We know a lot about the future. We can’t predict it precisely but we can often see the general contours of what’s coming. With a little imagination, we can prepare for it. We just need a structure to hang our imagination on.
As an example, let’s take organizations that are undergoing rapid and/or stressful change. We know a lot about such organizations. We know, for instance, that:
I could go on but you get the picture. We also know that organizational change happens in three phases. At least, that’s what the theorists tell us. Here are four different models of the change process (here, here, here, and here). They use different descriptors but all four describe three distinct phases of change. Note that the middle phase is a trough – that’s where the going gets tough.
The trick to preparing for the future is to start imagining it before we get to the trough. Change managers refer to the trough with words like frustration, depression, resistance, and chaos. It’s not a good time for imagining.
So we start the imagination process in Phase 1. We’re still cool, calm, and collected. We can think more or less clearly – especially if we’ve studied critical thinking. We can think about the future dispassionately and plan how we want to behave.
We sit down in groups and discuss the issues we can anticipate in Phases 2 and 3. We know, for instance, that we’re likely to hear contradictory messages. How do we want to behave when we do? What can we do now to outline “best behaviors” for the stress created by contradictory messages? What can we do to ensure that we actually implement the best behaviors? What else might happen in the trough? How do we want to behave when it happens? We talk, discuss, debate, imagine, and agree.
We then write down what we’ve agreed to. In effect, we’re writing a memo from our current selves to our future selves. From our cool, calm, dispassionate selves to our stressed and anxious future selves. We make clearheaded decisions in Phase 1. When we get to Phase 2, we can refer back to our own wisdom to help govern our actions
I call this process Structured Imagination™. What we know about the future gives us the structure. We use the structure to focus our imaginations. We imagine what will happen and how we’ll behave when it does. This prepares us for the hurly burly of change and also vaccinates us against many of the ill effects of the trough.
Structured Imagination is not a perfect process – the future may still throw us a curve every now and then. However, I’ve used the process with multiple clients and they say that they face the future with greater confidence and clarity. That’s pretty good. If you’d like me to do a Structured Imagination workshop with your organization, just drop me a line.
In the early 1990s, call centers were popping up around the United States like mushrooms on a dewy morning. Companies invested millions of dollars to improve customer service via well-trained, professional operators in automated centers. Several prognosticators suggested that the segment was growing so quickly that every man, woman, and child in the United States would be working in a call center by, oh say, 2010.
Of course, it didn’t happen. The Internet arrived and millions of customers chose to serve themselves. Telecommunication costs plummeted and many companies moved their call centers offshore. Call centers are still important but not nearly as pervasive in the United States as they were projected to be.
Now we’re faced with similar projections for health care costs. If current trends continue, prognosticators say, health care will consume an ever increasing portion of the American budget until everything simply falls apart. Given our experience with other “obvious trends”, I think it behooves us to ask the opposite question, what if health care costs go down?
Why would health care costs go down? Simply put — we may just cure a few diseases.
Why am I optimistic about potential cures? Because we’re making progress on many different fronts. For instance, what if obesity isn’t a social/cultural issue but a bacteriological issue? That’s the upshot of a recent article published in The ISME Journal. To quote: “Gram-negative opportunistic pathogens in the gut may be pivotal in obesity…” (For the original article, click here. For a summary in layman’s terms, click here). In other words, having the wrong bacteria in your gut could make you fat. Neutralizing those bacteria could slim down the whole country and reduce our health care costs dramatically.
And what about cancer? Apparently, we’re learning how to “persuade” cancer cells to kill themselves. I’ve spotted several articles on this — click here, here, here, here, and here for samples. Researchers hope that training cancer cells to commit suicide could cure many cancers in one fell swoop rather than trying to knock them off one at a time.
Of course, I’m not a medical doctor and it’s exceedingly hard to predict whether or when these findings might be transformed into real solutions. But I am old enough to know that “obvious predictions” often turn out to be dead wrong. In the late 1980s, experts predicted that our crime rate would spike to new highs in the 1990s. Instead, it did exactly the opposite. Similarly, we expected Japan to dominate the world economy. That didn’t happen either. We expected call centers to dominate the labor market. Instead, demand shifted to the Internet.
In the case of health care, it’s hard to make specific predictions. But a good strategist will always ask the “opposite” question. If the whole world is predicting that X will grow in significance, the strategist will always ask, “what if the reverse is true?” You may not be able to predict the future but you can certainly prepare for it.
To innovate successfully, you need a strong vision of the future. What will your customers want in ten or 20 or 30 years? If you can picture that, you can start creating innovations today that will put you in the right place when the future arrives.
That’s one of the reasons I’m fascinated by the dogfight between Boeing and Airbus. They clearly have very different visions of the future of commercial aviation. Different visions produce very different airplanes.
Let’s start with what they agree on. Both Boeing and Airbus believe that the future belongs to the efficient — as measured by cost per passenger mile. Boeing has chosen to work on numerator — operating cost — while Airbus is focused on the denominator — passenger miles. This produces two very different airline experiences: point-to-point for Boeing versus hub-and-spoke for Airbus.
Let’s say I want to fly from Denver to Brisbane, Australia. There’s some demand for travel between the two cities but it’s not huge. So how would the experience differ on Airbus versus Boeing? In the Airbus scenario, I would fly to a regional hub — maybe Los Angeles — and then join 800 other passengers on an A380. The huge number of passengers dramatically lowers the cost per passenger mile. I would then fly the A380 to another regional hub — say Sydney — and then transfer for a short flight to Brisbane.
Boeing takes a different tack. Boeing essentially says, if there’s not much demand, let’s build a smaller plane that airlines can operate profitably on “long, thin routes”. Thus, the Boeing 787 — a light weight, twin engine, long distance plane. In the Boeing vision, I would board a 787 in Denver and — 15 hours later — get off in Brisbane. I can fly from point to point rather than transferring in mega-hubs.
Personally, I prefer the Boeing vision. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that your vision leads you to the type of innovations you deliver. Boeing and Airbus clearly have different visions of the future. Thus, they’re building very different planes. It may be that one is right and the other is wrong. Or maybe there’s room for both. No matter how it plays out, both Airbus and Boeing are making bet-the-company gambles on their visions.
So what’s your vision of the future? What will your customer want in one year? Or five years? Or 20 years? You can’t predict the future — at least not the details — but you can create a strong vision of what services and products your customers will want. That can help you create the innovations that will get you safely to the future.
By the way, the first long, thin route from Denver starts in mid-2013 — a non-stop flight from Denver to Tokyo on a 787. That’s a flight that Suellen and I need to take.