Abraham Lincoln once stated, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” I like that sentiment because it’s action oriented. Like many of life’s activities, the road to action begins with a question: What’s next? The staff at Ideas for Leaders (IFL) explains, “Asking, ‘What’s Next?’ has always led humans throughout history to create a better future.” They add, “Answering, ‘What’s Next?’ is not an easy task in today’s ambiguous and complex world.” I believe answering the “What’s next?” question requires answering a series of “What if?” questions. Whenever you ponder the future you have to use what Peter Schwartz (@) calls The Art of the Long View. Other futurists simply refer to this activity as “what if” thinking or scenario analysis. The ambiguity noted by the IFL staff makes what-if thinking a critical part of any activity aimed at determining what’s next. If your company is not worried about what comes next, it’s setting itself up for failure. Alan Gershenhorn (@), Chief Commercial Officer at UPS, notes, “Competition is coming from all corners of the globe — and it’s not just traditional competitors who want to sneak up on you and eat your lunch. The next major threat to your business might not even exist yet.” Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysts Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny assert, “The ‘what if?’ school of thinking clearly has a place in the business world.”
Honing your nextsensing skills
There is a reason Schwartz calls scenario analysis an “art” rather than a “science.” Like any art, the skills required to do it well require both training and practice. The IFL staff notes, “Today, with the world more interconnected than ever, entire industries revolutionized by upstarts, social media networks connecting billions of users shaping consumer trends, international online business booming… in short, with the world more complex and ambiguous than ever before, answering ‘What’s next?’ is not easy. In the context of a world that offers more questions than clear-cut answers, leaders seeking to answer, ‘what’s next?’ will be required to have four ‘nextsensing’ skills.” Those skills are:
- The ability to stretch sensibilities. In his very interesting book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Getting people from diverse backgrounds to together to discuss challenges, or the future, is a great way to stretch sensibilities.
- The courage to take a stand. If you are unwilling to take a stand, you will never muster the resources to create the future you desire. The late Steve Jobs once stated, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
- The perseverance to create a new order. Courage and perseverance go hand in hand. Centuries ago Niccolo Machiavelli, in his classic The Prince, wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
- The confidence act with foresense. For me, acting with foresense means acting with conviction and grit. The IFL staff notes, “Nextsensing leaders don’t stand idly and wait for the future to hit; they are proactive and create their own futures. It isn’t easy but certain steps will help.” Those steps are: 1) “Make sure the profile of the business is understandable, shareable and buildable. Put in place a few, concise core principles to guide the company.” 2) “Clarify and emphasize future outcomes. Communicate a clear and important purpose.” 3) “Support others in their endeavors. Nextsensing leaders recognize that the best organizations are the ones with leaders at all levels.”
Today, cognitive technologies are valuable tools helping companies analyze what-if scenarios and helping them determine what’s next.
Leveraging cognitive technologies
River Logic analysts note, “For the first time in history, prescribing the best paths forward based on data-backed analytics — what we call prescriptive analytics — is within reach. A process known as scenario analysis allows organizations to determine outcomes from various inputs. For example, an organization can consider a range of economic, geopolitical, and technological issues, and create plans on how they might evolve into the future.” It should come as no surprise that the digital age has created new tools for helping companies create the future they desire. Barry Ritholtz (@ritholtz), Chairman and CIO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, notes, “Every so often, a business totally upends its industry and the phrase [‘paradigm shift’] is wholly applicable. Beyond mere iterations or gradual progress, these companies completely change how they and their competitors do business, from what they sell, to how they generate a profit.” He points to four such companies: Apple, Amazon, Uber, and Tesla. Their leaders created the future.
The worst possible future, of course, is extinction. McKinsey & Company analysts Marc de Jong and Menno van Dijk observe, “Let’s face it: business models are less durable than they used to be. The basic rules of the game for creating and capturing economic value were once fixed in place for years, even decades, as companies tried to execute the same business models better than their competitors did. But now, business models are subject to rapid displacement, disruption, and, in extreme cases, outright destruction.” Gershenhorn warns that company executives who focus on the “here and now” rather than the “now and later” are the ones most likely to put their company’s future in jeopardy.
The IFL staff concludes, “While nature lives, grows and evolves, humans imagine, invent and reinvent. They will never stop asking, ‘What’s Next’? And for that reason, they will never stop progressing. Progress is the key to sustainability for any organization and the essence of good leadership is to promote progress.” Cognitive technologies can play a significant role in helping business leaders innovate. Chad Steelberg (@ChadSteelberg), Founder and CEO of Veritone, explains, “For the first time in history, the innovation equation is about to change, for it is no longer solely dependent on human cerebral capacity and population growth. … AI will hyper-accelerate the rate of innovation as its algorithmic capabilities and computer-processing power outpace its biological equivalent.” Companies with the foresight to change with the times will find the future a welcoming place.
 Staff, “4 Nextsensing Skills to See what the Future Holds,” Ideas for Leaders, 3 March 2017.
 Alan Gershenhorn, “When the Next Threat to Your Business Might Not Exist Yet,” Longitudes, 22 May 2016.
 Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny, “Rethinking Scenarios,” bcg.perspectives, 12 October 2010.
 Staff, “Scenario Analysis: A Powerful Analytics Force,” River Logic, 8 April 2016.
 Barry Ritholtz, “When a Company Represents a Paradigm Shift,” IndustryWeek, 15 March 2018.
 Marc de Jong and Menno van Dijk, “Disrupting beliefs: A new approach to business-model innovation,” McKinsey Quarterly, July 2015.
 Chad Steelberg, “Why Artificial Intelligence Will Shift Human Innovation Into Overdrive,” Forbes, 10 May 2018.