Innovation Needs Future-Minded Leaders

April 14, 2020

Innovation Needs Future-Minded Leaders

Mark Johnson understands that leaders need to bring bold visions to life as they guide their companies. As co-founder of Innosight with Clay Christensen, Johnson has focused on connecting innovation and strategy. In his new book Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth, Johnson, along with co-author Josh Suskewicz, explains the vital role of vision and how companies can expand their ideas of what is possible. 

HR People + Strategy: Why is it important to look past the short-term in planning? How can leaders plan long term with the constant change in business?

Johnson: Any breakthrough innovation effort you undertake is likely to take five years or more to reach scale. A disruption that your competitor is developing may not begin to affect you for five years or more. Having an exclusively short-term planning horizon virtually guarantees that you won’t be preparing for the most important developments, whether they are threats or opportunities. 

As to how to plan farther ahead while meeting all the challenges of the here and now, that is at the heart of Lead From the Future. To put it in a nutshell, it requires senior executives to do two things: First, they must stop delegating their long-range thinking to research and development or to Chief Innovation Officers. New growth efforts require resources and are exquisitely vulnerable; they need to be guided and nurtured from C-suites. And second, they must allocate SOME of their time to the long-term, despite the pressures of the short-term and the constant change in business. For long-term planning, they must learn how to use a mode of thinking that we call future-back, which is less linear and more iterative and intuitive than what they may be used to, but no less rigorous. 

HRPS: What is a vision and how is it different than a strategy? 

Johnson: In popular parlance, a visionary is a company founder, a political iconoclast or a Beatles-level icon that changes how we experience the world—one of Steve Jobs’ “crazy ones” (or Steve Jobs himself). At the opposite end of the spectrum, “vision” is sometimes mistaken for the kind of aspirational branding that goes into a typical corporate “vision statement.” 

We take a more pragmatic approach. For us, a business visionary is someone who is able to develop a systems-level view of the relevant markets of the future and then design what the enterprise should look like in that future. But vision is only the “what” and not the “how.” Vision is made actionable through strategy, which is the means to achieve it, the set of steps that you must take over time to achieve the desired future state. A vision tells you what new game you must play. Your strategy is what enables you to win it. 

HRPS: What is “future-back” thinking? How can leaders learn to think that way?

Johnson: Present-forward thinking is concerned with what is as opposed to what could be; it is what you use when you crunch data and operate and execute in the here and now. Future-back thinking develops and explores assumptions as it seeks to expand the art of the possible—as such, it looks to ask the right questions rather than to find one right answer.

Leaders learn to think in the future-back way by understanding that nature of the thinking and how it differs from present-forward. But future-back thinking and insights are also enabled through strategic dialogues—structured conversations in which senior leaders work through their ideas as teams, diverging and ultimately converging on key questions. Its aim is clarity rather than certainty. 

HRPS: How can leaders infuse their vision and goals throughout the whole organization?

Johnson: The great strength of organizations is that they standardize processes and make them repeatable. As intuitive as it is, future-back thinking can be institutionalized, up to a point. 

All of this begins at the top—senior leaders must communicate their view of the future relentlessly, and model this new way of thinking in their behavior and decision-making. They need to listen to the most future-minded people on their boards, and recruit directors who have experience with new business development. They must promote long-term thinkers and pay attention to what Microsoft’s Satya Nadella calls “power metrics” as opposed to “performance metrics.” Performance metrics capture revenues and profits delivered, while power metrics capture the leading indicators of future success.

Most important is the development of a learning culture—one where people aren’t afraid to make the kinds of mistakes that they can learn from. Having a shared set of goals and an inspiring mission helps too. The more employees are aligned with an organization’s transcendent what and why, the more they believe in its values, the higher their productivity and the stronger their connections with their customers. 

HRPS: Can companies cultivate visionary leaders? How? 

Johnson: There are terrific executive development programs that foster the ethos and the skills that future-back thinking demands. We write about some of them in Lead From the Future. As already mentioned, HR guidelines and performance metrics can be used to encourage and reward creativity as well as delivery. Your highest-value up-and-comers shouldn’t worry about taking entrepreneurial risks, but embrace the opportunities. They won’t if the reward systems you have are entirely geared towards short-term delivery. They probably won’t even stay with your company. 

But for future-back thinking to really take hold, it has to be more than a one-and-done; you can’t reserve it for the occasional offsite or strategic review. It must become a way of life. 

The Authors: 

Mark Johnson is co-founder and senior partner of Innosight and co-author of Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth.