Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

Uncertainty is here to stay. By imagining multiple destinies and working back to the present, companies can prepare for anything.

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways.