While there is a growing uncertainty about what a post-Covid world would be like, people and businesses are opening up their imaginations and reawakening facets of their personality that were hidden under layers of day-to-day functioning.
The pandemic is certainly going to reset some, if not all parts, of our lives, and to discuss the how’s and what’s, Blue Circle caught up with the world’s first and leading applied futurist, Tom Cheesewright.
Author of ‘Future-Proof Your Business’, UK based Tom’s clients include fortune 500 companies, government departments, industry bodies and charities.
In this exclusive conversation, Tom talks about his obsession with the future, the meaning of applied (futurist) and strategies to deal with lightning-fast uncertainties.
Foray into the world of ‘futurism’
Tom has been obsessed with the future, ever since he was two years old.
“My mum bought me the Usborne Book of the Future, which was a famous book of impact. Basically its a book of predictions for the year 2000 and beyond,” he said, while showing us his 1979 original copy that he has kept safely for so long!
It was in 2006 that he began blogging about the future, and broadcasting about technology with BBC.
“I started getting invites to go on television and speak at conferences. My old clients started calling me up soliciting my opinion. I thought it was about time I pursued my passion full time.”
“Also, I confess I was partially burnt out from my then start-up. I would spend long hours working, with no time left for family. This was not the life I had wished for.”
About eight years ago he took the plunge. With the help of a friend, he put up a website, which called out his credentials of being a ‘futurist’. Days later, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The clients who approached were not small-time businesses, but bigwigs like LG, Nikon and Sony Pictures.
He took a few years to tailor a toolkit around their needs, because these tools didn’t exist, and then there was no looking back.
The role of an applied futurist
Tom revealed that it isn’t the long-term future that piqued the interest of businesses, but how the landscape would be disrupted.
As an applied futurist, Tom follows a three-pronged strategy to tell businesses what the future looks like for them. Unlike general perception, the future is not about the big picture, but the trends and realities that are going to disrupt their business in the next five years.
“One of the first tools I built was a near-term foresight tool, a way for leaders to take a small amount of time out of their day and their working life, and devote it to looking at the near term future.”
There are always pressures in an organisation, though some could be hidden from you. “Once you do the research, speak to people across your organisation, you discover the hidden pressures. Then, it’s all about going outside, and looking at those macro trends that are touching everything, intersecting with the pressures you are already facing. And when one connects with the other, you are going to see the most immediate and greatest scale of change.”
The second most vital tool is how to tell a story. Tom feels a vision of the future is no good, if a business can’t communicate effectively. “I do a lot of work with clients taking that story, sometimes from management, up to boards and shareholders to convince them of the need for change and investment. Sometimes from management down to staff, to tell the staff about how they’re going to change.”
The third part, as Tom says, deserves the title of applied the most. It is about innovating based on that vision. “I get involved in change programs, organizational design, restructuring organizations for agility, and fundamentally redesigning them sometimes.”
In a nutshell, being an applied futurist is about foresight, storytelling and changing innovation.
Strategies to apply in the Covid-era
On being asked if the same strategies apply to the Covid-era, or if they need to be revised, Tom says there is no change.
“It’s all about accelerating existing trends. You look at the state of the high street of retail, some were barely alive, Covid has just killed many of them. You look at the shift to home working and flexible working, this was already a massive trend globally. The highest acceleration is in business philosophy – the last 40 years, we have focused our efforts on optimisation and efficiency; it’s been all about how we do tomorrow better than what we are already doing today.”
Little time has been spent on imagining, planning, preparing for something completely different, should the need arise. “How are we investing in adaptation, and flexibility, as well as innovation?”
He believes that if businesses spend all their time thinking about the next quarter or next year, they are only building a short-term business, and not a sustainable business that will thrive in the long run. A pandemic like Covid-19 has highlighted that agility is more important for businesses than optimisation.
Work from home
Having worked from home, on and off for about 15 years, Tom says it took him almost 10 years to find the right way to work. Speaking of a survey that he conducted online, he says, “About 40% of the people wanted to go back to office, and 60% said they wanted to carry working from home. Many people love the camaraderie, the relationship, and a separation that there is a home and work life.”
While there is an initial thrill of working from home flexibly, most companies do not have the culture to make it work in the long term. There is not much trust in their employees, nor are the employees empowered with the right skills to self-manage.
According to Tom, “Managers must focus on output, and not effort”, which is lacking especially when companies do a work-from-home arrangement.
While work will be done more remotely than it ever was, it won’t work for everyone. “Everyone is not as prepared. Automation will rise, but skilled humans will be valued much more now. This is also a time to revalue empathy and creativity.”
Close-proximity jobs will face a challenging time, unless they add value to physical craft. “But it all boils down to how you can weather the storm and survive. Use this time for thinking and preparation, and restructuring and developing.”
How to future proof businesses
Tom feels this is the time for inspired leadership, a time that will accelerate trends. However, it won’t be an overnight revolution.
This is a time when businesses are left in a lurch, where they do not see light at the end of the tunnel. With predictions that more such pandemics will occur in the future, Tom feels it’s high time that businesses make a shift in mindset from optimisation to adaptation.
“When you shift that perspective, you do not think of a five-year plan as an average or speak of record growth. It is then about having an agile mindset, rapid transformation, and being prepared for twenty years of success and survival.”
The future will snap back
For Tom, the real concern is that most people’s lives will snap back to what they were before.
“It is actually really damaging for the environment and the climate. We almost feel like we have done a penance to the world. While some people will move in the right direction, I think the overwhelming trend will be a snap back to previous toxic behaviours.”
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