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How to think like a futurist

By NZ Business on Monday, 16 October 2017


Futurist Dave Wild explains how to spot trends before they become disruptive; and how changing your mindset can secure business certainty in an uncertain future.

We live in a time of fast-moving and unpredictable change.


As a futurist I’ve been as guilty as anyone for talking up how fast-moving and unpredictable the modern business environment is. 

The age of disruption. The trend is so well established it even has its own acronym, VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

Now I’m not denying that those factors exist. Or claiming that the future is entirely predictable. If it was, life would be incredibly dull. There’d be no point in ever making any decisions, as everything would already be a predictable foregone conclusion.

At the same time if the world was completely unpredictable, we simply couldn’t operate. From eating to sustain ourselves, to operating a business to make a profit, the laws of cause and effect enable us to make our own way in the world.

The richness of life and business comes from this balance we live in – between the states of unpredictable and predictable. Which is where opportunity and risk lie.

So the role of a futurist is to identify early signals of future shifts, in amongst the noise and complexity of the modern business environment. To better enable leaders to create the future, rather than be disrupted by it.

If you consider the mechanics of how disruption works in the natural environment, it gives you clues as to how to create or avoid disruption in the business environment. Think of a still surface of water suddenly being disrupted – whether it’s by a pebble skimming the surface or a fish leaping from below.

If you just look at the surface, the sudden disruption will seem to appear out of nowhere. However if you’re constantly scanning the wider environment and looking deeper below the surface, you can spot signs of movement far earlier than others.

Then well before the surface disruption arrives at the point of impact, you can trace a trajectory of movement signalling possible disruption. Which highlights why it’s all about probabilities and new possibilities, not predictions and certainties.

For example, as the fish heads towards the surface, many other factors might cause it to change direction. Or if you’ve ever skipped a pebble across water, you know that it’s virtually impossible to predict how many skips it will make.

So thinking like a futurist doesn’t require dealing in absolutes and certainties. Instead it’s about being comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Spotting changes in movement ahead of your competition and others, giving you more time to react – whether you choose to brace for impact, change course or accelerate ahead.

Not so fast

It’s due to these underlying market dynamics that what seems like fast-moving overnight change, is typically playing out far more slowly over the course of a decade. 

While well-established business owners and leaders become entrenched in their habits of the past, a new generation of businesses and their customers shift from startup to mainstream. From business as unusual to business as usual.

For example, many businesses are still busy adapting to current trends, as they mobilise their customer interactions and digitise their business operations. Guided by modern business strategies such as “Mobile First” and “Digital Transformation.” 

However, these aren’t future trends. They’re past shifts just continuing their natural course.

Meanwhile, businesses large and small are failing to spot the signals all around them of the next likely disruptions ahead. For example – a future where it’s not simply about mobile technology but wearable technology. If you’ve had to invest in reworking your customer interfaces to go from large computer screens to small mobile screens, you know what a significant undertaking that is. And how it could have been made easier if you’d been alerted to the need earlier – whether it was structuring your databases differently or selecting alternative platforms.

Meanwhile all around you smartwatches are gradually shifting from novelty to commonplace. While mobile apps are now more than a decade old, we’re just approaching an inflection point for the rise of smartwatches with their radically different interface requirements. 

Further ahead, while smartglasses have yet to hit the mainstream as consumer devices, they’re now gaining significant momentum in industries such as manufacturing.

Not to mention the more immediate shift to no visible interface at all – whether it’s waving your arm to pay, looking at a screen to unlock, or interacting with your digital assistant by voice.

For example, more than half of all Google searches are now on mobile, with more than 20 percent of those by voice. How does that reflect your own search habits? 

In other words are you living in the past, present or future?

Make the change

At first this adjustment might seem difficult. However with a shift in mindset it’s possible to do. To make the change, you need to make more of your uniquely human qualities. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence it’s now more important than ever to make the most of your own Superhuman Intelligence.

So think like a futurist by flexing your mindset in four distinct directions:

Progressive – Keep your eyes and mind open wider than others. Look for changes in how those around you are living and working. Don’t look for what’s popular or commonplace, because change begins at the edges.

Leveraged – Go beyond what you can see on the surface. Dig deeper by talking to those with habits and beliefs different to your own; different to your established customer base. Look beyond the shiny allure of new technology to discover the people and human insights behind the change.

Experimental – Remember if the direction is certain and proven, everyone else most likely knows it too. Competitive advantage is gained through innovation by taking risks. But it’s not about embracing failure. Instead think like a scientist and manage risk by running future-focused experiments to gain early data.

Active – Your advantage as an entrepreneur is that while others just talk about what might be, you’re well used to doing the hard work to actually make it happen. So think by doing and disrupt yourself before others can.

Above all else remember it’s not about predicting an uncertain future – it’s about creating an inspired future for us all.

Source: NZ Business


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