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(Tech)Tonic Shifts: A future back approach

Suresh Dinakaran
Filed on August 24, 2020 | Last updated on August 24, 2020 at 12.36 pm


Suresh Dinakaran, Chief Storyteller, ISD Global, Dubai, and Managing Editor at BrandKnew

The future happens slowly.. and then all of a sudden. In his fabulous 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that bankruptcy happens in two ways: "Gradually and then suddenly"

Present Forward or Future Back?

Some years back Andy Grove (ex-CEO, Intel) had introduced the concept of strategic inflection points in his seminal book Only the Paranoid Survive where he explained that a strategic inflection point is "a time in the life of a business when it's fundamentals are about to change".

A change in the business environment that dramatically shifts some elements of your activities, throwing certain taken-for-granted assumptions into question is an inflection point. Someone, somewhere, sees the implications, but all too often they are not heard. That someone might be you.
Whether you are a powerful CEO or someone far lower down in the pecking order, not seeing the unfolding inflection points (or blind spots) are dangerous.

What is the case we are making here? Too many managers develop strategy while focusing on problems in the present and that is especially true in the times of a crisis (like the Covid-19 pandemic that we are presently pulverised by). Let's call it 'drinking soup using a fork'. What I am trying to argue here is that leaders instead should imagine the future and work backward so that they build their organisations and brands for the new (emerging and unclear) reality.

Even during a crisis that the region and the entire world is facing, developing a "future-back" mindset can spur innovation and growth.

So, in order to build strategy, start with the future

Let's take a look at a few examples of brands and organisations that have used the "future-back" approach to stunning effect.

Back in the late 90s and the turn of the millennium, Intel was ruling the roost. With a market share well over 70 per cent, the brand was well and truly in the driver's seat (apart from being inside millions of computers) with the Pentium Processor going from strength to strength.

At the height of that market dominance, Andy Grove took a visionary punt and launched a brand to compete against its very own Pentium- that was the Celeron range of Processors. What he did was to see the future being dominated by cheaper, faster processors (Moore's Law) and he did not want Intel to lose out on the potential opportunity that lay ahead of them. That saying Andy Grove was visionary would be an understatement and how prescient the observation in his book "When spring comes, snow melts first at the periphery, because that is where it is most exposed", bears testimony. Intel Inside. Meets Intelligence and Insight!

Take another example of the "future-back" approach that Reed Hastings, Founder/CEO of Netflix adopted to reach where it is today. At the height of their DVD rental business success, they ventured into streaming (encouraging both cannibalisation and migration of their existing subscriber base) anticipating that the medium to long-term future of in home entertainment will hinge on that.

Not just that, look at their understanding of the competitive landscape - it went well beyond the typical television broadcast networks and cable TV of the day. They distilled the big picture into getting their prospect's time and attention. Broadened the ecosystem significantly. Rather made it a category by itself. So, in effect, the competition included time their viewer/s spent going to movie houses, eating out, entertaining friends and family, travel and holidays, etc. By wearing a different lens and examining a hitherto unseen/untried approach, helped them immensely in becoming the brand they are today.

No conversation about a "future-back" model and a vision preceding strategy would be complete without talking about Steve Jobs and Apple. Back in the day, the way they disrupted music consumption and music distribution through iTunes and iPod is now part of folklore. They did not wait for either the market or the customer to tell them what is needed. They took moonshots (it's in the culture), created highly desirable products that the customer never knew they wanted or would need and generated unprecedented gravitas, and the rest they say is history. Apple as a brand and Steve Jobs as a leader was always seeing around corners, anticipating trends and operated at the intersection of a new future and non-articulated consumer need and desire.

Let me add here. 'Customer knows best' is a whole load of balderdash. If organisations were to depend on customers to know what is needed, there would not have been any Post It Notes (3M), Fax Machines (Xerox) and many of today's incredibly successful brands like Amazon, Tesla, Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, Zomato etc. The onus and responsibility of drawing the future and working backward from there is fully on you, your brand, your organisation. So, don't run away from it. Take it head on.

While we debate the vision vis--vis strategy and the "future-back" model to a "present-forward" one, do be aware that a vision is like an 'impressionist painting' and NOT a 'photograph'. A photograph captures what there is already, there is no speculation, hedging, punting and imagining the non-existent. A vision on the other hand is similar to an impressionist painting in the sense that it is visualising what could/should be, what will/can be or what may/may not be. It is taking a shot at the future and setting the road to travel back from there.

To be blunt, getting through this tricky process of envisioning the future begins with confusion, experimentation and a touch of chaos followed by a single-minded determination to make progress against an overarching goal. And, an approach that futurist Paul Saffo recommends as creating as many forecasts as possible, failing as quickly as possible and vitally "to hold strong opinions weakly".
Another valuable perspective on this chaotic period of thinking is offered by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is anti-fragile.

It was February 4, 2014. Satya Nadella was announced as the new CEO of Microsoft, the third chief executive in the company's history, following Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Recognising that most of Microsoft's woes at the time were a function of an approach that was "present forward", the first thing he did was to tell everyone in the organisation "We are going to be moving away from a know it all organisation to a learn it all one".

Looking back on how well Microsoft is doing now compared to 2014, bears testimony to the potential for organisations in adopting a "future-back" model. Brands that didn't heed the "future-back" model and stuck to a present-forward one met their fate, in spite of being market leaders once upon a time include the likes of Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia, Toys 'R' Us.

There are other industries very ripe for the picking to drive home further the point of vision preceding strategy. The pharmaceutical sector for instance. Based on empirical evidence, learnings from past epidemics like SARS, Ebola, Swine Flu, emerging lifestyle patterns and the accompanying chronic diseases that it helps manifest (diabetes for one), a pharma company can seize opportunities and address customer pain points that will occur in the future. It's a totally different approach (at least for the pharma sector) which forecasts that "the way forward will mean selling a total experience, not just a product."

How do Telcos and OTT platforms prepare for the next set of data and content pressure in a new ecosystem that is doing work, leisure, entertainment, education etc all from home? How resilient can they build their business model and networks to keep up with the surge in data and content demand and the pressure on their networks?

Rather than look at Fall of 2020 or Spring of 2021, universities/colleges in the region (and outside) will be best served to go further down the road and see how do we cope, prepare and anticipate learning and training needs in the near distant future and move backward from there. With the current Covid-19 crisis having caught a lot of educational institutions severely under prepared and like a deer in the headlights with no wherewithal (and mindset) for virtual/online delivery, the time is now, to graduate, to look into the future.

So, 'Where do you go from here'? Or, rather, I should be asking 'Where are you coming back from'? Welcome to the 'next future'.

Suresh Dinakaran is a Chief Storyteller at ISD Global, Dubai, and Managing Editor at BrandKnew



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