Thursday, February 17, 2011

Learning to Create the Future

"Asking members what they want is stifling my ability to make a breakthrough!
"Does asking our members what they want stifle breakthroughs?"

That question was posted recently on the ASAE Executive Listserv. In response, I offer the following excerpt from an Association Management article printed way back in August, 1997!

Learning How to Create the Future

  “Companies that create the future do more than satisfy customers, they constantly amaze them.”
                                                Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad,  Competing for the Future

What will it take to constantly amaze your members into the future? That's a question every association executive needs to ask in this era of rising member expectations and increasing competition.

With that in mind, let us explore four lessons, learned from some of the most highly successful and imaginative corporations, that you can apply to your association's strategy-creation process.

Why is it that some organizations are capable of imagining and creating the future while others are forever playing catch up? The future-focused organizations have learned the following lessons.
Lesson 1: Imagination is the master of great strategy, implementation its servant.

If an organization wishes to create the future, it must begin by imagining compelling ways to amaze its customers. Then, and only then, should it ask, How will we do this? What are the details of implementation?

At first glance, this may seem a risky or unscientific approach. After all, doesn't an organization need to assess its current resources and capabilities before determining what it can do in the future? The history of strategy and marketing offers many excellent illustrations of why this isn't the case. Consider Henry, Ford. Ask yourself, Which did Ford imagine first - the assembly line or the Model T, the means or the end?

Most people mistakenly believe that Ford first invented the former, which enabled him to create the latter. Actually, it was the other way around. Ford's invention of the assembly line was the direct result of his imaginative desire to produce an affordable automobile. In short, Ford knew what needed to be done before he knew how the deed would be accomplished.

In his 1923 book entitled My Life and Work, Ford discussed a "broad scientific approach" that forces people to dig for unimagined solutions. He said, "Our policy is to reduce the price, extend the operations, and improve the article. You will notice that the reduction of price comes first. . . . Therefore we first reduce the price to a point where we believe more sales will result. Then we go ahead and try to make the prices. . . . The more usual way is to take the costs and then determine the price, and although that method may be scientific in the narrow sense, it is not scientific in the broad sense, because what earthly use is it to know the cost if it tells you yon cannot manufacture at a price at which the article can be sold? . . . One of the ways of discovering [emphasis added] . . . is to name a price so low as to force everybody in the place to the highest point of efficiency. . . . We make more discoveries concerning manufacturing and selling under this forced method than by any method of leisurely investigation."

Great strategy, therefore, is about discovering that which is possible but previously unseen, and then searching for the means to turn it into a real-life, value-producing product or service.

Lesson 2: When it comes to creating value, imagination wins out over forecasting and prediction.

The art of creating the future is more about uncovering evolving customer needs than about forecasting trends or building scenarios. This is not a particularly mysterious process, but it does require the right kind of information and the proper use of that information.

The right information is derived from a relentless search for cues about how the future will unfold. This search involves analyzing trends and competition, tracking emerging technologies and management techniques, and gathering insights from market research and customer contacts.
While gathering this information, it is important to remember that forecasting and scenario building are tools and not the end points of activities. For example, 15 years ago all the major automobile companies had access to data about the trends facing families and could have crafted reasonably accurate future scenarios or predictions about the hectic pace of life that was emerging. But it was Chrysler that went beyond mere forecasting to asking, If that's what life will be like for many families, what future options do we have for creating value? Their imaginative answer: the minivan.

Lesson 3: Ambitious goals act as catalysts.

Creating the future is an enormous task and is only worth doing if you have a goal that makes a meaningful difference in the lives members, staff, and volunteers. In this way, strategy becomes more than a blueprint, it becomes a source of ambition and a catalyst for action. Henry Ford's ambition to make a meaningful difference was captured in the phrase, "Put a car in every garage." Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, motivated his employees to provide "rock-bottom prices to rural Americans."

Lesson 4: Don't listen to the naysayers.
Inventing the future can be scary work. No matter how brilliant and sound your ideas, there will always be naysayers. The following quotes remind us that many of the great ideas of the past were initially discounted or scorned: 
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." – Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible." - A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service; Smith went on to found Federal Express

"If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this." - Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" notepads.

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