What motivated Elon Musk to revolutionize the automotive industry through Tesla and champion the electrification of motors, moving away from combustion vehicles? Why did Richard Branson venture into space tourism with Virgin Galactic? And what drove Sam Altman to establish and nurture OpenAI, placing a bet on the future of Artificial Intelligence?

Beyond their individual profound or mundane motivations, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Sam Altman share a common trait that unites them. Whether their focus is on financial gain or global harmony, they all share a fundamental belief that the future is not a mere continuation of the present. 

This perspective allows us to categorize global company leaders into two primary groups: those who operate exclusively in the present and those who do so with a mindful consideration of the future.

Companies within the first group often exhibit endogamic tendencies, perceiving themselves as the epicenter of their environment. They seldom take the initiative to observe and adapt to external dynamics.

Companies in the second group, however, embrace a mindset that allows them to craft and implement strategies, processes, and methodologies that attempt to foresee what the future holds.

None of this has to do with futurology. Companies in this context aim to comprehend potential futures and alternative scenarios based on events anticipated in the present, and their goal is to prepare themselves for a range of possibilities.

According to Jim Dator, Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies at the University of Hawaii, “Studies of the future help institutions and individuals visualize, design, and proactively move towards desired futures rather than passively accepting what will come.”

Why, then, do companies find it challenging to develop this skill? Generally, we tend to gravitate towards what feels natural. We organize; establish processes; and add business areas, teams, and people–tasks we believe we excel at. However, there comes a point where we need to shift from self-observation to observing the external landscape: what the competition is doing, the innovative technologies emerging, developments in other countries, and the societal shifts underway. It's at this point, when we widen our perspective and that we acknowledge changes since our last observation. We identify what we call trends. A trend emerges when something repeats over a specific period, suggesting a pattern. This realization implies that, when scrutinizing trends, we are essentially examining the past, not the future.

Signals from the future

The essence of foresighting, or designing of future scenarios, lies not in current trends but in identifying the moment when those trends will pivot.  The uncertainty regarding when, who, or which new trend will emerge to replace the current one is constantly present.

However, the signals we detect in the present provide us with clues about the potential futures we are likely to encounter. With these signals, companies can strategically channel their efforts and resources toward innovation, change, and adaptation.

But our capacity often hinders us from recognizing the inflection points that appear along the way. In the words of Emmett Brown, the scientist from Back to the Future, “We need to pinpoint the inflection points that disrupt the continuity of time: the future is not a continuation of the present.”

Regardless of the company’s size, we cannot ignore our interest in understanding what a client needs. They serve as the initial “messengers” in the inflection points that shape the future. If we allow too much time to pass without closely observing them, the value we can offer may gradually lose its relevance.

In the worst-case scenario, we might find ourselves akin to 21st-century telephone sales representatives. 

The future never arrives; we are constantly in pursuit of it. However, armed with a series of models and methodologies, we have the capacity to comprehend what it holds for us and take proactive measures. 

In doing so, we not only ensure survival, but can triumph in a world entirely different from the one we inhabit today.

By Gabriel Weinstein, Associate and Managing Partner at Olivia in Europe

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