Planning for a better tomorrow:

Future-back Thinking


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Planning for a better tomorrow: How future-back thinking helps organisations and individuals create transformational futures.

We live, work, and lead in unprecedented times of disruption and change. Strategic foresight and decision-making have become critical challenges for managers and businesses everywhere.

How do the most innovative organisations deal with this? How do they come up with their grand visions and drive implementation and change with massive impact on industries and people? Let me share with you three simple yet powerful steps that can help you to see the future the way they do, so that you can start creating your own and your organisation’s future more actively.

As strategists, we often use ‘present-forward thinking’ by starting with the question “Where are we now?” before defining where we want to be in one to five years and determining a step-by-step plan to get there.

‘Future-back thinking’ is different and has been popular with innovators and futurists for some time. It helps us to envision and plan five, ten, or even twenty years ahead by taking big trends and macro developments into account, thereby enabling transformational innovation and change.

We need both ways of thinking!

While the current focus on the immediate recovery and survival of businesses is essential, a predominantly short- to mid-term focus bears the long-term risk of missing out on opportunities related to significant developments and disruptions. These might even turn into threats if not envisaged in time or ignored for too long. 

There are three types of innovation:

  1. Efficiency innovation: Improving an existing business or operating model. This is happening all around us right now with companies digitising existing processes or moving to remote working models. This accounts for 95% of innovation happening in most organisations.
  2. Sustaining innovation: Developing new products to replace others under the same business model. This comprises about 5% of innovation taking place in most organisations.
  3. Transformative innovation: This is what only very few companies are doing. They are the typical unicorns and big disrupters, such as Amazon Web Services, SpaceX, and Grab.

If we can’t imagine potential futures more clearly, we will always be stuck in types 1 and 2.

Interestingly, when we ask the right questions, people often find it easier to envisage what the world could look like in ten to fifteen years than to predict what the next one to five years might bring!

The future-back planning process
Step 1: Define possible future states

First, we acknowledge and explore what’s happening around us:

  • What will be the major trends affecting your career, industry, and business over the next five to ten years
  • What forces will drive an increased or reduced demand for your products and services?
  • Which stakeholders, customers, or competitors will become more – or less – important and why?
  • What are the specific future realities (name at least two) that you or your business will need to deal with effectively?

Step 2: Find insights and synergies

Now we move into ‘futurestorming’, combining the potential future states to uncover insights and synergies.

What would potential combinations look like?

Johnson & Johnson developed their 2030 vision of ‘A World Without Disease’ by envisioning future blockchain technology in combination with healthcare services, governments, academia, and private companies collaborating more closely in the future.

Determine one potential combination as a strategic opportunity for the next five, ten, or fifteen years – something you can focus on as an individual or business.

My favourite question to help clients at this stage: If the products or services you currently provide won’t be available ten years from now, how will clients satisfy their needs instead?

Step 3: Design a future-back plan
Take your strategic opportunity and describe what it looks like once you have achieved it. Name a concrete year and plan your milestones backwards from there in two-year intervals.

For example, if you look at the year 2030, describe what you will have achieved. Then continue from there and ask: To achieve the envisioned state in 2030, what will you need to have completed by 2028, 2026, 2024… and so on.

Continue all the way back to today, and you might just have created your roadmap to a successful and transformational future.

I encourage you to look into the future with an open mind and open eyes. Give this simple process a try and see where it leads you. It usually works best as a group. It sometimes works wonders to escape the daily grind and immediate pressures by spending some time envisaging a brighter and better future instead.

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