It’s the job of senior enterprise leaders to ensure that their organizations are ready for the future. Unfortunately the future is unclear to us—all the more so in this era of rapid change, uncertainty, and complexity. As with the weather, we can foresee the near future with some certainty, but as we look further ahead, our assurance diminishes. And today it can seem like a thick fog has descended, making it hard to see more than a foot or two ahead. So how can we make sure our enterprises are ready for that future?
To finish beating the metaphor to death, let me acknowledge something that doesn’t work: striding boldly into the fog as if we can see until we suddenly stumble into a pothole or fall off a cliff. That might seem silly, but it’s arguably what traditional enterprises do: make rigid plans as if they can see into the distance; acquire the resources they think they’ll need next year when even this year’s needs are very likely to change; and establish guardrails that will make change and innovation difficult.
Although this is a blog post about becoming future-ready, I must admit that I have very little idea of what the future holds. I would love to tell you how to manage robots in the workforce and negotiate with artificial general intelligence when it holds your office supplies hostage, but most of what I see is fog with occasional glimpses of possible paths to take.
Nevertheless leaders must make sure their organizations are ready for the future. Here’s how they can do it.
Build Resilience and Agility
Resilience and agility are terms for an ability to respond to circumstances we don’t or can’t foresee. As such, they have value to a business. How does your company value the return on investments in resilience and agility? Typically businesses assess the value of potential investments based on a projection of their tangible returns: increases in revenues or decreases in costs. But investments in resilience are investments in readiness more along the lines of risk reduction and option creation. It’s hard to prioritize them against investments with specific predicted returns, especially if your organization predicts those returns by pretending there’s no fogginess to the future.
Yet agility and resilience are critical for future-readiness. They require a broad view of continuity into the future, a future in which new forks suddenly appear in the road and paths are unexpectedly blocked by road work, toll booths, or elephants dropping from the sky. Organizations need a technological infrastructure poised to accommodate emerging technologies that can be changed easily and scaled up or down. They also need a workforce and a culture that can adapt to changing circumstances. They need adaptable governance models—when an organization decides it’s necessary to recognize robot workers’ rights or when generative AI begins composing ditties about each customer, will the company’s governance processes take it in stride? More seriously, will the organization be able to redirect funds and other resources as circumstances change? If a manager is unavailable because of a pandemic or war, can someone else act in their place? Will they have the appropriate authorities, access to the right data, and the ability to commit spending as needed?
On the technical side, a future-ready organization needs to adopt flexible technologies and technical processes. Today DevOps and the cloud are the best ways we know to gain agility and resilience. The cloud allows for rapid changes to infrastructure and rapid provisioning of services to support innovation. DevOps gets changes quickly into production. Technical architectures can be designed for flexibility. Machine learning is a powerful technique for building extremely complex functions quickly. It should be in the toolset of any future-ready company.
There is much more to say about building resilience and agility into an organization, and we cover the topic frequently in other blog posts, so I’ll move on here.
Align With Future-Directed Partners and Providers
Your vendors and partners face a similar challenge: they, too, must prepare for an uncertain future—and the better they do that, the more future-ready your company will be. Your choice of cloud provider is critical in this sense.
Let me explain why AWS is an ideal partner. AWS pioneered the cloud and has been at the forefront of innovation in cloud services. As new technologies emerge, they will undoubtedly emerge in the cloud. Don’t ask me what technologies (as I said, I’ve got the same foggy weather forecast as you), but they will probably become available in the cloud long before they’re available in your own data center. AWS works to reduce the cost and risk of trying new technology, and one of our core tenets is to democratize new technology so that it is easily accessible. In other words, even if we don’t quite know what the future holds, you can be assured that AWS will try to make the future available to you.
Remember that AWS is the technology that powers Amazon.com; AWS customers have access to the same cloud capabilities that Amazon.com relies on to move into the future. AWS will continue to evolve to meet Amazon’s needs. We eat our own dog food, as the expression goes. Machine learning, among other things, is crucial to Amazon’s success—it is the basis for the Amazon recommendation engine, robotic picking routes through fulfillment centers, vision capabilities of delivery drones and Amazon Go stores, and supply chain and logistics forecasting systems.
To become future-ready, examine the likelihood of your vendors taking you into the future, not just their current abilities.
Be Clear on Purpose and Mission
Even if your organization is great at responding to change, there is still a potential problem: you may be jerked in many different directions as the world changes around you. You need a strong sense of mission, vision, purpose, and a guiding star. It’s not a matter of wordsmithing a mission statement or making posters to hang on the walls but a question of what unifies your efforts, motivates your employees, and defines your position in the world relative to competitors and other stakeholders.
Purpose drives a sense of urgency, caring, and a willingness to try new ideas and take ownership of results. It empowers employees and allows decentralization of decision-making as everyone understands the organization’s direction. It also communicates to customers what the company stands for and, as such, is part of competitive positioning.
To be future-ready is to have a strong sense of direction that unifies your company’s efforts even through disruption and helps leaders and employees make quick decisions in times of change.
Workforce and Flexible Capacity
This may be hard to stomach, but future-ready organizations need spare capacity. It sounds economically inefficient, but lean thinking has shown that if capacity utilization is too high and demand on that capacity is unpredictable, lead time may suffer greatly, as predicted by Kingman’s Equation. When demand is predictable, capacity planning is effective; when demand is unpredictable, too much belt-tightening will simply lead to other costs.
It helps if employees are generalists and can move between one function and another as necessary. Because the future is so smoggy, we don’t have a great sense of what we will need to do. Instead it’s better to cultivate a culture of doing whatever is necessary to accomplish the organization’s purpose and have employees with a variety of skills.
When we talk about being future-ready, we certainly don’t mean knowing exactly what the future holds and how to prepare for it now. We mean being good at sensing the direction the future is taking and adapting to it. And that’s a skill that organizations can master and a way leaders must lead.