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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Will your strategy survive its first encounter?

Will your strategy survive its first encounter?

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

So said Helmuth von Molke, in this often contracted and misattributed quote. He also said this:

“Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations.”

It sounds to me like Helmuth von Molke was an early proponent of agile thinking. I think he would have liked the current meme phrase “Life comes at you fast”, usually attached to pairs of Tweets showing someone having to radically revise their opinions in the face of reality.

Destination and Action

Strategy defines how you’re going to get where you want to be. How you’re going to achieve your vision and mission. But to pursue the military analogies, strategy can only ever provide you with the rules of engagement. Even with the most rigorous long-term foresight programme, you’re going to be frequently surprised.

Your strategy cannot tell you what to do in each encounter you will face along the road to your destination. Only provide guidance on how you approach it in a manner consistent with your vision and mission.

Near-term foresight

It is much easier to respond in a consistent manner when you see surprises coming a little earlier. They will still be disruptive to your direction of travel, but every week or month of additional time you have to deal with them gives you that bit more control over the response. It may still be reactive but it’s a controlled reaction.

This is why I advocate every organisation running a low-overhead short-term foresight programme as well as looking further out. Imagine driving by plugging a destination into the GPS and then shutting your eyes and following the instructions. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen too many organisations behave like this, bouncing off bollards as they blindly pursue a course.

Will your strategy survive its first encounter? You have a much better chance if you see it coming, rather than being ambushed.

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What will we do in the future? Explore.

It’s an oft-quoted fact that we know more about space than the seas. With some qualification (it’s only true of our known and accessible region of space) it’s an accurate and shocking statement. But the seas aren’t the only unexplored territory within our reach.

The reality is that we know very little. Our knowledge of our planet, our bodies, minds, and fellow inhabitants of earth may be vast compared to just a few decades ago. But it remains vanishingly small when measured against the ‘known unknowns’ we can already identify, let alone the ‘unknown unknowns’.

Short term pessimist, long term optimist

When people ask me how I feel about the future, I’ll usually answer that I’m a short term pessimist and a long term optimist.

I find it hard to see how we will crack the challenge of a polarising economic system, where automation seems set to drive a greater wedge between rich and poor, without serious disruption and difficulty. Or how we will avert at least some level of major catastrophe from climate change — a catastrophe that is arguably already happening.

But I believe we will ultimately overcome these challenges. Humanity, and society, will adapt and overcome.

When you get past the doom and gloom, you get to the fun question: what next?

For me the answer is rather Roddenberry-esque. We boldly go.

An inquiring species

We are curious by nature. Tempted by the untravelled road and the unanswered question. If we can solve our economic and ecological problems, perhaps we can turn ourselves to philosophy — literally ‘loving knowledge’.

The much quoted stat that 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last two years implies that we are already learning at an accelerated rate. Yes, a lot of this is cat pics, but there are also huge advances. Every day, we understand more about our world and our selves. Imagine how much faster this acquisition would be though, were it not for the other distractions that consume so much of our time today — big and small, from wages and war, to selfies and shopping.

Of course, as Aldous Huxley put it, we have an “almost infinite appetite for distractions” — a subject addressed by James Williams in his recent RSA talk. It may be true, as he suggests, that willpower alone may not be enough to keep us focused on the things that really matter.

Personal hunger, or societal goals?

If this is the case, then is our post-crash learning utopia one of free-roaming enquiry, or is it one where learning is an expectation? Where we are free to follow our interests, or where there is a structure of incentives — and perhaps the opposite — to keep people focused on growth and advancement?

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a utopia at all. It certainly has a whiff of Soviet-era communism about it. But nice as the idea of total freedom sounds, in reality I think we are perhaps at our best when we have shared goals and objectives. When, with a large degree of freedom, we are encouraged to collaborate on achievement.

From the moon to the microcomputer

I thought about this twice recently. First, listening to Brian Cox and Robin Ince speaking to a panel of astronauts on The Infinite Monkey Cage, and being reminded just how incredible were the achievements of the Apollo programme and the International Space Station.

Second, speaking to Andrew Back from the Wuthering Bytes festival, for my own podcast. We spoke about the open source hardware movement and how a global collection of academics and enthusiasts have built a totally open processor architecture that is increasingly competing with the big names. Because it is royalty-free, it could further drive down the cost of computing — already incredibly low.

Given a goal, and encouraged to collaborate, we are very good at turning unknowns into knowns.

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You’re doing it wrong

“You’ve been eating Toblerone wrong your entire life” — Independent, 9th February 2016

“You’ve been eating Pringles wrong this whole time” — Huffington Post, 19th April 2017

“26 foods you’ve been eating all wrong” — Mashable, 3rd August 2014

There’s even a show, presented by The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman called “You’re eating it wrong”.

Either we’re really bad at working out how to eat processed foods, or negative headlines such as these are effective at grabbing our attention. So let me try this one on you:

“You’re doing business wrong.”

Is that an article you would click on? I’m not sure. Perhaps the negative reaction to such criticism is too strong. Perhaps you would dismiss it immediately?

Doing things differently

This is my dilemma. Because this, at its core, is the argument I am trying to make. That you, and everyone else, is running their business or organisation wrong. Unlike the foods, perhaps you haven’t always been doing it wrong. But times have changed and you need to change with them.

Ambitious? Maybe.

The point is this: since the industrial revolution, the main mantra of business has been about optimisation. Yes. we’ve had cycles of creative destruction, but they have been measured in decades. Between those cycles the daily focus was on optimisation. Doing more (revenue/profit/service delivery) with less (cost).

Now those periods of stability in which you could focus on optimisation might be measured in months not years. So aligning your objectives to optimising your current business makes no sense.

Digging a rut

Worse than that, it is dangerous. The more optimised your current business is to today’s conditions and customers, the less scope it has to adapt. You risk becoming a specialised tool for a task that is no longer relevant.

Now maybe this doesn’t matter. Maybe you know your business has a limited lifespan and you want to extract as much as possible in that short space of time. But I don’t think this represents the majority.

If you want to build a sustainable business then you have to have one eye on what’s next. And that means building a business that is adaptable. A business that is tuned into market needs, and capable of responding too them.

Some of you are no doubt doing this today. Just as some people were already eating their Pringles upside-down or snapping off their Toblerone by pushing it into the bar, not away (yes, that was the big secret that secured millions of views). But in my experience, most people — and most companies — really are doing it wrong.

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Futurism is strategy and storytelling

The team at my new marketing agency tell me that people don’t know what futurism is, let alone ‘applied futurism’.

I think they’re probably right.

What is futurism to you? (Please don’t say ‘a fascist art movement’).

For me, it’s about two things: strategy, and storytelling.

Futurism is strategy

My friend, former colleague, and creative problem-solver extraordinaire Phil Lewis of Corporate Punk pointed this out to me yesterday. When I look back at everything I’ve written about applied futurism, it turns out I’ve always been saying this, but never clearly or explicitly enough. Futurism is strategy.

Strategy is a long term plan built in the face of uncertainty. The tools of applied futurism inform that strategy and clear some of the uncertainty. That’s perhaps why many of my customers are people who are fearful of the future, either for their company or their industry. A smaller number are excited about the opportunity.

Futurism is storytelling

Whether you want to compel people to follow your strategy, or whether you simply want to show some thought-leadership on the issues of tomorrow, you have to translate your vision of tomorrow into a story. This is a crucial part of futurism and largely explains the remainder of my customer base: brands and marketing agencies who are looking to say something new.

Futurism is the writing and telling the story of tomorrow’s strategy. But it appears I still need to work on the story of futurism.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Borders are falling and Brexit won’t stop the trend

If I want to source a piece of design work today, I don’t need to find a local agency or freelancer. I might choose to, but my options are many, varied, and global.

If I want a custom t-shirt designed? $15 is the going rate. $25 if I want it turned around in 24 hours. Maybe I want a voice-over from a professional voice actress? Prices start at $5. Logos, brochures, animations — all available from a global marketplace of talented creatives via a number of low-friction portals like Fiverr.

These services are not going to go away in the face of political attempts to reverse years of movement towards global free trade. They might need to adapt. But it’s hard to imagine how a wall across the southernmost US states, or the reversal of Britain out of the EU is going to create barriers big enough to prevent the flow of digital traffic.

