September 16, 2015 | by Steve Lawrence

How to Think Like a Futurist

A tough new look at strategic planning

Sheryl Connelly, charged by Ford Motor Company with thinking about the future, describes nothing less than a new world shaping businesses over the next 10 years: new products and materials, shifting markets, powerful pressures on resources, populations and workforce requirements.

“We are afraid of the future because we are afraid of things we can’t control,” Connelly told the MSCI Economic Summit audience last week. But Connelly, the global head of trends and futuring at Ford, said if the metals industry is to thrive, “As leaders it is our job to explore these things we can’t control and to develop flexible, muscular strategies to deal with their implications.”

It’s happening now

Already we are seeing a vast array of economic, technological, social and political disruption, from products, markets, and social trends few were thinking about even five years ago.

Shifting markets and new materials? Today, 600 cities including 20 to 35 megacities like Chicago, New York and L.A. in the U.S. produce 60% of global GDP, she said. Within 10 years, that 600 will include at least 136 new cities, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, with at least 100 of those in China. This shifting “vertical living environment” across the globe will create demand for building materials in developing markets that is unprecedented.

Inevitable global water shortages in Asia, India and emerging markets, coupled with a population explosion that will put another 1 billion people on the planet, mainly in China and India in the next 10 years offer ominous imponderables as well.

The nature of supply chains will be changing, too, as consumers demand to know more and more about the sources of what they are buying, Connelly said. Which almost certainly means more government requirements similar to the intensely controversial U.S. conflict minerals disclosure law.

The meaning of all this for your service center or mill, for your clients and employees, for your bottom line in an evolving and often unpredictable economic environment?

“We consistently overestimate the impact of the near term and underestimate the impact of the long term,” Connelly cautioned.

Thinking critically is the key

The time to begin thinking critically about it all is…now. And the way to do that is not how you’ve done it in the past. “Beware of your traditional SWOT analysis,” Connelly said, “which too often becomes glorified navel gazing.” Instead, we need to be exploring new ways of thinking about scenarios that may seem implausible. “Explore what you can’t control and work inward,” she said. Look at each scenario with questions about its social, technological, economic, environmental and political implications. “Consider those five perspectives and be provocative,” she said. “But at the same time be plausible.”

For fresh perspective, you want to “talk with people who know nothing about your business.” Seek out contrarians. Shameless plug: Connelly pointed out how valuable venues like MSCI conferences can be “for the chance to network and share problems with people you can learn from.”

Develop multiple versions of the future, she urged, because you will want to test the strategies you are developing against multiple scenarios. “With these tools,” she said, “you can have a robust business strategy and plan.”

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