Business Planning

How To Plan For Every Different Future

By Cathy Ward, Chief Operating Officer, SAP – Asia Pacific, Japan

It may have originated in pulpy science fiction novels, but the idea of the multiverse – the notion that multiple parallel universes actually exist – has gained scientific and philosophical credence in recent years.

As cosmologist George Ellis said, “Parallel universes may or may not exist; the case is unproved … As sceptical as I am, I think the contemplation of the multiverse is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature of science and on the ultimate nature of existence: why we are here?”

It struck me that concept is actually very similar to how businesses plan for uncertainty. Because the past is no longer a reliable guide to our future, now is the time leaders have to prepare ourselves, our teams, and our businesses for multiple and diverse possibilities.

That’s why we recently sponsored new research by Harvard Business Review Analytics Services to reveal how businesses are anticipating what’s to come, and what practical steps they are using to successfully plan amid a multiverse of futures.

We are certainly not alone in thinking about anticipating the future. More than nine in ten (92%) businesses in Asia Pacific say an adaptive culture and continuous employee upskilling is very important to driving change. Yet, despite that understanding, only 30 per cent say their organisation is really prepared for unexpected change or disruption.

So, how can businesses best plan for the future?

Well, first we have to acknowledge there’s no single way to anticipate the changes the future will bring. Who among us had heard of a novel coronavirus three years ago? But what we did reveal is an incredible opportunity for businesses to reimagine the future in three critical areas: how people will work, how we will do business, and how we will operate our organisations.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. The future of work

The research identified planning for the future of work as a first priority.

That requires focus on talent attraction and retention, work to upskill people as needs and roles evolve, and investing in training for employees to think about the future proactively in new, innovative ways.

This point is essential – the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey found that how much an employee is encouraged or rewarded for thinking about the future tends to correspond to their position in the company hierarchy. Yet, every member of a business can contribute to future-readiness – the key is unlocking those insights beyond the executive level.

The report also underlined how essential organisational purpose is to inspire and focus staff to achieve a clearly communicated goal.

2. The future of business

Next, companies must rethink how changes in customer behaviour, demands, and circumstances might impact their own products, services, and processes.

Then businesses must think about how their organisations will engage and collaborate as part of a network of interlinked stakeholders – customers, suppliers, industry bodies, government organisations, even competitors. These relationships and the infrastructure around them can be reassessed and rethought as new ideas and innovations emerge.

According to the survey, two-thirds (66%) of businesses say they will invest more in products, services, and innovation over the next year.

3. The future of operations

Finally, the research revealed organisations should consider redesigning how they operate by assessing and improving processes like supply chains, logistics, financial mechanisms, and more on an ongoing basis.

Technology is a key enabler of change here.

Think about how artificial intelligence can help businesses map out a multitude of futures and disruptions, then keep an eye out for signals that might point to one of those possibilities. Or how automation and cloud solutions can simplify complexity and help companies shift focus fast when the unexpected happens.

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The survey found technology and digital infrastructure are on the minds of many executives – strong digital infrastructure and cybersecurity skills were mentioned by 39% of respondents in APAC when asked which skills and competencies most help organisations plan for the future.

These focuses can help businesses begin to plan for an uncertain future. But there’s still much more to do. Just 20 percent of leaders today think about their business strategy beyond a five-year time frame.

In my role as the COO of SAP APJ, we have been experimenting and learning over the past 12 months to begin building a systems-based approach to drive change and a future-focused movement toward the ‘Chief Anticipation Officer’. No one ever finishes preparing for the future, but with passion and commitment we continue to improve our understanding of how to do business in the multiverse.

Learn more about the Harvard Business Review Analytics Services report, Anticipating the Future for Growth and Innovation, here.

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