Being forward-looking isn’t just important for your business results. It’s important for your people as well.
“Three years?” the leader on the other end of the phone line asked me as we spoke about developing her strategic plan. “We can barely manage thinking three weeks ahead.”
This leader isn’t alone. It’s not uncommon to find executives who are so in the weeds on this week’s problem or next week’s priority that they can’t even imagine what the short-term future holds.
Anyone who has ever gone for a backwoods hike knows that when we fail to look forward, we are more likely to trip over our own feet. Successful leadership requires keeping an eye on the road a little in front of you, and on the more distant horizon as well.
Being forward-looking isn’t just important for your business results. It’s important for your people as well. In fact, forward-looking is one of the top four characteristics people all over the world say they most admire in a leader. (The other characteristics: honest, competent, and inspiring, according to the research of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.) We disappoint our people when we fail to keep our eyesight above the weeds.
Thankfully, forward-thinking is a skill that can be developed. You don’t need an expensive training budget to develop your capacity for being forward-looking; it just takes a little time and a fair amount of imagination. Here are five ways to grow your capacity for being forward-looking:
#1: Get on the balcony.
You can’t see the future from where you’re standing in the weeds. Leadership scholars have long used the phrase “get on the balcony” to remind executives to look up from the immediate crisis and ask questions that push beyond what seems urgent at the moment.
How do you get on the balcony? Asking good questions of yourself and others is one of the best ways to do it—you’ll need questions that help the team shift perspectives and timeframes, and move you out of your silos into a broader view of the organization or the circumstances.
#2: Set aside time to research trends.
If you’re like me, your email inbox is full of newsletters you subscribed to with the intention of deepening your professional understanding and staying on top of your field’s edges. Right? Most of us never get to those emails because we intend to tackle them in a free moment that never quite arrives.
Instead, schedule one hour a month for researching trends. In your first month, identify three organizations in your industry and a few cross-industry groups (I recommend the Institute for the Future), then skim their “resources” or “insights” pages of their websites. Write down anything that catches your eye and consider how you might share the most interesting and relevant insights with colleagues. (Be sure to let them know how they should receive the message: is this mandatory reading? Fodder for conversation?)
In your second month, use your scheduled hour to interview an expert. (Find interview tips here.) Ask them what trends they’ve observed and what implications they anticipate for the industry. What are they reading to stay up to date?
Repeat this pattern, alternating research among trusted groups and expert interviews, every other month.
#3: Practice predicting the future.
Once you’ve done the first two items for a few months, open a notes document on your computer and write five predictions about the future. Focus on a 3- to 10-year timeframe. Once you’ve made your predictions, ask yourself this question: What should our organization be doing today to prepare for that future?
This can be a fun exercise for a team meeting or offsite retreat. Give people a little time to prepare (you can even share the ideas in #2 above), then ask them to write a prediction. Require everyone to submit at least one prediction.
#4: Use “imagine” questions.
Still struggling to feel like you’re getting any usable insights from your efforts at being more forward-looking? Begin using more “imagine” questions. These questions ask us to imagine a future where a specific outcome has happened. Describe that future in detail. Then ask, “to make that future possible, what do we need to do today? In three months? In three years?”
A few years ago, consultants from the Ad Lucem Group were working with a manufacturing firm who was experiencing a drought in innovation. It had been years since they’d developed any new products, and their market share was beginning to slip as a result. “Why are we so bad at innovation?” the vice president of engineering asked us.
We asked his team a different question. “Imagine a future where innovation abounds.” We asked team members to describe that future, and then to help us identify the investments it would take to get there. We discovered that even junior team members could contribute to the idea of an innovative future, and they had practical recommendations for making it possible as well.
#5: Invent something terrible.
Finally, one of the best ways to develop your capacity for being forward-looking is to stop thinking about what is practical and just let your thinking run wild. You need to build your creative capacity in order to anticipate the future. A little playfulness can help you do that.
With groups, I often use the terrible inventions exercise (an idea I borrowed from here). The rules are simple—give everyone two minutes to invent something terrible. Then ask everyone to share. Examples of terrible inventions: garlic flavored toothpaste or glass underwear.
You can do this exercise on your own too, just challenge yourself to invent ten terrible things every day for a week. Write them down like a mad scientist!
Why does this work? In meetings, this exercise can remind us to think at the edges, and to be creative without judgment during the brainstorming phase of work. Individually, it can get us into the habit of using imagination and playfulness to build forward-looking capacity.
The above exercises can help you build the forward-looking capacity your team members want and your organization needs. But there’s one more thing you need to know: it’s not enough for you to be forward-looking; to gain the benefits of this skill, you must actually share your anticipatory insights with your team members. Too many leaders forget that the terrain ahead is clearer from where they sit on the org chart. When we fail to share organizational or industry insights with our team, we leave them operating in the dark and we miss out on the leadership they could bring to their own work, if they just had a clearer view of the future.
With that in mind, we’ll add this:
#6. Share your insights with others.
Is your team ready to create a three-year strategy, but the road ahead isn’t clear? Ad Lucem Group can help you uncover insights that will help you shape the future. Reach out to schedule a complimentary strategy assessment conversation today. Click here to schedule an appointment.
Senior Culture & Strategy Advisor
As a facilitator and consultant, Amber helps companies connect their purpose to their core strategies and behaviors in order to shape culture and drive business results. Amber has global leadership experience with World Vision and the US Peace Corps and has served as a leadership development, organization change, and strategy consultant to organizations including digital marketing agencies, software firms, universities, manufacturing companies, utilities, and non-profit organizations. As the Chief Communications Officer for Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership, Amber oversaw thought leadership, including publishing four eBooks.