The following is a conversation between Josh Suskewicz, Co-Author of Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: With the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic turndown, the tyranny of the present has never been more pronounced. My next guest believes, however, that in these uncertain times, the ability for an organization to look into the future, as much as 10 years, is more important than ever. He is Josh Suskewicz, a Partner at Innosight and Co-Author of the book Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Josh!
Josh: Thank you, Denver. Great to be here.
Denver: In the book, you present two ways of thinking. One is Present-Forward. The other is Future-Back. What’s the difference between them?
Josh: We wanted to provide a simple definition for modes of thought that are probably pretty intuitive and that we might not consciously think about too much. So when we talk about present-forward thinking, it’s the notion that we take today’s reality, our assumptions about how things work today, and project them into the future. And we contrast that with future-back thinking, which is to set aside today’s reality, think carefully about what the future is likely to bring, and then work backwards from there.
Denver: Let’s unpack those a little bit, starting with present-forward. You talk about this “present-forward fallacy.” What is that?
Josh: So the present-forward fallacy relates to a whole host of cognitive biases that we’ve come to understand in a much deeper way in recent years. It’s simply the notion that we tend to think that the way things work now is more stable than it actually is. We tend to think, consciously or unconsciously, that what exists today will perpetuate into the future, and our arena of action is to figure out what to do, how to maximize within that current reality. As a result, we tend to bias towards moves that focus on today’s reality as opposed to thinking carefully about how things are likely to change and what we can do about that.
Denver: What are the reasons that so many organizations, so many leaders, get locked into this present-forward way of thinking?
Josh: There’s a whole host of reasons, Denver, and it works at different levels. I’d start with the individual. So what you just talked about, we have these cognitive biases that tend to make it much, much more compelling to focus on the here and now, which, in a year like this one, is more apparent than ever.
Denver: For sure.
Josh: We talk about the tyranny of the urgent. And, of course, the challenge there is we can’t heat our houses by burning the furniture. We can’t just focus on what’s going on today, right in front of us. We actually have to step outside of the tyranny of the urgent, deal with today’s problems, but also look ahead. So there’s a whole host of cognitive processes that keep us as individuals focused on the near term.
These then tend to be locked in by organizational processes that provide rewards and incentives in organizations of all kinds, be it corporations, nonprofits, governments, et cetera. They provide incentives to focus on the here and now and control the known factors. And if you combine the organizational factors with the personal factors, we see a real inertia around the present.
Denver: That was really interesting. Josh, the average tenure of a CEO at a large public company is maybe about five years. Does that create a challenge in trying to get them to look as far ahead as 10 years?
Josh: It absolutely does. And it’s compounded by the fact that even if the average tenure is five years, the day-to-day pressures are such that most leaders of organizations need to be very, very concerned about delivering the mail immediately. So there’s quarterly earnings, for example, that absolutely need to be at the front of daily decisions. The real challenge that we face as leaders, and certainly true for leaders of big, complex public organizations, but also true for leaders of organizations of all kinds, is being ambidextrous. So being able to deliver short-term priorities while also setting a vision for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise that will fuel sustainable growth.
It’s about lifting your sight beyond the day-to-day, and recognizing that what got you here won’t necessarily get you there… There are just too many vectors of change, and it’s becoming increasingly important to develop the strategic agility to do two things at once: to succeed in today’s environments while planning for the future.
Denver: So how do companies and organizations arrive at that place where they recognize that future-back thinking is really going to be critical to their long-term survival and success?
Josh: It’s about lifting your sight beyond the day-to-day, and recognizing that what got you here won’t necessarily get you there. So today’s success formula is optimized for today. And in a world where changes were limited and were incremental in nature… and you can project out a trajectory, then today’s success formula– the strategies, the processes, the modes of thinking, would be highly appropriate.
But as this year has underscored, that is less and less true in more and more parts of the economy. There are just too many vectors of change, and it’s becoming increasingly important to develop the strategic agility to do two things at once: to succeed in today’s environments while planning for the future.
