Failure to anticipate change can be fatal. Here are some tools that can help you survive and prosper
in an age of constant change.
By William C. Ashley and James L. Morrison
[Note: This article is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in The Futurist, September/October
1997, 31(5), pp. 47-50. It is posted here with permission from the World Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, MD.]
As any chess player, military strategist, or athlete can tell you, being anticipatory gives you great competitive
advantage. But what is the secret to developing anticipatory prowess, and how do you use it to gain strategic advantage?
These are key questions that all organizations face, whether businesses, schools, government agencies, or
community groups. In a complex and rapidly changing society, being anticipatory and gaining strategic advantage requires sophisticated
intelligence-gathering techniques, new models of decision making, and ways to judge the results. Collectively, these tools
allow you to identify new opportunities, avoid being blindsided by external forces, and to turn potential threats into opportunities.
Failure to anticipate can be deadly: Your community is overrun with subdivisions and shopping malls with no
concern for citizen well-being, and you organize only after it is too late. A competitor anticipates customer wants and overruns
your territory, gobbling market share: Checkmate. Even big organizations with considerable internal resources have failed
to anticipate dramatic outside shifts and have faced the unanticipated checkmate. For example, GM failed to heed signals in
the late 1960s of a potential energy crisis, as well as the increasing attractiveness of small, fuel-efficient Japanese cars.
Ignoring these signals cost GM almost 30% of its U.S. market share. Sears in the 1970s continued to "fiddle" with self-branded
merchandise, monolithic department stores, and catalog delivery systems, while customers asked for name-brand merchandise
and for more quality in products and services.
Change has become the essence of management, so to survive and prosper in the future, you and your organization
will have to perfect "outside-in" thinking skills: to relate information about developments in the external world to what
is going on internally. The bottom line is whether change occurs as a series of crises or you use foresight and anticipation
to manage change in a calm, informed, and systematic manner.
The purpose of this article is to describe anticipatory management tools and processes that you can use to
anticipate change and shape the future of your team, company, or community.
A Model for Making Better Decisions
One way to understand what's going on outside the organization and use that understanding to make better decisions
and plans is to follow the Anticipatory Management Decision Process Model (Figure 1). This "outside-in" intelligence flow chart has been used with great success in a variety of corporate settings--from
United Airlines to Royal Dutch Shell to McDonald's. In 1983, for example, McDonald's undertook the largest toy recall ever,
yet it went largely unnoticed by the public. The company discovered that one of the toys it planned to promote had a possible
choking hazard. McDonald's promptly recalled the product, avoiding potential disaster.
The decision process model focuses on uncovering emerging issues and gives you a way to evaluate how serious
those issues are and what impact they may have on your organization, so you can make decisions in time.
Identifying Emerging Issues: An Issue Ignored Is a Crisis Invited
The first step is to identify emerging issues before they strike, much like earthquake forecasters scan fault
lines for signs of abnormal activity. Because significant issues may emerge from unexpected places, it is important to scan
the macroenvironment for social, technological, economic, environmental, and political developments. Anything can happen in
any of these sectors to change the future, such as an oil embargo, a wave of immigration, or a new zoning ordinance. Trends
and events converge to create issues, such as environmental protection, product liability, energy availability, and
A signal may be a demographic trend, such as a "baby bust," which may mean a severe dearth of entry-level
workers in the future, or an environmental trend, such as a buildup of greenhouse gases, which portends global warming. As
signals like these get louder, your action options narrow and your potential liabilities increase. Therefore, the sooner you
can identify emerging issues, the more options you will have. You can use the following tools to identify emerging issues
and where they are in their life cycle:
- Scanning, monitoring, and forecasting. Scanning identifies signals of change and monitoring follows
these signals. The onset of lawsuits and legislation surrounding repetitive stress injuries was signaled loud and clear by
over 1,200 newspaper and magazine articles on the topic in 1993. Some organizations paid attention and prepared, and others
ended up in the courtroom. Next comes forecasting, which estimates the duration, direction, acceleration, and amplitude of
- Challenging assumptions. We all have certain assumptions about our organization and the world. These
assumptions develop over time and become filters, keeping out information that doesn't fit. For example, members of a school
board may believe that "the Internet is just a fad." A few of the critical implicit assumptions held by the U.S. automobile
industry in the 1970s included: "The American car market is isolated from the rest of the world," "Energy will always be cheap
and abundant," and "The consumer movement does not represent the concerns of a significant portion of the American public."
By the mid-1970s, such assumptions were beginning to lose their validity, but it took the Big Three 20 years to recognize
it. That school board could face a similar lesson regarding the Internet.
- Conducting issue vulnerability audits. What are the subtle, overlooked opportunities or threats that
fall outside your organization's normal sphere of activity? Audit your organization's vulnerability to change and disruption
that may result from new competitors, new regulations, special-interest-group initiatives, scientific discoveries, or media
disclosures. Such an audit will increase your awareness of and sensitivity to external forces. It can assist you in surfacing
strategic issues before they become critical and your opportunities for acting are constrained.
- Writing scenarios. The purpose of scenarios is to illuminate uncertainty. Scenarios help determine
the ramifications of an issue's development along several alternative paths, which enables you to examine an issue's implications
over time. If an organization, for example, is thinking of expanding overseas, it should consider scenarios of political risk
for the countries it is targeting, such as a revolution or currency devaluation.
