Fear Most? Not the Right Question

One of the better edited digests of information I read regularly is the Wall Street Journal’s “CIO Journal.” It’s a compilation of news items that affect businesses from the perspective of the increasingly integrated information and communications technology side of enterprises.

This morning a question was posed. “…which of the following Black Swan events you fear the most: natural disaster, cyber attack or hack, a loss of top talent, or that one of your strategic vendors gets acquired.” The column will compile the results.

A laudable effort. I will be interested. But as a practical matter it’s not enough to be looking only at the obvious future events that will affect your organization. If it had been me, I would have used a widely flung and well-informed network like CIO Journal has in its readers for even more useful purposes.

Subject matter experts who’ve arrived at their conclusions independently can be the best forecasters of the events ahead that are NOT on the radar screen yet. That was one of the central tenets of the fine James Surowiecki book
The Wisdom of Crowds.

Will we see a natural disaster that will affect companies? A major cyber attack or hack? Loss of top talent? Changes in the competitive landscape? Of course. They’re givens, not forecasts. And we need to be prepared for all of them, not rank ordering which we fear most.

For the last two years I’ve moderated the largest worldwide meeting of information security professionals. When I poll that group about the probability of a major cyber attack 75% agree it’s imminent. The other 25% respond that it happened already or is now occurring regularly.

The overlooked future events are the ones we’re not thinking about right now. They’re hidden around the corner or over the horizon.

That’s why I use techniques in strategy sessions to draw them out. Lay them in front of leadership. Examine their place in the spectrum of what’s ahead. Contemplate the after-effects and consequences of their occurrence. Develop a range of approaches to deal with them. Perhaps even compile contingency plans to address them.

Should you plan for the obvious? Of course. A mark of a truly robust organization, however, is one that looks for the unseen, the hidden, the events ahead that are not obvious.

Vigilant Leadership

The single most valuable asset I see in an organization is a habit of foresight coupled with contemplation and tied directly to action.
If I rank the organizations I consult on their effectiveness, those that do all three of these do best overall. They generate more profits, have better looking balance sheets, attract investment, or serve their stakeholders the best.
I like to call it
vigilant leadership.”
What’s involved?
Vigilant leadership engages as many individuals as possible in an organization, and certainly all of the directors and senior management, in a discipline of looking ahead. That means staying abreast of events, being advised of emerging issues, recognizing “weak signals” of shifting environments, having depth of knowledge in areas specific to the organization’s strategy, and focusing particularly on long term thinking about what will affect the organization over a decade-or-longer time frame.
This is extraordinarily difficult for most organizations to achieve. Clients of mine have difficulty with it. I think it’s for several reasons.
One is the lack of a major
commitment to foresight. For example, with some of my financial service clients an environmental scanning piece developed by a national trade organization is distributed to the board in advance of the annual planning retreat. When I ask about what foresight process they’re using that’s the answer I get. A start, but not nearly enough.
Another difficulty is the governance structure and
expectations. I don’t believe organizations ask enough from their directors. Every organization’s director should be expected to be not only up to speed on the industry market as well as geographical or industry or product or service niches. They should be accountable for depth of knowledge in the much broader and higher impact developments in the economy, consumer behavior, emerging competition, and geopolitical forces.
A third barrier is the lack of discipline, time, and process for
contemplation. Retreats are for contemplation. Their very label presupposes getting away to do some thinking. They are for discussion certainly. But most of all they should be an immersion away from one’s typical environment in order to gain perspective and spend time in thought.
I find thought is rare in most retreat settings. There are many reasons. One is the assumption that because the retreat is being held in a nice location with recreation opportunities then one should focus on those. Another is the presence, in too many settings, of spouse and family. Nice, but counterproductive largely. Another is a tendency to crowd agenda. One presentation after another. A need to sign off on strategy. A board meeting with a consent agenda. A race to complete work in order to have fun, socialize, or get to a meal.
Most of all retreats feature way
too much opinion expression and much too little contemplation.
This doesn’t mean that directors and senior management should be shut up in monastic cells to think. But it does mean that there should be time to gather one’s thoughts, form opinion, discuss deeply, and only then to reach consensus on decisions.
Fourth is
stamina. Vigilant leadership is a process, a journey. There is no letup. There is no downtime.
I’m not suggesting that all of an individual’s time away from an organization should be spent in foresight. Nor am I espousing huge amounts of force-fed reading. But I’ve found through the years as I’ve taught anticipatory skills to management, installed foresight systems in organizations, and consulted on strategy that the really good work that makes a successful organization happens in between all the other daily responsibilities in my clients’ lives.
When directors and senior management are introduced to
foresight techniques, integrated into a system that pushes appropriate amounts of information to decision-makers, and encouraged to contemplate on one’s own time, good things happen.
Image: susanvg, via Flickr CC license