They might even increase it. I’m reminded of Leia’s warning to Tarkin in A New Hope: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Scale: reset your expectations

Services like Fiverr are just one example of the technology-driven trend for falling barriers between and inside organisations. These falling barriers are a consequence of the lower friction of digital communications. Physical proximity and human-to-human communication still has enormous value in many contexts. But in many others, a digital intermediary — or even direct machine to machine communication — can replace historically high-friction human interactions and have a dramatic effect on business.

Take global digital marketplaces like Ali Baba, and their effect on the supply chains of so many industries. Now everyone has near-direct access to the manufacturing hubs of China with an intermediary that diminishes the fear, increases trust and minimises the advantage of direct contact and experience.

Or take a much smaller example: the relationship between two different departments in a single organisation. Before, the interaction between these departments might have been limited to meetings and memos. Now real-time data can flow between them constantly. Few organisations have got to grips with the transformative potential of this effect. But those that have, like Amazon with its Lego-brick architecture of standalone functions integrated by a shared software layer, have proven to be hugely disruptive.

Move fast and break laws

The momentum of this effect seems too great to be significantly slowed by even international political efforts. You can’t un-invent the internet, and even the most aggressive attempts to control it can ultimately be subverted. Combine this with the gung-ho attitude of many tech companies and tech-driven entrepreneurs — what I’ve come to term “Move fast and break laws” — and it’s hard to see how Brexit, or Trump’s wall (real or virtual) will have a long term effect on slowing the collapse of walls between our countries and organisations.


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There is no Book of the Future…yet

I am frequently introduced on stage or on the radio as the author of the Book of the Future. People assume this means I have written an actual book.

I haven’t.

11 years ago when I started this blog, it was inspired by the Usborne Book of the Future, published in 1979. Given that 27 years had passed and they hadn’t released another one, I figured I was fairly safe taking the name and the domain.

11 years on, I’ve heard no objections.

I figured at the time that, although a book would be nice — and I did propose that I write a new one to the publishers of the original — why make something static when you can make something dynamic? A living book that is updated frequently — twice a week these days.

Teach them to fish…

Over those 11 years, Book of the Future has changed from being a blog to being my primary business interest. My perspective has changed too, from interested observer and occasional broadcaster, to full-time futurist. Now my focus is driven not just by what interests me but by the challenges that people seek my help in solving.

Sometimes those challenges are about the big picture, or about niche challenges facing particular sectors. What is the future of work/money/finance/retail/travel/superyachts? These are all fascinating questions. But as this business developed, it became clear that the place I could do most good was not in helping people seek solutions to their challenges, but in equipping them to solve those challenges for themselves. In giving them better tools of foresight and adaptation.

If I’d written a book of the future 11 years ago, it would have been about the big challenges, and the scientific possibilities. I’d still love to write this book — particularly for a young audience. But the book I need to write now is not about the challenges themselves but about how you tackle them. How do you see the future first? How do you respond to what you see? What do the organisations of the future — and the members of those organisations — look like?

Static vs dynamic

Why now? Why create a static form when I have so long held to the dynamic? A few reasons.

One is opportunity. I’m spending some time travelling this summer and that always lends itself to concentrated writing. Connected activities are harder. Distractions less present. So I can dedicate myself to the task.

One is readiness: after five years of applied futurism I finally feel like I have a fully coherent story to tell. One that I have rehearsed and refined with a few hundred audiences.

One is income diversity. I don’t expect a book to make me large amounts of money. But the lowest engagement point with my services and products right now starts at £125 per month (if you ignore the free stuff). Having a bite-size purchase that can be an entry point for those who don’t know me, something that I can sell and promote at speaking engagements and on TV/radio, seems to make sense.

The authority of the author

The last reason is good, old-fashioned kudos. People still respect the effort in producing a book, and the authority that comes with being, well, an author. I’ve ticked off ‘as seen on TV’ (though after five years of fairly frequent appearances on some pretty well-watched shows, people are still surprised to see me). Now it’s time to tick off ‘the author of the Book of the Future’.

Even if people already think I’ve done it.

So, having written this blog post I’m leaving myself no choice. It’s time to knuckle down and get it done.

Tom Cheesewright