What is Future Proofing?

Look at any management magazine or discussion board at present and you’ll find the topic of Future Proofing front and centre. Everywhere you look we are being told that we need to ‘Future Proof’ our organisations, and that failure to do so will spell some various degree of doom for us and our cherished companies. But what is Future Proofing? Is it really so new, and if so how have we survived without it so far? Certainly, the lack of clarity seems to be inspiring a sense of near paranoia in many. We’ve heard executives close to panic because their boards have demanded that they present a plan for Future Proofing the company, and the fact is they don’t know what it is, let alone where to begin.

So what is Future Proofing? Well, first off it’s not new, it’s been around for a long time, but now it has a new buzz-word name. It used to be called [drum-roll]… PLANNING. I know, it sounds a lot less impressive, but that’s the truth. Future Proofing is quite simply planning for the future.

When you put it like that it seems easy, every company plans, they have their strategic plans, their operational plans and their regular reviews to keep them on track. So maybe this Future Proofing is all just some smoke and mirrors invented by management consultants to justify some more fees, right? Hmmm, well hold on. Before we all pat ourselves on the back for having seen through the magician’s trick and saved our organisation a small fortune in consulting fees, maybe we should take a closer look.

Okay, so Future Proofing is about anticipating change and having a plan to deal with it. But change is unpredictable, and the truth is that most organisations only create plans to deal with change that they control, such as growth, M&A or new markets. Sure you have a strategic plan to take over company X or to win client Y. Yet the most fundamental changes we all face are the ones that are entirely beyond our control, such as new technology, new regulation, recessions or booms, trade agreements or political events. These outside factors undeniably have the biggest impact on us and our organisations, just ask Lehman Brothers, or Woolworths, or Our Price Music. So if they are the biggest threat surely we need a plan to deal with them? In theory that’s absolutely right, but the problem here, the skull-cracking headache that makes most of us give up, walk away and bury our head in the sand and just hope that it will never happen, is the impossibility of predicting the form and timing of these changes. If we could do that accurately we’d just put a big bet on the markets, wait a bit and then happily go and buy our own island in the Caribbean.

So people and organisations avoid planning for external change because it’s difficult to predict. As an executive, you can control many of the factors for internal change, and even those you don’t control, such as when certain people leave, are relatively predictable. Therefore you can and do plan for these. But structural changes, such as recessions or market booms usually come out of the blue. Changes in the technological environment, such as the advent of the internet, mobile communications and social media were largely unexpected and revolutionary – completely transforming the face of working practice and commerce. Then there are cultural changes, such as the shift in the ways people wish to work, including the increasing demand for flexible working. All of these external changes are fundamental, have an incredible impact on the workplace and all organisations, and are almost impossible to predict.

Great, so you can’t predict it, so there’s no point in trying! That’s the logical and typical response, after all as the saying goes: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” A successful plan depends on understanding and knowledge, you can’t get that knowledge, so any single plan a company makes is almost certainly doomed to fail. So if these changes are impossible to predict accurately, why try? And that’s exactly what typically happens – most companies pay relatively limited notice to those big structural risk factors, instead relying on dealing with them when they arise. In many ways that strategy makes sense. It’s not possible to predict the future, so don’t bother. However, it is possible to prepare for the future, and that preparation can make the difference between success and disaster when change inevitably happens.

So how can we plan for what we’ll need? Well, there are fundamental behaviours that can form part of your business strategy that will minimise the negative impact of any change, as well as maximise potential benefits. Over the next few weeks we will be exploring how to engage with uncertainty, instead of ignoring it, and how to build a Future Proof plan and organisation.

For now, as they say on Crimewatch, don’t have nightmares.