Look to the Future to Flourish

By Alice Mann May 23, 2018
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For businesses today, the three biggest challenges organizations face are climate change, resource scarcity and social dynamism. Climate change affecting the planet will push the private sector to accelerate solutions in clean energy, manufacturing and transportation. Growing scarcity in water, land and other natural resources will challenge whole industries, like apparel and agriculture, to come up with new materials and means of production. Social dynamism spurred by the changing demographics and values of a global workforce and consumers will push companies to redefine how people work, eat, travel and live.

My book, Future First: How Successful Leaders Turn Innovation Challenges into New Value Frontiers (Routledge, 2018), explores how leaders and businesses can identify their most pressing global challenges and win market share by innovating around these trends in advance of others. This is not simply a matter of corporate responsibility, but about seeing the market demands these changes create, innovating within the limits of commercial success and rules of profitability, and responding faster and better than the competition.

Drawing on both research and case studies from companies like Tesla, Unilever, Nike and Revolution Foods, I found that businesses gain enormous advantages from getting out ahead of future trends and expanding, transforming or reinventing their companies to address them. Furthermore, leaders and companies that proactively embrace future trends—as opposed to those that wait for crisis or regulation to force their hand—share some common traits, including their commitment to two or more of these five business practices:

  • They embrace sustainability as an innovation challenge by designing commercially successful products, production processes and people practices within certain environmental and social limitations.
  • They overcome presentism by combating our culture's profound tendency to capture our attention in the here and now, and instead tune in to future trends that drive long-term value.
  • They develop integrative thinking by synthesizing the best of seemingly opposing ideas.
  • They expand the values that drive their business decisions by being transparent and thoughtful about the values that inform their decision-making.
  • They go beyond one-company, one-leader at a time thinking by working with their competitors to address global problems.

The most gratifying experience of writing my book was speaking at length with many people who are committed to shaping our future for the better. I interviewed social entrepreneurs, corporate sustainability scholars, impact investors and sustainability leaders inside big corporations. They represent a new class of leader in a world where, relatively speaking, individuals have much less power compared to the power of economic, technical and corporate systems. These leaders have learned how to partner with other people and systems to amplify their power to make a positive difference.

Alice Mann is an organizational psychologist who advises senior executives to build their leadership teams and design their organizations to achieve their mission and strategy. Mann has consulted with and coached scores of leaders of global Fortune 500 companies, pre-eminent nonprofits and social enterprises.

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