Planning for the future? Try a new paradigm!

The results from IBM’s first ever global study of Chief Marketing Officers were published online recently under the heading CMOs feel unprepared for future complexity.

From a strategic foresight perspective, three key findings emerge from the study:

1. Overwhelmingly, CMOs believe the level of complexity they will have to manage in the future will be high or very high (79%),

2. Less than half those surveyed feel they are equipped to deal with this complexity (48%), and

3. The #1 concern of CMOs is the feeling they’re ‘drowning in data’ yet unable to identify insights.

Or to put these findings another way:

Despite their vast amount of data, managers continue to feel ill-equipped for a future that appears increasingly complex.

Clearly the accumulation of more historical data is not the answer.

Instead, a new planning paradigm is required.

The Information age is coming to an end!

Organisations operate within environments where the desire and search for competitive advantage is never ending. Over the past 20 years organisations have tried to achieve this advantage via the accumulation of historical information. In effect, we have come through a sort of information age, an age where the race has been on to purchase more market information than your competitors.

In many industries we have now reached the absurd situation where competitors receive the same market data, from the same suppliers, on the same day. The only winners under this scenario are the suppliers of the syndicated information!

The folly of this approach is evident in the concerns of CMOs listed at the top of this article.

Historical data serves several purposes within a business. It is useful for interpreting the past. It is also useful for guiding shorter-term, operational decisions. However, it provides limited value for longer term decision making. There must be a better way!

There are no facts about the future

The future will be a combination of persistence and novelty – whilst some existing trends will persist into the future, other new trends will also emerge. The extrapolation of historical data into the future only accounts for the persistence of trends that are visible today. Trends which are also visible to your competitors.

It’s the novelty of the future that provides the opportunity for marketing and innovation. And it’s the novelty of the future which also has the potential to disrupt entire strategies.

It’s their inability to discover just what this novelty could be, that so frustrates CMOs and CEOs around the world.

This is where strategic foresight fits in.

Whilst there are many aspects of the future which are uncertain, what we do know is that the future is not pre-determined, and hence, there are no facts about the future. So the acquisition of more and more data to unravel the future just doesn’t make sense.

In the absence of any facts, it’s our internal perceptions of the future – the perceived future environment – that are the most important component of business planning. Since all logic is borne out of perception, all planning and innovation is based on our perceptions of the future. How ironic then, that the most important component of the planning process is also the most overlooked!

And this is why planning and innovation fails. Because organisations get the future wrong!

Faulty perception of the future is the #1 reason organisations fail

Any visioning or strategic planning that is conducted without a rigorous exploration of your internal perceptions of the future is almost certain to fail.

So my advice to the CMOs and CEOs who continue to feel overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of the future is to reduce your addiction to historical data. It’s your reliance on this data that traps you in today’s conventions and prevents you from seeing the novelty of the future.

To simplify the future and improve your future performance, companies should establish an internal process of strategic conversations designed to draw out the mental models of managers that implicitly guide corporate decision making. The goal should be to make your corporate worldview explicit.

This explicit knowledge – with its weaknesses now on show – provides a platform from which to launch a superior planning and innovation process for the future.

Illuminating the opportunities of the future does rely on information, but it’s the mining of internal information (perceptions), not the mining of external information (data), that should be the focus.

In the words of renowned futurist and scenario planner Peter Schwartz:

‘Don’t worry about your files, worry about your perceptions’

This shift in understanding and focus represents a major opportunity for business planning, market research, and innovation in the future.

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