Watch: How to lead from the future

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How can we plan for the future when everything seems so uncertain? How do we still inspire and give clarity to those we manage, for those of us that do?

Mark W. Johnson, who co-founded the management consulting firm Innosight with the late Clayton Christensen, says the answer is “future-back thinking,” a process leaders can use to plan and build a better, more sustainable future. He details the concept in his new book, Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth.

In the video above, part of our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop series, Johnson spoke with Quartz executive editor Heather Landy about how to create a new vision for the future, even in the midst of unprecedented current events. Here’s what we learned.

Avoiding the “present-forward fallacy”

When locomotive technology was invented in the 19th century, it revolutionized the movement of people and supplies. But early on, Johnson says, it was hard to imagine exactly how locomotives would change the way we traveled. Instead, “the paradigm was to put stage coaches behind the trains.”

That’s a perfect example of what he calls the present-forward fallacy. Most businesses tend to plan for the future by assuming that current norms, processes, and technologies will continue on indefinitely. But as the coronavirus pandemic has driven home, it’s important to acknowledge that current norms can change drastically—and to plan accordingly.

The importance of “future-back thinking”

The alternative to the present-forward fallacy is “future-back thinking.” This involves temporarily letting go of what we know about how businesses typically operate, now and in the past, and imagining what the world might look like years down the line, and what we can do to position ourselves to succeed within that new structure.

“It’s clean-sheet thinking, as opposed to building off of what things are today,” Johnson says. “Asking questions about what could be, as opposed to what is.”

How far out should businesses look, exactly? Typically, Johnson recommends thinking five to 10 years down the line. “We want to go to a time horizon where you’re getting outside the noise and fighting over the present,” he says.

That said, in the wake of the current pandemic, it may make sense for many companies to apply future-back thinking to the next 12 to 24 months.

Striking a balance

Most business leaders pour the bulk of their time and energy into helping their companies navigate the present-day environment. When you’re already overwhelmed by planning for the next year, it can be hard to imagine prioritizing a conversation about five-year forecasting.

But Johnson says there’s no need to aim for a 50-50 split between present and future thinking. “Most businesses should spend 90% of their time on the present-forward, on the core operations, operating and executing,” he says. “The question is, how do you carve out 10% or 20% of time to explore, to envision, to discover?”

Making time for the future

BMW offers a useful model for implementing future-back thinking. “The automotive industry is going through so much transformation,” Johnson says. To stay abreast, BMW’s leadership team decided to spend a full day once a quarter talking about the future, asking questions like “What are we learning?” and “What are the implications?”

For executives who feel they can’t afford to spend one day every three months, or a few hours a week, on future-back thinking, the answer is straightforward (if hardly simple), Johnson says: “You’ve got to delegate more.”

People are often skeptical about the value of attempting to see into the future; after all, predictions are often wrong, Johnson notes. But he says the point isn’t to imagine the future with 100% accuracy. “It’s about trying to get some insights and some clarity. It’s not a photograph you’re trying to create, you’re trying to create an Impressionist painting.”