Preparing Issue Briefs
The next stage in the Anticipatory Management Decision Process Model is to analyze the intelligence you now
have about issues that could affect your organization. An issue brief is a concise document that summarizes an issue
for your leadership's consideration. A typical issue brief (about two pages) contains a statement of the focus of the issue;
a discussion of its background; a description of the trends, driving forces, and people and groups with a potential interest
in it; a forecast describing its future prospects; and the potential implications for the organization.
In the next stage, you must address crucial questions: What is the probability that the issue will become
critical? What is the probability that it will affect the organization? Can or should the organization influence the issue?
Issues must then be prioritized based on whether they require an immediate action or simply should be monitored and periodically
revisited. For example, the failed safety inspection of half the county's bridges demands action, while lapses in mowing roadside
grass can be dealt with later.
After your group has taken an action on a high-priority issue, you must review how well the action plan was
implemented, whether objectives were attained, and how the people and groups involved have responded. Sara Lee's response
to repetitive stress disorder is a classic example of how to effectively manage an issue. Rather than dismissing employees'
complaints about repetitive stress, Sara Lee hired a physician to observe the workers and make recommendations. The company
also hired an ergonomics engineer to evaluate the assembly line. Recommendations from the doctor and the engineer were put
into action and complaints of repetitive stress decreased 80%.
It is important to remember that an issue may be in its emergent stage for your organization, but it may be
much further progressed for another. Look for other organizations that may have already considered the issue. They may have
valuable information that you can draw upon. For example, when United Airlines confronted the issue of radiation from video
display terminals in 1983, their review of companies outside the airline industry uncovered information that made policy formation
much easier. The anticipatory issues management team used this existing information to draft position papers, form coalitions,
and write testimony. The lead time allowed concerns to be shared and addressed. Ergonomic architects were brought in to evaluate
each reservations center and accomplish the necessary work on United's time and budget rather than a government-imposed time
Becoming Accountable for Better Decisions
It is important to understand how strategic information flows from outside to inside your organization. Otherwise,
you may find yourself befuddled by an issue for which ample information already exists somewhere in the organization. A sports
trainer may know that the star player has a degenerative back condition, but if he or she does not tell the coach, the team
may suffer when the condition becomes serious later on. In the late 1980s, Motorola had an enormous amount of information
about the relationship between cellular phones and possible neurological damage. But the company did not use the information
to manage this potential issue. Instead, an outsider presented the case for a positive link between the two and set off a
somewhat hysterical public debate, in which Motorola took a real bashing.
Anticipatory management relies heavily on processes and responsibilities. The decision process model described
earlier helps you follow the flow of strategic intelligence through an organization and assign accountability or responsibility
for responding to that intelligence. While emerging issues may be complicated, the process by which they are dealt with should
Here is a simply structured Anticipatory Management Accountability Model:
- Assign the anticipatory management function. The title of the manager charged with the anticipatory
management function varies within organizations--in business, it ranges from issues manager to public affairs manager to vice
president for public relations or strategic planning. We'll use the generic term anticipatory manager. The anticipatory manager's
duties are to oversee the strategic intelligence system, identify issues from numerous sources, analyze and compile trend
information into issue briefs for consideration by a steering committee, and facilitate action and policy teams.
- Form a steering committee. The steering committee is made up of senior staff or volunteers selected
by the leadership to screen and prioritize emerging issues that have already been identified. This team should possess an
in-depth knowledge of the organization and have an open mind to the external forces with influence on the organization. Their
duties are to review the issue briefs; determine implications and degree of organizational opportunity or vulnerability; rate
issues on the basis of probability, impact, and whether the organization can or should influence them; and develop consensus
on the degree of organizational involvement.
- Manage the issues. If an issue has been given a high priority, the steering committee assigns "ownership"
for the issue by determining which person or group could most benefit from or be hurt by it. Ownership does not imply that
work on the issue should be carried out exclusively by the "owner." The anticipatory manager works with the owner to select
an action team, set an agenda, and facilitate team meetings as necessary. When possible, monitoring events and trends on a
systematic basis should be the responsibility of a separate issues management staff to ensure that all necessary information
will be evaluated.
- Inform the leadership. At this stage, the steering committee reviews the action plan presented by
the issue owner, including details of what is to be done, why, by whom, when, how much it will cost, and where the money will
come from. Because many action plans involve cross-disciplinary work teams, it is crucial that all parties agree to it. The
steering committee then forwards the plan to the leadership, who may need to quiz the committee on such issues as the involved
parties' positions and technical and operating objectives.
Decision Making and Decision Accountability
Using the decision process and the accountability models together assures that your organization is linked
to its external macroenvironment and ready to act.
If your organization spends its time solving problems and resolving crises, it will have little time for innovation.
The tendency to race headlong into the future while looking in the rear-view mirror (to see how something was done in the
past) and out the side windows (to see how the competition is doing it) has proven unproductive over the long haul. With foresight
and anticipation, your organization will be more productive.
Anticipatory management provides systematic and formal ways of understanding the world outside the organization.
However, anticipatory management only becomes useful when it penetrates the "inner world" or mind of the participants. The
human mind works by using accumulated experience to construct an internal model of the external reality. The tools of anticipation
offer important additional information about the outside world. More significantly, they fundamentally alter perceptions,
challenge prejudices, and open your mind to new insights so that you and your organization will know what to do, how to do
it, and what the outcome might be.