3 top tips to boost your future-readiness

24 July 2017
Author: Kathy Peach

Effective leaders are long-term thinkers according to research published by McKinsey and Harvard Business Review.

McKinsey found that organisations who take a long-term view tend to outperform others, while research published in Harvard Business Review found that successful CEOs spend as much as fifty per cent of their time thinking about the long term - so that they can adapt proactively.

At a recent workshop for Save the Children’s senior leaders, I shared my three top tips to boost long-term thinking and decision-making. Here they are:

1. Don’t just know your trends. Analyse their implications.

Climate change, urbanisation and technology are just some of the trends reshaping the development and humanitarian landscapes. Becoming familiar with these shifts should be high on the "to do" list of any current or aspiring leader. Bond’s Tomorrow’s World Report, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, and Future Agenda will give you a great overview. For politics geeks, the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report shouldn’t be missed, and anyone wanting an accessible guide to today’s tech trends should read FTI’s Tech Trends 2017.

But choppy waters lie ahead for NGOs, and if you want to avoid being capsized you’ll also need to think through the implications of these trends too. The Futures Wheel is a great tool to help you do this in a structured way. First, brainstorm all the consequences of a trend, and capture them in a mind map. Next, take each consequence you’ve written down and ask "what could happen next?" Add these to your diagram. Keep repeating the process for as long as you can manage. Try to think of positive and negative consequences, and don’t be afraid of capturing divergent possibilities.

It’s a simple-to-use tool but can lead you to surprising new places. Space, for example, came up on one group’s futures wheel as both a potential source of future conflict between nation states, and a potential antidote to growing nationalism, conflict and inequality on Earth. Bonkers? Perhaps not if you pause to consider that Africa has already set out its plans to join the space race, or that you can already apply to be a citizen of Asgardia - the first space nation. Give the Futures Wheel a go, and you’ll hopefully identify some blindspots and some opportunities that hadn’t been on your radar before.

2. Prepare for multiple potential futures

How many potential different futures do you consider when you make your decisions? A common mistake made by lots of leaders is to plan for just one future – usually their preferred one, or the one they think is most likely to happen. Do this and you’ll fail to test your strategies against other possibilities or to spot signs that a radically different future may be emerging.

Stop yourself falling into this trap by working with multiple future scenarios. Scenarios are essentially short stories that help you explore a wider range of potential futures, where trends interact in different ways, or sudden shocks have altered the direction of travel.

You can either create your own, or use existing ones to kick-start your foresight muscles and challenge some of the assumptions you never knew you held. The World Economic Forum’s Scenarios for the Future of Civil Society is great if you can’t imagine a world without charities. The three scenarios in the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report are useful if you want to stay politically influential as Western dominance ends. And Forum for the Future’s scenarios for Low-Income Countries in 2030 have fab films - making them perfect for workshops (even if the scenarios themselves are somewhat old now), and especially good if your NGO is still only paying lip service to climate change.

3. Find the fringe

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

This ubiquitous quote by William Gibson reminds us that the seeds of the future are already present today. If you want to get a glimpse into the future, stop focusing on what other international NGOs are doing and look to the fringe. The truly ground breaking ideas rarely start in the mainstream, so look for the unusual suspects: there is a high chance you’ll find someone, somewhere already trying to create the future.

The global development space is crammed full of new players that make most international NGOs look positively 19th century. Consider the tech-savvy start-ups such as Bitnation using blockchain to create digital IDs for refugees; the corporate spin-offs including Air bnb’s new humanitarian division; citizen-led crowdsourcing initiatives such as Kawal Pemilu in Indonesia which counted election votes in real time; and financial innovators like MiCRO who provide insurance against extreme weather events to small holder farmers and other poor people in Haiti.

As international NGOs grapple with the need to transform and innovate, those who embrace and join forces with these "development mutants" are likely to get ahead of the pack. The brilliant Giulio Quaggiotto, who first coined the term "development mutants", is a must-follow for anyone wanting to understand these new organisations as they proliferate and evolve.

So, those are my top three tips. What do you think? How else can NGO leaders make better decisions for the long-term? Thoughts welcome…

Bond's Business Model Innovation course helps NGO leaders to create future-fit organisations and develop new models to meet changing needs.

About the author

Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach is co-head of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta