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PHILADELPHIA — No one knows what the future holds — unless, of course, knowing what the future holds is your job. Ford Motor Company’s corporate futurist Sheryl Connelly joined the 8th Annual Emerson Group Retail Industry Day to not just share what tomorrow’s consumers might be interested in buying, but more importantly to share a coiled perspective that starts broad and hits closer to the consumer as each new layer is analyzed.
“As business people, you cannot be afraid of the future,” Connelly said. “You have to try to anticipate where you want to go and how the market will receive you. What context will you have to navigate? What path will you follow?”
It’s not as simple as getting from point A to point B along your corporate timeline, defining the direction of your company and implementing a linear strategy to proceed along that course, Connelly said. Futurists have to incorporate change into their strategies. They have to navigate the potential ramifications of that change and implement a course redirect halfway through in order to reach the objective point.
“When people think about the future, they often look to the past,” Connelly warned. “They think that what’s worked in the past, what’s served them historically, will continue to serve them going forward,” she said. “It’s a bit like looking in your rearview mirror, while going 90 miles an hour forward. It’s really a horrible compass in terms of what to expect going forward.”
Using that rearview mirror to navigate the future will eventually drive your business off the road. According to Connelly, a better tool for future forecasting is a process she called "STEEP" —
• Examining how SOCIAL developments like consumer demographics, lifestyles and values will influence you brand;
• Determining the role TECHNOLOGY plays in the lifecycle of your products;
• Factoring the ECONOMY into your analysis and exploring how your brand fits into the overall scheme of things;
• Considering ENVIRONMENTAL impacts, including both your production footprint, as well as supply chain ramifications; and
• Thinking about how POLITICAL developments may impact your business.
For example, what happens if oil prices were to rise to $300 per barrel? “Most people would immediately go to ‘What does that do to our supply and demand?’ ‘How would that change our consumer outlook?’” Connelly said. “But I say before you get to that, you have a lot more questions to ask. You have to ask who are the political winners and losers? What are the economic implications for the winners vs. the losers? And inside each of those regions, what would it mean for the rich, the poor, the middle class? What kind of technologies would come out in that context? Grassroots, garage innovation that’s distributed in a bottom-up paradigm or would it be heavily funded venture capital that’s only available to the select few at the very top of the pyramid?”
“When you start asking questions like that, you recognize that no discussion is ever linear. If you pull on one string of these future scenarios, the entire fabric changes.”
Successful futurists consider juxtaposed scenarios, Connelly said. For example, what happens to your company’s strategy if the economy continues getting stronger, and what happens if the economy experiences another setback? It’s not about putting plans in motion for either eventuality but to consider what happens to those plans.
“Ultimately, if you can come up with a business plan, a strategy or product offering that works on either end of the spectrum, you don’t need to know what the future holds. Challenge your status quo. Ask yourself how resilient is your business plan,” Connelly said. “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”