One of the first things we are taught when learning to drive is the simple principle of "look where you want to go." This principle is especially critical for racecar drivers who travel four or five times the speed of the average motorist.
Traveling at high rates of speed demands a combination of two distinct skills:
First, drivers must look farther ahead than their immediate surroundings; they must look where they want to be, not only where they currently are.
Second, they must be able to distinguish activities outside their current field of view.
When traveling in the slow lane, it is easy to become visually fixated on what is happening immediately ahead; it is a natural reaction. But for racecar drivers traveling at speeds over 200 miles per hour, a short and narrow focus can lead to potentially disastrous outcomes.
Today’s business environment is more racetrack than slow lane. Successfully navigating such a fast-paced and rapidly-changing environment requires the eye of a racecar driver – one that looks farther ahead and senses activities going on outside the immediate field of view.
Balancing the Fast Lane with Corporate Stewardship
However, for a business leader, the need to look ahead must be balanced with the duty of corporate stewardship.
Defined by Merriam-Webster as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care, stewardship often means a CEO, COO, or CFO – with oversight from a board of directors – is the watcher of organizational performance. Charged with activities such as monitoring financials and tracking production or performance metrics, organizational leaders are compelled to remain keenly focused on making sure day-to-day operations lead to quarter-to-quarter performance for shareholders.
If Top Leaders are Watching the Present, Who Should Watch the Future?
Top leaders cannot – and should not – take their eye off the road immediately ahead. But focusing only on the present – without an eye to the future – leaves an organization exposed to incoming threats from both an operating environment and a market that are changing faster than the speed of heat.
Who, then, has the responsibility to “look where the company wants to go,” and beyond the current field of view? Who are the stewards of the future in today’s businesses?
Stewards of the Future
Continued success hinges on an organization’s ability to understand, plan, and adapt to the future – and to do it quickly and repeatedly.
In addition to asking “are we doing ok right now?” organizations must ask “are we healthy for the long term?” Someone – better yet a group of people – must be entrusted to carefully and responsibly manage what lies ahead.
Every organization needs a steward(s) of the future to encourage future-focused thinking by asking questions that force leaders and advisors to think like racecar drivers:
What’s next for our company?
What processes are we putting in place to help us make sense out of our environment and our market?
How are we sensing our operating environment and market changes? How must we prepare for those changes?
How should we leverage the whole organization to be a sensing organization?
How must we become nimble enough to adapt to and stay ahead of changes down the road?
How can we fail quickly to allow for innovation without breaking our company?
How are we building creativity into our operations?
How are we optimizing risks for explosive growth vs. managing risk for sustained performance?
It may be tempting to assemble an ad hoc “long range planning” group to go off and study the future, and then make recommendations on how to get there. But this approach will fail. It is like having a fan in the stands with binoculars describing what lies ahead to the racecar driver.
The organization itself, not a subset or outside group, has the most to gain – and lose – by failing to understand, plan, and adapt.
The fast lane of today’s new knowledge economy presents opportunities for companies to increase profit potential and growth. But driving in the fast lane also demands an exquisite ability to anticipate what’s next and prepare for – or better yet, get ahead of – change. It demands the ability to innovate continuously. It may demand radical organizational change.
It demands courage and stewardship of the future.