Thinking Beyond The Bottom Line

With the volatility of today’s markets, many organizations are heavily focussed on next quarter’s earnings or the annual report. The danger in this is that it may lead to a shortsighted view of the future. Many of us, in private conversations with each other, admit that looking outward is not one of our strong suits – that the pressure to deliver to short-term objectives is nearly always overwhelming.

Not everyone believes this is the only way to do business. There’s a growing movement to bring the methodologies of futurism into the strategic planning processes of organizations.

The study, or even the casual examination, of the future has a bit of a bad reputation. Any media coverage of a World Future Society event will include the obligatory references to tea leaves and chicken entrails. Not surprisingly, the public perception of futurists is that of a group of wide-eyed mystics, looking out a thousand years and making ridiculous, or at least incredible, claims that defy verification.

Futurism is far from perfect, but it’s even further from the unfortunate image of the crystal balls, incense and pointy hats. The University of Houston has been offering a fully credited degree in futurism since 1975 and has graduated more than 250 students. These students are now finding – sometimes creating – positions for themselves in corporations worldwide. Their goal? To look outward five to ten years and prepare their organizations for the possible scenarios they might encounter.

Dr. Peter Bishop, head of the current program at the university, puts it this way; “Throughout the education process we make a point of teaching history to students, who then enter the workforce and discover as novice managers that they’re responsible for creating the future. It makes sense not only to teach what happened, but also to provide some techniques for anticipating what might happen.”

Futurists make no attempt to predict a specific future. Instead they attempt to anticipate a range of possible futures. Their purpose in doing this is best expressed by a quote overheard recently at a gathering of futurists: “Scenarios serve as wind tunnels through which we fly our corporate strategic plans. Our objective is to create strategic plans that are robust across a wide range of scenarios.”

The tools used by futurists are not extraordinarily complicated or difficult to access. They range from things we’ve all used in the past for different purposes, such as ‘brainstorming’ and ‘what if analysis’, to some more esoteric methodologies, such as ‘Delphi modeling’, ‘environmental scanning’, ‘cross-impact analysis’, ‘psychodynamics’ and the study of idea propagation known as ‘Diffusion Theory’.

Obviously any organization involved with infrastructure projects needs to look out at least to the end of their projects, some of which can easily last five to ten years. Other organizations with no such obvious need are also beginning to consider that looking at the future is critical to the planning of even short-term projects.

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