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Many leaders use present-forward thinking to move their organizations forward in small increments. Conversely, “future-back” thinking can enable leaders to plan for and build a more prosperous and sustainable future.
That’s the view of Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz, co-authors of Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth.
In the first part of this conversation (see “Struggling With Change? Try Leading from The Future”) they explained how “future-back” thinking can be used to convert a vision into an actionable strategy.
In this follow-up, they discuss the value in future-back thinking in the development of breakthrough innovations, especially in a world rocked by a global pandemic.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What are some notable examples where the planning and visioning process you advocate has produced excellent results?
Josh Suskewicz: There’s simply no better story than Steve Jobs, Apple, and the digital hub strategy. Just as the tech bubble was bursting and home computers were becoming commoditized, Jobs and his lieutenants thought about the different role that home computers could play in ten years, as the central hub that would enable the emerging ecosystem of digital devices. Then they built out that vision systematically, transforming Apple from a niche computer maker into a music company, a camera company, a phone and tablet and watch company, a lifestyle company and even a bricks-and-mortar retailer, in short, into the world’s most valuable brand. They did it all from the future back.
Duncan: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic made future-back thinking more relevant and urgent than ever?
Mark W. Johnson: A disruption of this magnitude accelerates trends. Inflections that you might have had five years to anticipate in a normal environment are reaching critical mass in months and weeks. Some of the fundamental assumptions underlying your business model may have been (or soon may be) upended. In short, the business environment you land in when the emergency is over may be unrecognizable when you come out the other end. You need to start preparing for it now and as the line between then and now will not be straight, you need to do that with a future-back process.
Duncan: How does future-back thinking accelerate the creation of breakthrough innovations?
Suskewicz: It’s not so much that it accelerates them—it creates a context in which innovation initiatives can be conceived, developed, and deployed routinely and in the ways that give them the greatest odds of success. Big organizations are filled with imaginative people who have incredible capabilities, and they have as much or more money to spend on innovation than most venture capitalists. But for a lot of reasons, their systems and processes also have this unfortunate tendency to crush out new ideas.
Future-back thinking and process is the antidote for all of that. As an example, Johnson & Johnson has successfully laid out a future-back vision that gives structure and momentum to their breakthrough innovation initiatives. They call one such program “the world without disease,” in which they envision a healthcare environment in which we are increasingly able to predict and pre-empt disease, rather than do our best to treat its manifestations. They are rapidly accelerating novel solutions in disease areas most ready for this sort of transition, such as lung cancer.
Duncan: What role does future-back thinking play in enterprise sustainability and growth?
Johnson: Future-back thinking is never a one-and-done, because there’s always more future ahead of us. A well-run, adaptable organization can and does regenerate itself, replacing fading business units with newer and more vital ones, embracing and leveraging new technologies, questioning and learning its way ahead.
I love this quote from a former director general of the Red Cross: “Leadership is a temporary role which is outlasted by the lifespan of an organization. A leader is performing the act of stewardship whenever he or she is actively preparing for an organization’s future vitality.”
Duncan: Many leaders may be stuck in what you call the “Present-Forward Fallacy.” How can they overcome this cognitive bias?
Suskewicz: The present forward fallacy is the seductive notion that an existing business can be extended out in time indefinitely simply by making incremental improvements to it. Such improvements are not sufficient to ensure topline growth and sustainability over time.
Future-back thinking gives you such powerful insights that once you experience it for yourself, you will never want to go back. As for how to take that first step, your journey begins when you acknowledge that you need to look at some challenges through a different lens Just doing the work—adopting the different mindset that you need—changes you. Then you enlist your whole leadership team in the effort, and ultimately your whole organization. Future-back thinking has to be collaborative, because the insights you come up with as a team are so much richer than what you can come up with on your own, and because you’ll never be able to bring your breakthrough ideas to fruition if you don’t have the full leadership team engaged in and aligned on a visionary strategy.
Duncan: What’s your bottom line on the value of future-back thinking?
Johnson: I love to talk about the deeper wisdom behind all of this. Growth is not just about scale and value is not just about dollars. Winning in the marketplace is important, to be sure. But future-back thinking is not just a way to win a competitive game, but to make a positive contribution for the people who depend on you for their livelihoods, your customers, society, and the planet as a whole. Ultimately, I like to think of it as a way of life.