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Why is it so hard for companies to think about the future?

Over my almost decade long consulting career, I’ve always been trying to help companies figure out how to prepare for a different future – first with a focus on sustainability, and now on emerging technologies and innovation. I made the transition over the innovation from sustainability strategy work a couple of years ago, and having the privilege to have worked with some of the largest companies in the world on both these topics, I am quite amazed how similar the two topics are, and how difficult they are to get accomplished.

  • A year is too short for anything: The biggest similarity in my mind is having a perspective that is longer than any business cycle allows for – whether you’re trying to save the planet, or predict what your consumer may want to spend money on next, the rigor of the quarterly earnings cycle can be unjust. However, there’s still the external expectation – from your investors, your customers and even your employees to demonstrate that the company is committed to proactively dealing with a changing future.
  • Passion and power within organizations seems disconnected: Specialized departments and functional roles represent a level of commitment from the organization to support either innovation or sustainability, but organizational friction, silos and misaligned incentives get in the way of measurable change. The passion of sustainability professionals and innovation leaders is undeniable (and infectious!) but depending on their structure, both groups remain unable to affect substantive change. The companies that have either (or both) imbedded in their culture are among the most inspiring and rewarding to work with.
  • Measuring success is hard: One of my frustrations with sustainability work, particularly as a

consultant, was measurement and reporting paralysis, where the adage of you can’t manage what you can’t measure has perhaps been taken to an extreme, and the values that underpin sustainability are lost under spreadsheets and disclosures. For innovation, the problem is even tougher – how do you measure the value of an idea left unpursued? What do you do when the idea was great, but somewhere along the lines, execution was left wanting?

In some ways, sustainability as a defined problem (because there’s an end goal of doing less harm to the planet and people in sight) can provide some direction to what needs to be done and the solutions that need to be applied. But as I’ve learned very quickly working on innovation, there’s endless possibilities of what human ingenuity coupled with the rapid advances in science and technology can take us, whether its addressing major societal problems, or changing the way people live their lives – by making them more healthy, relaxing, exciting, convenient or just plain fun.

The questions I get asked are sometimes perplexing, but almost always fascinating. It’s a challenge that keeps me excited every day I come to work. As my clients try to understand what technologies can turn their ideas into products and services and even new businesses, I’m always challenged to envision a different future, and it’s probably the best part of my job.

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