Denver: In terms of planning for the future, and I know there’s not a single answer to this, but how much time should be dedicated to looking out at this longer horizon?
Josh: It’s always relative to individual circumstance. Every organization is different. Every circumstance is different. But the fundamental point, Denver, is that this is not something that happens naturally or intuitively in the course of day-to-day business, especially, again, in a year like this one with the massive challenges that we’re all facing. And therefore, carving off time, even small amounts of time like 10%, say, of a leadership team’s time over a period of months, and creating the structure to do this deliberately goes a long way.
So again, I don’t want to prescribe like a general rule of thumb here because it’s different for everyone, but the point is: If you don’t make it happen, it’s probably not going to happen.
Denver: Let’s say somebody bought into this concept and they’ve even set aside the time, maybe 10% to 20% of their time, to do this, but they’re simply having a hard time getting out of their present orbit and coming up with anything. They think about the future, and there’s really nothing there that’s beyond their current thinking about the present. What do you recommend or advise that they do to address that?
Josh: It’s a good question, Denver, and I guess the first thing I’d say is that nobody has a crystal ball. No one knows exactly what the future’s going to hold. We use the analogy that what we’re really looking for here is an impressionist painting, not a high-definition photo, so maybe that’ll take the pressure off a little bit. And what we find is that even if we face resistance to this concept in the early days working with clients, an executive team together tends to know a lot more about the future than it gives itself credit for.
And there’s a bit of a leap of faith at the start; you just kind of have to jump into it. And what we encourage people to do in the early days is really immerse, to bring an open, naive mind to this exploration of the future, and then you can stimulate that in a number of ways. It can be as simple as having a handful of wide-ranging conversations. So, call up a venture capitalist or a theorist who thinks about the future, or people on the front lines of future-oriented projects in and around the spaces that you’re working in, and just listen. And what we tend to find is after a couple of these sessions, new ideas start to emerge.
So there is a bit of a leap of faith, but what we’d say is listen, read widely, have conversations, and then before you know it, you’re going to start to have a better picture of what’s likely to come next.
Denver: As you mentioned earlier — and that’s good advice — but as you mentioned earlier, these are tough times, and the CEO and the leadership team–they’ve really got their noses to the grindstone trying to survive. Can they delegate off the innovation to an innovation team? Or do they really need to stay actively involved in the process?
Josh: So I’m very sympathetic to how tough these times are, and, of course, we’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do to get through them. The challenge though is that the companies and the organizations that are going to dominate the post-pandemic phase are making significant changes now to set themselves up for the post-pandemic phase.
I think there’s a real risk to implicitly assuming that once we’re through this very, very challenging time, things are more or less going to go back to normal; things are more or less going to go back to a pre-pandemic normal. There are changes happening now that are going to persist. And all of us in our own lives, in our work lives, need to think carefully about what those changes are likely to produce.
And so, this is not something that can be delegated as a leader. You can certainly delegate some of the work. You can certainly delegate the execution of the implications of the work, but leaders themselves need to step up and lead here. This is absolutely part and parcel of the leader’s job today and into the future.
…the key is where you start and what your North Star is, as opposed to, again, working from the present forward where the unit of analysis, the center of gravity is today, and what you’re good at today, and how you compete today. If the center of gravity becomes what you aspire to, what you want to create in the future, then that makes a huge difference.
Denver: And, of course, they’re going to control the resources, so if they’re not at the table, it’s going to be really difficult to move anything forward. We’ve discussed the future part– 5, but more like 10 years ahead. How does the back part work? Is there a different approach, Josh, to planning when you’re starting from the end?
Josh: There is, but it’s not that complicated or not that far off of traditional strategic planning tools. So the key is where you start and what your North Star is, as opposed to, again, working from the present forward where the unit of analysis, the center of gravity is today, and what you’re good at today, and how you compete today. If the center of gravity becomes what you aspire to, what you want to create in the future, then that makes a huge difference.
