CXO

How to think about the future and save your organization from extinction

Whole industries may be swept away or drastically changed in the next decade. Here's how to start considering the major changes that could impact your company.

Image: iStock/Sylphe_7

As technology leaders, we often consider ourselves at the forefront of technology-driven change. We generally know the most about the bits and bytes that flow through our organizations, and usually have a broad perspective on the corporate IT industry and major players. However, technology-driven change has extended well beyond the walls of corporate IT and is now impacting society and entire industries.

If you don't believe that this change is shaking various industries to their very foundations, just ask New York City taxi drivers. The City government created an effective monopoly on taxi licenses through a medallion system whereby each taxi requires a medallion in order to operate, and there are only a fixed number of medallions in circulation. These medallions sold in excess of $1 million in 2013; however, since the arrival of Uber in the city, prices have fallen below $400,000, losing 60% of their value in a few short years.

Uber is just one player in the broader transportation space, where self-driving vehicles could shake up a number of industries. A truly autonomous car could rattle a dozen industries. If cars can drive themselves, and be summoned in seconds via smartphone, would anyone still want to own a car? Would our homes and apartments need parking spaces and garages? Would auto dealerships become a thing of the past?

Similarly, a dozen new opportunities present themselves. Could a savvy company create a massive parking and service center in a rural location to maintain these fleets? Could consumers subscribe to a service that provides various types of autonomous cars? Could a service cater to children who can now transport themselves without needing a driver's license?

Here's how to take those types of questions and turn them into meaningful progress for your organization.

Map the future

As the year draws to a close, spend some time mapping potential future scenarios. This is a great time of year for this activity, as most publications and pundits are producing articles and content about what the future might look like. It's relatively easy to identify some of the major trends that will likely impact all companies, from the changes in transportation mentioned above, to shifts toward new forms of energy, to human-like artificial intelligence, to aging populations and shifting migration patterns. Take three or four of these trends and start considering the major impacts to global industry.

At this point, don't consider impacts to your company directly, but rather strive to determine how the world might look in 5-15 years, depending on how these macro changes impact society. You'll eventually start seeing areas of impact to your industry or company, and can flush out these changes and determine threats and opportunities.

Ideally, this activity will consume an entire day, and be held outside your offices. Simply changing scenery can open new mental pathways. Consider bringing in people from outside IT, like outside facilitators and big thinkers, to help spur discussion. Come to the session prepared with some of the items above.

It can be hard to get started in thinking about the future, but making an initial statement like "What happens if cars, trucks, and trains can drive themselves in 2020?" can spark initial thoughts. Also consider a dedicated note taker who can capture these ideas. I prefer a tool like Mind Mapping for these types of brainstorming exercises, since it shows the relationships between topics without the formality of an outline, and can capture additional areas for exploration without getting the current discussion completely off track.

Place your bets

After this session, you'll likely have dozens of ideas of how your organization can respond to future events. Look for recurring themes, where a single activity or initiative can prepare you for multiple potential outcomes. If changes to transportation will dramatically impact your company, start considering how you can create additional flexibility in the transportation component of your business, or what R&D investments might keep your company relevant as transportation changes.

In extreme cases, you might envision a future where your company's core product offering is no longer relevant. This is a scary thought; however, consider how the world might have been different if Polaroid, Kodak, Blockbuster Video, or any number of similar companies had identified the existential threat to their industry and made an early pivot to a different product.

Ultimately, your objective is to winnow your list to a handful of longer-term, strategic initiatives that will prepare your organization for potential disruption. As the new year begins, start creating projects that further these initiatives, and prepare you for upcoming change. Every quarter, test your key assumptions and redirect as necessary. While this may seem like a risky proposition, simply ignoring the future is even more fraught.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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