Let’s not future-proof

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ is a line from the poem Ozymandias that I had to learn by heart at school.

It’s got an instructive message in it that’s useful for anyone in the organisation design and change field:  things are not future proof.  We like to think they are.  There are countless business articles telling us how to ‘future proof’ our strategies, designs, profitability, etc.  A recent HBR one is ‘Future Proof Your Climate Strategy’:  ‘In this article we describe the approach used by more and more companies to brace for the future and even flourish in it’.

The idea is peddled with the promise that it is possible to ‘future proof’.  For example, the Institute for Customer Service offers ‘7 ways to future proof your organisation’ and Kepner-Tregoe, a consulting company, tells us ‘Businesses will soon experience productivity decline from a workforce unprepared and unable to provide the competitive advantage needed to survive in the modern environment. The companies most likely to avoid this less-than-desirable prospect are those future-proofing their organizations’.  (At least you can see the qualifiers in this statement’).

The phrase is beginning to irritate me.  Maybe because I’ve heard or read it several times this week. Repeat Ozymandias’s lesson, it is not possible to ‘future proof’ an organisation.  Even thinking that you can is a misplaced and unachievable aspiration.

You could take a more nuanced view of ‘future proofing’ that implies a limited time horizon.  For example, conference speaker Jean-Pierre Lacroix, offers a metaphor:

‘Taking a short-term view of the future is like driving a car at night using only your low beams. Although low beams allow a driver to respond to the immediate twist and turns in the road, they do not provide a view of the obstacles farther ahead that could be seen with the high beams. With today’s companies embracing agile and scrum processes, the ability to see farther into the distance has become imperative.’

Ok – but high beams still don’t help us that much – they are not capable of seeing around a curve to show that obstacle.  High beams highlight what is in the immediate distance, not the long distance.  They can’t, at the moment, future-proof against a driver having a sudden, fatal heart attack.

However, this may be a quibble with the metaphor, not with the intent of it, which I take to be that we have to stay alert to what is going on in the external context.  I think that is necessary.  In my book – the one I am thinking of writing a 3rd edition of – one of my five rules of thumb for designing is:

‘Stay alert to the future. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous and well-executed environmental scanning. Organisations should be aware that they may have to do design work at any point, so they should take steps to build or maintain a culture where change, innovation and forward thinking are welcomed.’

This is not ‘future-proofing’.   I extend the discussion about staying alert to the future, saying: ‘[No] company can accurately predict what the future will bring, but trend analysis, simulations, rapid prototyping, scenario planning, gaming, environmental scanning and a range of other techniques give clues on the context and the competitive environment. Organisations … that take the future seriously are less likely to be blindsided by events than organisations that are rooted in the present.’

In the organisation design course, I facilitated last week, we talked about two CEOs who seem (currently) to be alert to trends.  We cannot say that they are ‘future-proofing’.  We can say that they are making organisational adjustments that are keeping their organisations successful as they interact with the context.  It may be that they are consciously and continuously testing assumptions and hypotheses about what is working and not working in emergent contexts.

Satya Nadella is one of the two CEOs I mentioned in last week’s programme.  It’s only today that I find that in the 2nd edition of the book, I wrote in 2014, I referenced him.

‘At the time of writing Nadella’s decisions around redesign or not are unknown and his first day as CEO email to staff implied changes ahead without saying how incremental or radical:

While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more. Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation. This is a critical time for the industry and for Microsoft. Make no mistake, we are headed for greater places — as technology evolves and we evolve with and ahead of it. Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world.

Five years on, in a Geekwire article, we read that: ‘2014, Nadella took over as CEO, doubling down on the cloud and refocusing the company on productivity technology. Nadella, who started at Microsoft in 1992, often receives high praise from employees who talk about the company’s high energy and empathetic, inclusive culture under his tutelage. By 2018, Microsoft was undeniably back on top. In November, it reclaimed the title of world’s most valuable company, surpassing Apple, which had knocked it out of the top spot in 2010.’

Nadella is alert to trends – in the same article, read how he handled recent sexism complaints, and how he is responding to corporate responsibility and regulatory issues.

The other CEO we talked about was Zhang Ruimin, CEO, Haier Group. He is known for his work, over his 30 years at the company, ‘in turning a little-known, bankrupt refrigerator manufacturer into the world’s fourth-largest white appliances company’.

Corporate Rebels, who visited the company,  report that, ‘Time after time, Zhang led Haier in the right direction at the right time. Haier seems addicted to change.  They manage to move before they really need to. They are rarely late in adapting.  They seem to have a masterful sense of timing—selecting the right moment to abolish the old and embrace the new. … Arguably the real uniqueness of Haier’s transformation journey lies in its constant attempts to adapt, and to continually experiment with its organizational structure to meet employee and user demands. They constantly challenge the status quo, and a clear change in management style can be observed in all the stages.’

One common Microsoft/Haier thread is that both CEOs have been with their organisations for decades. Let’s hope that they have the humility to know that they are not future-proofing their organisations but, from their experience of their organisation’s capability and context, guiding each – for a limited time – step by step into an unknown and unknowable future.

Do you think you can future proof organisations?   Let me know.

Image: Ozymandias, Chaaya Prabhat

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