1) Bring in outsiders to challenge your world view
The greatest risk to any business is institutional blindness.
When too many bankers spend too much time with bankers, the result is a sub-prime crisis. Too many generals playing too many war games with too many other generals in the same nation, and the result can be disaster.
So seek out advice from experts, consultants, innovators – people who think very differently to you and others in your company.
2) Listen to your customers – but don’t believe them
Always take what your customers tell you seriously. Fix their problems. Make life easier. But don’t believe them when it comes to predicting the future.
Get to know your customers well, with deep insights into how they think and feel, and then try to imagine how they may behave in a very different kind of future world. One of the best ways to find those insights is to pretend to be a customer in your own business as a “mystery shopper”. Every senior manager should do that at least once a month.
3) Read widely – and be curious about all you meet
I wrote The Future of Almost Everything as a one-stop guide to the future of every industry, region and market. Many of the insights came from reading everything I can get my hands on – unfamiliar magazines in airports, blogs by influential people, newspapers like the Financial Times, and other key publications like the Economist.
The key is to challenge your own views on the future, rather than just absorb the forecasts made by others.
One of the fastest ways to stay ahead of change is to be constantly curious about the lives of those you meet. For example, when you arrive in a new city, talk to your taxi driver who will likely be a very reliable guide to what is really going on, if the local economy is picking up, who is spending what and where.
4) Review your strategies every year
The world is changing faster than you can hold a board meeting, which means that you need to have more than one strategy. Bring your team together regularly to think again. Develop contingencies to stay ahead of constant change. What are you going to do if….
Focus on major long-term trends, which change relatively slowly and you already understand most of your future. Things like demographics, growing life expectancy, the relentless fall in price of most technologies, rapid pace of globalization, rise of emerging markets and so on.
The rest will be driven by Wild Cards – low probability, high impact events – but there are a huge number of them, and in a hyper-connected world, their combined impact can be awesome. Remember that in every risk or challenge there is a new business opportunity.
5) Agile leadership teams
And finally, prepare for rapid change, by developing more agile teams. That means simplifying decision-making, giving more power to local teams to innovate, diversify and respond to events rapidly. Recruit and promote leaders who cope well with ambiguity and uncertainty, who enjoy taking initiative, have courage and are great collaborators.
Agility is so much easier when you have completed steps 1-4 above. When you have a dynamic view of your future, and have mapped out different possible directions depending on what happens around you.
* My new book is published by Profile Books at the end of August. Pre-order today: http://tinyurl.com/o296kqa