From Where We Sit

Developing multiple futures

Anton Ng Anton Ng

One afternoon, I was sitting across a table from my two daughters. My two-year-old was eating her snack: a chocolate wafer. After putting it in her mouth, she got hold of her green plastic cup and reached for something in it. When she opened her hand, there was a small piece of ice. She then slowly brought her palm toward her mouth. I saw excitement in her eyes as her palm came closer. But as she was about to eat the ice, her palm slightly tilted, causing the ice to slip and fall to the floor.

My six-year-old would have done better in eating that ice, because I am pretty sure a similar incident also happened to her before. Speaking of her, there was a time she was busy arranging our fruit basket. I saw pomelos, star apples and bananas, though there was something weird in the basket: the bananas were scattered. I knew immediately that the move was not a good idea. True enough, within hours, we had to consume around 10 bananas that afternoon, or else they would be overripe.

Because of their lack of experience, my girls did not show good judgment in these actions.

Good judgment normally comes from experience. But what if we do not have enough of it to foresee what would happen or what is already happening? This year, I doubt there are a lot of people who can claim to have experienced something similar. There is not much experience in dealing with a pandemic, where most people are forced to stay at home, mobility is limited and behaviors are dramatically changed.

How, then, do we take our next courses of action, both at a personal and organizational level? What would our strategies be moving forward? What does the future even look like now?

In his article “Learning from the Future” in the Harvard Business Review, Peter Scoblic talks about the importance of having strategic foresight in times such as this. He used the phrase “there are no futurists in foxholes” to warn organizations about being too consumed with survival during a crisis that they often forget to look into what lies beyond their respective foxholes. Though survival is integral, one should not neglect the fact that many of our actions today have consequences in the future. So despite what could come next, leaders are still required to have foresight.

Before the pandemic, organizations would establish a goal that is achievable in a certain timeline. Strategies would be crafted to support meeting it. In our current situation, where there are no previous experiences to draw from and with the future filled with uncertainty, defining strategies, let alone a goal, is no longer as straightforward as before.

I have seen organizations meet more frequently to check not only whether they are still on right track to reach their goals, but also consider whether those goals are still the most appropriate ones for them. This frequently revisiting goals and strategies is part of how Scoblic envisions an organization with strategic foresight. It involves an iterative process that requires leaders to constantly reappraise past decisions, current actions and future directions.

Before an organization revisits and reappraises its strategies, it is important for it to identify factors and assumptions that would have an impact on the future. This process would enable leaders to craft multiple plausible future scenarios. This is possibly very much different from how it was done in the past, in which only a single future state is identified.

By imagining multiple plausible futures, an organization will prime itself for multiple futures, which increases its readiness and ability to jump from one direction to another.

The interaction of the assumptions and factors that would create multiple futures might change or be actually different as we move into the future. This is where organizations need to regularly revisit and revise scenarios as they obtain new information.

From the multiple future scenarios developed, organizations can identify strategies that would support each one. Those that can cut across multiple scenarios can be considered priority strategies.

We have heard many times that implementation is the key to achieve organizational goals.

Coming up with strategies is easy, but implementing them is not. More so, I suppose, in implementing strategies anchored on multiple futures, which are supported by assumptions with no sufficient historical backups. How do we then find organizational support in their implementation? This is where strong leadership comes into play, one not fixed on a single future, but open to having multiple scenarios, with each could be considered viable for the organization in the future.

As we step into the unknown, it is high time for us to develop new ways of creating our paths moving forward. The success of our organizations, whatever that may look, would be largely dependent on the path that we would pursue today.

Anton Ng is a partner of the Audit and Assurance Division of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines with 24 partners and more than 900 staff members. We’d like to hear from you! Tweet us: @GrantThorntonPH; “like” us on Facebook: P&A Grant Thornton; and email your comments to anton.ng@ph.gt.com or pagrantthornton@ph.gt.com. For more information, visit www.grantthornton.com.ph.

 

As published in The Manila Times, dated 16 September 2020