So then it’s simply a matter of saying, “OK. This is who we’re going to be in the future, and if we can start, to really detail that out. So we’re going to be an organization that looks like X and Y and that competes in these spaces.” You can do a bit of a gap analysis and figure out what of that future organization is already relatively well in hand, what you already have today that will evolve into key elements of the future, and then what is not in hand, what the major gaps are. And then you can get pretty deliberate about backcasting from there.
So if you say, “OK. This is who we’re going to be in 2030. What would have to be true by 2027 in order to situate ourselves so that we could then evolve from 2027 into our 2030 vision? And then if that’s who we need to be in 2027, what would have to be true in 2025? And if that’s 2025, back to 2023, 2022, 2021…” And then, we actually have some pretty specific near-term goals to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction.
…the milestones should be truly learning-oriented. We shouldn’t be held to a rigid plan. We should be working in a general direction, and then adapting as we go, so long as the North Star of that long-term vision is guiding our pursuits.
Denver: It’s milestones looking backwards.
Josh: Yes. Exactly. So future-oriented milestones. And that’s an important word because the only other thing I’d emphasize about what’s different about this kind of planning is that it assumes a much more entrepreneurial mode than traditional strategic planning.
So we have our future direction; we have our milestones, but the only thing we know at the start is that there’s going to be a lot that we don’t know and that we’re going to have to discover as we go. So the milestones should be truly learning-oriented. We shouldn’t be held to a rigid plan. We should be working in a general direction and then adapting as we go, so long as the North Star of that long-term vision is guiding our pursuits.
Denver: Got it. So what kind of mindset have you observed among leaders and among teams who are successful in balancing this future-back and present-forward thinking?
Josh: There’s a couple of key elements to the mindset. First is, just recognizing this duality and the need for two ways of thinking. So the ability to execute with excellence in the present, while also having the ability to step outside of that and think creatively and inspirationally about the future. So I think that’s the first fundamental piece of the mindset.
Another piece implicit in that, as we talked about a moment ago, is an openness to learning and immersion and an insatiable curiosity about the future. And then the third really important piece is a deep mission-orientation. So really, a deep and abiding sense of purpose. So this is about shaping a future for the better. It’s about designing the future of your organization. It’s about increasing the impact that you’re going to have in the world.
And that all can be nice to say, but when we’re kind of in our day-to-day and trying to keep the lights on and trying to execute on our projects, and, again, especially in a year as challenging as this one, the power of an abiding purpose becomes really, really apparent. It becomes very, very easy in the absence of an abiding sense of purpose to fall into this present-forward mindset.
If we’re constantly revivified and re-energized by this North star, then we can go above and beyond the present. And one of the key elements of a leader’s role is to not only set the vision, but continually reinforce the vision to rally the organization above and beyond their current trajectory.
Denver: Do you think this pandemic is going to make future-back thinking even more important than it already was?
Josh: Well, I’m partisan on that issue, of course.
Denver: I didn’t think I’d get an objective answer.
Josh: Right. But in a sense, that it’s more important than ever before because we all have a sense that things are changing. We all know that we can’t quite keep up with the pace of change in our day-to-day lives. And the tyranny of the urgent is more tyrannical than ever, and those are very, very real things. In a sense, it’s just heightened the challenge and opportunity of future-back thinking. It’s made it harder to do, but it’s made the reward for doing it greater than ever before.
Denver: What have you found is the hardest thing to do about it, from the organizations that you’ve worked with? Where do they stumble?
Josh: Zooming in on 2020, every time we think we got a handle on this pandemic and what’s coming next, we’re served up a dose of reality. And anyone who tells you that they can predict the next three or six or nine months is selling you something. So, that constant undertow of uncertainty this year is just unprecedented in our recent lifetime, and that’s made it really, really hard to have the stability to think about the future. So I’d say that’s been a real challenge, a particular challenge this year.
