Business Growth & Strategy

3 steps for envisioning the future (It’s a process!)

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Here’s something obvious: If you knew what would happen in the future, you could make better business decisions, better resource allocations, and better investments today.

Sorry to break the news: We can’t exactly see the future. But what if I told you that I have a simple (and fun) 3-step process that can help you and your team build a more concrete, probable and accurate vision of what’s likely to happen?

Then you could make better business decisions, better resource allocations, and better investments today.

I hereby predict that you will understand such a process very shortly (less than 5 minutes) and that sometime thereafter, you will use this process with your team to do exactly that.

I’ve used this process countless times with more than a hundred groups, with individual clients, and three times to launch my start-ups, CoManage Corp., TalkShoe.com, and Locaitor.ai, the last of which is in the process of being born and is still in stealth mode.

An aside: Geez, this font. Who thought it was a good idea to make a capital “I” (a.k.a. “i”) and a lowercase “l” (a.k.a. “L”) look almost identical? Not somebody who wanted to avoid confusing Al (as in Alfred) with AI (as in Artificial Intelligence). I predict that in the future, when AI (Artificial Intelligence, not Al) becomes much smarter than humans, it will redesign all fonts to avoid such confusion.

What were we talking about again? Oh yes, predicting the future. Here’s the 3-step process:

Step No. 1: Predict a scenario that will occur in the next 5 years

Considering the many facets of your business, assemble as diverse a group of people as possible. I’m thinking of employees, suppliers, customers, and maybe some hippies off the street because “none of us is as smart as all of us.”

We can thank COVID-19 for making it easier than ever to assemble such ad hoc groups because video conferencing is now a universally accepted business tool/skill. Want proof?

In December 2019 (pre-pandemic), peak usage on Zoom was 10 million people per day. By the following April (four short months that felt like a really long time), peak usage on Zoom hit 300 million. That’s amazing, to say nothing of Microsoft Teams video and other videoconferencing services.

Next, pick your date of interest. It can be any date, but I think most companies would benefit from having a more coherent 5-year vision, so let’s set the date as Jan 1, 2029.

With that date in mind, brainstorm with your group for 10 to 15 minutes about things that might happen within those 5 years. Consider possible technology developments as well as potential market developments. In this step, there are no bad ideas.

Once you have a comprehensive and wide-ranging list, pick one of those scenarios to expand in Step 2. It could be the development you consider to be the most probable, the most damaging (if it occurred), or the most interesting to explore. Step 2 can be repeated for multiple scenarios, one at a time.

Step 2: Imagine that new normal

Assume that it is now that future date and that the selected scenario has occurred. That’s the mental trick. Put yourself and your team on the other side of it.

Discuss the implications of the occurrence. Go on as long as necessary. You’ll almost certainly find that as one person shares an observation, it sparks ideas in others. The conversation is likely to be lively for half an hour or more.

If you’d like a scenario to warm up your group, try imagining the world of autonomous vehicles (entirely possible within 5 years).

As people start talking about the implications, the discussion will ping-pong from newly productive “ride” time (no longer “drive” time), to where people will choose to live, to fewer accidents, deaths, and injuries, to lower insurance rates, to more vehicles per road lane per hour, to more total miles with fewer total vehicles, to overnight sleeper cars, and so on.

Step 3: Pick a threat or opportunity to address

Having explored the implications in Step 2, the potential threats and opportunities become more evident. You can then choose which to address, and which to pursue.

And there you have it! As I said in the opening, it’s a simple (and fun) 3-step process.

When prediction becomes reality

In the late ’90s, my soon-to-be business partner Andy Fraley and I could see the coming change of telecom networks from circuit-based (relatively deterministic and predictable) to packet-based (more complex and statistical in operation).

We foresaw the need for new tools to manage such networks and cofounded CoManage Corp. to create these tools. Sprint and AT&T Wireless became early customers. CoManage was acquired by Syndesis in 2005.

As that acquisition was nearing completion (and because Syndesis didn’t need a second CEO), I saw a new opportunity in creating audio content for people carrying iPods. I launched TalkShoe.com to allow anybody to essentially host their own talk radio show and broadcast either live or on-demand to the new army of iPod owners. In 2005, there were no iPhones, just iPods.

That’s why it’s called podcasting.

Yes, the technology evolved even as the original name did not. TalkShoe was acquired by Lotum in 2016. The service has been nicely refreshed in their hands and is still going strong after 19 years and counting.

The lesson? A better vision means better business decisions and better results. Try it yourself!

Want to learn more? Then be sure to register for Dave’s discussion, How Future-Focused CEOs Can Drive Innovation in Tech & AI, which includes a facilitated Q&A session with Vistage Chair Shaun Bradley.

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About the Author: Dave Nelsen

I joined Vistage as a founding member (CE 676) in 2003. I've started four tech companies, attracting $70MM in venture capital. I was recognized as E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year (2000) and as Vistage Best Speaker of the Year (2011). I've h…

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