. Many managers will do visioning, including strategic planning, without doing futuring. The result may be plans that miss emerging business opportunities. It may leave strategic plans as little more than wishful thinking.
Futuring is the process of forecasting, and anticipating trends and potential events in external business environments. It provides forward-looking perspective on the broader context of business. It also prepares managers mentally to deal with potential issues beyond their immediate control. In the past, managers may not have done futuring at all.
Over the past three decades, planning has become critical skill for all levels of managers. Yet the managers who acquired the skills of planning did not necessarily gain the complementary skills of futuring.
Worst of all, they may have simply ignored external trends and written up business plans in vacuum. This will not do in the future. Managers must learn to generate their own forecasts, or at least how to use their own intuition given the facts that they can so easily acquire over the internet.
I recommend the following steps to any manager wishing to improve their skills in both futuring and visioning:
• Learn the theories, best practices and skills of futuring to supplement strategic planning. This includes trend analysis beyond trend extrapolation, methods for expert judgement and scenario generation.
• Directly relate the trends and issues of futuring to specific patterns in customer behavior and emerging business opportunities. Seek ways to directly link futuring with visioning.
• Develop your own point of view of the future, combining both external and internal elements, and communicate it with others. Aim to engage others in discussion of different potential points of view. This engenders participation, buy-in and cooperation. M

Stephen Millett is the founder and president of Futuring Associates LLC, Columbus, Ohio-based futures consultancy.

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