Imagining the best possible future is one thing, but figuring out what to do to achieve that vision is another matter. In their book Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth, Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz describe how future-back leaders use their capacity for learning, deep curiosity, and comfort with ambiguity to translate their vision into reality.
Unlike traditional strategic planning, which is highly data-driven and analytic, future-back planning is based on assumptions and questions. Future-back planning is a process of active learning and consists of three phases:
- Developing an inspiring and actionable vision
- Converting the vision into a clear strategy
- Implementing the strategy
As Dennis Gabor, Nobel laureate in Physics and inventor of holography, said, "The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented." Peter Drucker made a similar observation: "The best way to predict your future is to create it."
When we develop a vision, we paint a picture of the future. We envision the company's future state, purpose, and how it will grow its core, adjacent, and new products and services. The key is to stretch our thinking and provide enough detail to have clarity and alignment on what the organization must do to overcome future challenges. Johnson and Suskewicz remark that "this is your opportunity to design the ideal company of the future, irrespective - for now - of what it is today."
Once leaders have painted a vivid, exciting, and inspiring vision of the future, it is time to convert that vision to strategy. The process consists of developing a future state by quantifying the company's growth gap and identifying strategic opportunity areas. The next step is to "walk the future back," which means developing milestones along the path of reaching the vision. The final step is to establish the innovation and investment portfolios by balancing growth, risk, and return, and planning when to start, stop, and continue the portfolio initiatives.
Present-forward strategies extrapolate existing processes, rules, and norms, increasing the chance of perpetuating the existing realities. In contrast, future-back strategies focus on the allocation or reallocation of scarce resources, helping companies to decide when to slow down, deprioritize, reshape, or shut down certain initiatives. Future-back strategies require different capabilities and a set of processes than traditional present-forward strategies.
The final phase of future-back planning is programing and implementing the visionary strategy developed in phase two. It is essential to test and adjust the strategies constantly along the way. The process never ends. Johnson and Suskewicz contend that "future-back needs to become an organizational capability, led at the top, and permanently embedded in leadership mindsets, strategic planning processes, and organizational culture."
Visionary organizations and their future-back leaders communicate the vision consistently inside and outside the organization. They make sure that employees understand the vision and know how to contribute. Visionary organizations prioritize continual learning, reward innovative thinking, and streamline approvals for test-and-learn initiatives.
Johnson and Suskewicz argue that "business as usual is no longer sustainable." Organizations need clear visions for their intended future to allow their employees to anticipate and take advantage of breakthrough growth opportunities and not risk becoming irrelevant. The authors conclude by saying: "In the future, the organizations that lead and succeed will be the ones that never stop learning."