The biggest challenge overall is maintaining an outside-in perspective. And what I mean by that is even if you can momentarily set aside the realities of your business, momentarily set aside the urgencies of the day-to-day, and think objectively about the future, it’s like a force of gravity constantly pulling you back. And you have to do a lot of work to keep the satellite in orbit, if you will, and to not let the kind of present-forward modes of thinking, ways of interpreting the world, end up dominating and shaping your long-term innovation agenda. It’s all too easy to reshape a great idea into a very, very incremental change that does not actually get you on a different trajectory.
Denver: Part of it, I think, is your comfort level, too. You have to be willing to get into that un-comfort zone because we are more comfortable with the present and just extrapolating what’s going on. And this, as you said earlier, is a leap of faith, and sometimes people, particularly leaders who want to be in control, this is a pretty uncomfortable place for many of them to be, I would guess.
Josh: It’s a great point. It is a very uncomfortable place, based on how we think, based on how we train, based on how our organizations are set up and the processes we follow. If you think about it, so much of modern organizational life is about stamping out risk and asserting control.
A simple example would be we’ve developed a product, and we’ve got to ship that product globally and make sure it’s on time and at quality, and all of that. And in order to do that, we create these vast webs of organizations that are designed to do the same thing well again and again and again. And that’s exactly what you need to do until you need to do something different, and our systems are not developed to encourage exploration, and creativity, and change.
And so often, everything that’s made you a really, really successful executive, again, in the private sector or the public sector, for-profit or nonprofit, is the management of today’s complex organization, which is a very different mindset and skillset from the entrepreneurial development of fundamentally disruptive new growth platforms. And so that’s where the dexterity that we discussed earlier comes in.
Denver: I think a lot of CEOs like to have all the answers, and when you start going out 10 years, you really even the playing field with everybody in the organization, and that sometimes is a place where they’re not used to being.
You discuss in the book religious organizations, Josh, nonprofit organizations, who are looking to tackle some of society’s most vexing problems. How does this apply to them? How will they benefit from this? What advice would you offer to nonprofits who want to adapt this Lead from the Future model?
Josh: We’ve primarily developed our thinking and the toolkit associated with it in the corporate world, in for-profit situations. But what we’ve found is that many of the same dynamics apply, and sometimes even apply more in nonprofit settings because, of course, nonprofits, religious organizations, organizations of all kinds are subject to the same psychological factors at the individual level and the group level that we find in corporations.
And the fundamental principles here about setting today’s realities aside, thinking carefully about the future, developing an inspirational-aspirational vision for who and what your organization should be in the future, and then carefully working back from there… those principles absolutely apply across settings, and we hope that nonprofit leaders find inspiration and a useful toolkit here as well.
Denver: And finally, Josh, you touched on this a little bit, but why don’t you speak more about it, and that is the implications of this approach for 21st-century management.
Josh: If we pull back for a minute, and we touched on some of the themes earlier, but so much of how we’re trained, so much of how our organizations are implicitly run, has to do with what we defined as 20th-century management– which is the productization and then global scaling of ideas or of new things. And the way we work has optimized for situations that are relatively stable and predictable. And there’s real benefit in that that’s underscored the massive developments and productivity around the world, but I think what’s becoming more and more apparent are the costs associated with that as well.
And when we talk about 21st-century management, it comes down to this ambidexterity — this ability to operate and execute with excellence in situations that are relatively stable and require concerted and sustained effort to build out a position that already exists, while simultaneously having the ability to creatively and imaginatively– and with inspiration and purpose– think carefully about what the future is going to hold, and then go about shaping that future.
And again, we see those as two distinct but, in the best cases, complementary mindsets and skillsets. And our belief is that given all the vectors of change, given the increasing pace of change, the best leaders going forward will be the ones who can master both mindsets and skillsets simultaneously.
Denver: I hear exactly what you’re saying, too, because the complementary nature is if you think about the future, it’s actually going to inform the present, and you’ll be better in that as well.
The book is Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth. Ironically, the more uncertain the future becomes, the more important it is for organizations to plan for it. Thanks, Josh, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Josh: Thank you very much.
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