There's an article in the May 2011 issue of Strategy Magazine from the Strategic Planning Society called Making the shift: why the future of work is here now, written by Lynda Grattan from the London Business School (full reference below). It talks about major forces 'that will fundamentally shift much of what we take for granted about employees, work and organisations' (p18) such as the rapid fall in the cost of computing, increasing connectedness, the cloud becoming ubiquitous, emerging mega companies and micro entreprenuers, the continuing rise of China and India, and global education powerhouses. It's a good article, and worth reading. But when the article reached the point where ideas for how organisations need to respond to this fundamental shift, the term 'future proofed' appeared: "...we have identified 20 unique future-proofed organisational areas that can be sources of leverage over the coming decades" (p. 20).
When applied to computing, future proofing means "guaranteed not to be superceded by future versions, developments etc." and "protected from developments in the future, esp pertaining to a technology that protects it from early obsolescence" (Dictionary.com). Applied to strategy in the sense of the article, this means developing leverage points that will not change of lose effectiveness even if the organisation's external environment changes.
Now to be fair, the context in which the author used the term was about enabling organisations to "rapidly...shape and respond to the future environment". And this fits better with Wikipedia's definition of future proofing as: "The phrase future proofing describes the exclusive process of trying to anticipate future developments, so that action can be taken to minimize possible negative consequences, and to seize opportunities." And the areas of risk for organisations today in terms of how they approach the future that were identified in the article are indeed valid: (i) open innovation, generational cohesion, deep collaboration and working virtually. The author points out "What is particularly interesting about these areas of high risk is the extent to which they share a basic need to be skillfully cooperative and understanding of others" (p21). Very true.
My problem is with the term itself. Future proofing infers that we can inject certainty into the future by leveraging certain capacities or addressing risk. We can't. It infers that there is a single future. There isn't. We can't be certain that a strategy developed today will remain effective and useful in the future because drivers of change and wildcards are creating and recreating the future every day. There are many options we can see today, but we can't be certain of how those options will evolve over time.
The only way to deal with future strategic uncertainty is to develop a forward view, which is about working as a collective to understand what is possible and plausible and how to respond. As the author points out "it's all about a culture of adaptability, and the capacity to question the status quo and tolerate new ways of working" (p21). Is that future proofing? No, it's being strategic, being future oriented, and understanding the need for an organisational strategic foresight capacity.
I've no problem with the basic tenets of the article, but perhaps we could use a different phrase to future proofing, maybe "thinking beyond the status quo", or even strategic thinking. Both are not as catchy as future proof, they lack the comfort of certainty, and highlight very clearly that we need to change the way we think about the future. Any change is difficult, and changing the way we think is particularly difficult. Change also infers uncertainty, and that makes we humans uncomfortable.
Our ability to face future uncertainty is a primary determinant of successful strategy development and execution today. The future is not certain, but we can understand the forces that is creating it, and we can identify those forces early by scanning the environment on a continuing basis so we have time to respond to change before it hits us in the face. Organisations that accept future uncertainty and take the time to build a strategic foresight capacity will be ahead of the game.
Let 's agree to move on from wanting certainty, so that we can start to learn how to deal with strategic uncertainty today and adopt a proactive stance on the future.
Grattan, L. (2011). Making the shift: why the future of work is here now. In Strategy Magazine, 27, May 2011, pp18-21.