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Rethinking the Future
by Rowan Gibson

We must learn to use discontinuous changes to shape our own future, before the future shapes us.

Back in the early 1970s a business partner of mine, who was then an MBA student, was asked by the Siemens company to work out how many telex machines they might be selling by the year 2000. So he took their current sales figures, calculated the growth-rate from year to year, and extrapolated the trend to the end of the century. His prognosis, of course, was that Siemens could look forward to selling zillions of telexes over the next few decades. But it never turned out that way. Along came the fax machine and telex was history. Today, a similar scenario is unfolding as e-mail replaces facsimile.

What do we learn from this? We learn that the future rarely, if ever, turns out the way we expect it to. Especially if we insist on planning for tomorrow in linear terms. In their book, The Great Reckoning, James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg remind us that linear thinking is useless in a non-linear world.

A realisation of this fact could have saved many of the world’s major corporations a lot of embarrassment. And a lot of money. Think back to the 1960s and early 1970s, when companies like General Motors, IBM, Kodak and Xerox thought they saw a long, linear road stretching out before them into the distant horizon. For them, tomorrow was going to be like yesterday, only better. Or so it seemed.

Business books are replete with examples of such apparently invincible corporations who paid a heavy price for their linear view of the future. Paul Allaire, the present CEO of XEROX, admits that “we didn’t even notice the nature of the Japanese threat until our earnings dropped 50 percent in one year - 1982.” The managers at Xerox didn’t notice because they were blinded by their past successes. They expected the future to be a continuation of that past, so all they needed to do was build more factories, hire more people and set up the right systems and procedures to control it all. The results of this attitude were tragic. Some suggest that Xerox almost went bankrupt.

What must we do to avoid such a crisis? I believe that the answer lies in constantly rethinking the future. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘rethink’ means ‘to consider afresh...to reassess...especially with a view to making changes.” So rethinking the future means challenging every assumption we have about tomorrow, in view of the non-linear, discontinuous nature of change. It is about considering the future afresh...reassessing it...with a view to making pragmatic changes in our organizations and in our personal lives.

The key is to understand that discontinuity creates opportunity.

Instead of seeing the future as a linear continuation of the past, we have to learn to accept it as a series of discontinuities which can render useless the most sophisticated strategic plans and scenario forecasts. Jack Welch, for example, trashed General Electric’s planning system because he realised it was doing his company more harm than good.

Is this to say that we should simply give up and go with the flow, becoming the helpless victims of unfolding events? Not at all. We may not be able to control, plan or predict the future, but we can certainly influence it. And the way we do that is by using discontinuous changes to shape our own future, before the future shapes us.

The key is to understand that discontinuity creates opportunity. The companies who will be successful in the twenty-first century, and in the remaining part of the twentieth century, will be the ones that grasp those opportunities first and overcome the usual organizational barriers in order to take advantage of them.

A good example is CNN. While the BBC was busy trying to predict and plan the future, Ted Turner went out and created it. His inspiration for a 24-hour global TV news network came from looking at discontinuous changes: people’s increasingly irregular working hours, the miniaturisation of video and satellite technology, and the deregulation of TV broadcasting. By putting these discontinuities together, he was able to synthesise a vision for redefining television news.

The goal for every corporation, therefore, must be to rethink the future on a continual basis, setting up a company-wide constituency for monitoring discontinuous changes. In turn, the goal for every CEO must be to listen to this constituency with open-minded humility, in order to understand the driving forces which can be harnessed to create the company’s future.

Rowan Gibson is founder and chairman of a company which helps organisations to rethink core strategies, and author of the international bestseller Rethinking the Future.

Copyright Rowan Gibson. All Rights Reserved.

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