March 20, 2017
To Shape the Future, Write Its History
by Chunka Mui
We need stories to crystallize and internalize concepts and plans. We need shared stories to unite us, and guide us toward a collective future.
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself.” — Winston Churchill
When it comes to large-scale innovation, my experience is that history will indeed be kinder if aspiring innovators take the time to write it themselves—but before it actually unfolds, not after.
Every ambitious strategy has multiple dimensions and depends on complex interactions between a host of internal and external factors. Success requires achieving clarity and getting everyone on the same page for the challenging transition to new business and operational models. The best mechanism for doing that is one I have used often, to powerful effect. I call it a “future history.”
Future histories fulfill our human need for narratives. As much as we like to think of ourselves as modern beings, we still have a lot in common with our earliest ancestors gathered around a fire outside a cave. We need stories to crystallize and internalize abstract concepts and plans. We need shared stories to unite us, and guide us toward a collective future.
Future histories provide that story for large organizations.
See also: What Is the Right Innovation Process?
The CEO of a major financial services company occasionally still reads to internal audiences parts of the future histories that I helped him and his management team write in early 2011. He says they helped him get his team focused on the right opportunities. As of this writing, his company’s stock has almost doubled, even though his competitors have had problems.
To create future histories, I have executive teams imagine that they are five years in the future and ask them to write two memos of perhaps 750 to 1,000 words each.
For the first memo, I ask them to imagine that the strategy has failed because of some circumstance or because of resistance from some parts of the organization, investors, customers or other key stakeholder. The memo should explain the failure. The exercise lets people focus on the most critical assumptions and raise issues without being seen as naysayers. There is usually no lack of potential problems to consider, including technology developments, employee resistance, customer activities, competitors’ actions, governmental actions, substitute products and so on. Articulating the rationale for failure in a clearly worded memo crystallizes thinking about the most likely issues.
To heighten the effect, I sometimes do some formatting and structure the memo like an article from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Adopting a journalist’s voice helps to focus the narrative on the most salient points. And everybody hates the idea of being embarrassed in such publications, so readers of the memo pay attention to the potential problems while there’s still time to address them.
The second memo is the success story. What key elements and events helped the organization shake its complacency? What key strategic or technological shifts helped to capture disruptive opportunities? How did the organization’s unity help it to out-innovate existing players and start-ups? This part of the exercise encourages war-gaming and helps the executive team understand the milestones on the path to success.
Taken together, the future histories provide a new way of thinking about the long-term aspirations of the organization and the challenges facing it. By producing a chronicle of what could be the major success and most dreaded failures, the organization gains clarity about the levers it needs to pull to succeed and the pitfalls it needs to avoid.
Most importantly, by working together to write the future histories, the executive team develops a shared narrative of those potential futures. It forges alignment around the group’s aspirations, critical assumptions and interdependencies. The process of drafting and finalizing the future histories also prompts the team to articulate key questions and open issues. It drives consensus about key next steps and the overall change management road map. In a few weeks’ time, future histories can transform the contemplated strategy into the entire team’s strategy.
See also: How to Create a Culture of Innovation
Future histories also facilitate the communication of that shared strategy to the rest of the organization. Oftentimes, senior executives extend the process to more layers of management to flesh out the success and failure scenarios in greater detail and build wider alignment.
Future histories take abstract visions and strategies and make them real, in ways that get people excited. They help people understand how they can contribute—how they must contribute—even if they aren’t directly involved in the innovation initiative. People can understand the timing and see how efforts will build.
People can also focus on the enemies that, as a group, they must fend off. These enemies may no longer be saber-toothed tigers, but they are still very real and dangerous to corporations. “Future histories” unite teams as they face the inevitable challenges.