Future thinking is an important tool for leaders

“It is a utopia that sticking to what exists provides security. On the contrary. Consciously implementing and leading the process of proactively shaping the future is the surest way to keep yourself professionally fit and give more meaning to your work.” Christina Taylor and Judith Wimmer, lecturers at BFH Business School, explain what they mean by this in an interview.

Christina Taylor is co-leader of the specialist course “Future Thinking Skills” at BFH Business School.

Christina Taylor, you were Vice President of Innovation at Outpost in Silicon Valley for five years, after which you founded and headed the Human Centered Design department within Swisscom. As a member of the business unit management, you initiated and orchestrated Swisscom’s 15-year innovation and transformation journey. Did you do everything right back then?

Christina Taylor: Above all, we made some unconventional decisions for the time. For example, we focused strongly on including the customer perspective in all strategic decisions. This was not always a conflict-free undertaking that required consistency, dialogue and perseverance from all of us. Furthermore, we consciously took time to shape the future and discussed future scenarios and possibilities several times a year with the management team. Revolutionary was that we said “the way we work is our most important innovation, not the technology”. So we deliberately focused on skill development and the way we work together to create an uncopyable competitive advantage.

Is it the leadership’s job to define the future of the company? Christina Taylor: Companies need people who are on fire for the future and its proactive shaping; who look at the world with a broad view; who have the ability to recognise and connect signals of the future and who initiate, drive and protect unconventional initiatives for the company. This is the role I call “Full Spectrum Leader”. However, these leaders depend on “intrapreneurs” to launch initiatives and make them successful. Intrapreneurs have the skills to make visions tangible, to assemble teams and to achieve concrete goals together. Employees and managers should be deployed where they can be most effective. It is not the same skillsets and attitudes that are needed to run the business with operational excellence or to bring about the next future successes.

Why do you find this relevant now, in the midst of the digital transformation?

Christina Taylor: In our work with companies from a wide range of industries, we observe that they are becoming increasingly aware that sustainable solutions cannot be developed alone. What is needed is collaboration beyond company boundaries, systemic approaches, the building of ecosystems. Managers are challenged to go new ways, to make courageous decisions and to think in the big picture.

Judith Wimmer, you have over 15 years of experience in managing and implementing innovative projects. Can sustainable leadership be learned?

Judith Wimmer is co-leader of the specialist course “Future Thinking Skills” at BFH Business School.

Judith Wimmer: Since my studies, I have been concerned with the question of how creativity can be stimulated, how new things are created? Thinking models and methods such as Design Thinking, Business Modelling or Future Thinking help. They provide orientation, are a “common language”, function like catalysts. Craft can be learned: In the case Christina described, this would be, for example, recognising signals of the future at an early stage; translating what drivers and trends mean very concretely for one’s own business; making ideas tangible; pitching; developing scenarios; leading decision-making processes, etc.

What was revolutionary was that we said “the way we work is our most important innovation, not technology”.

In addition to craft, there is a need for cognitive flexibility; trust in the process and the team; the ability to hold sometimes controversial perspectives; making decisions together without knowing exactly where the journey is going. These skills have to do with reflectiveness, courage and awareness. It’s like building muscles – both require the right exercise environment, repetition and the will not to give up. In this sense, yes, proactively shaping the future is a skill that can be learned.

Making ideas tangible and developing scenarios – is that Future Thinking?

Judith Wimmer: Exactly, Future Thinking is about developing future scenarios holistically and system-oriented. In contrast to Design Thinking, the focus is on solving current problems, but rather on dealing with future potentials and exploring choices. In the corporate context, it can be assigned to the strategy/vision level as a higher-level aspect of the strategy development process.

Isn’t this old wine in new bottles?

Christina Taylor: Many methods and approaches are used before they are named and systematically recorded. Taking Swisscom as an example, I see a lot of Future Thinking – without ever calling it that. If last year’s Corona pandemic taught us anything, it is how fragile our perceived security and how useful our solution concepts really are. Reflection alone is not enough. We need to consciously engage with today, our past and the future, think with our hands and make courageous decisions.


“Future Thinking” can be learned

BFH Business School offers a 9-day specialised course in which participants gain an insight into Future Thinking. The course uses analytical and creative-intuitive methods to proactively shape the future. Within the course modules, the lecturers rely on the methodology of “thinking with one’s hands” and develop not only strategic decision-making bases, but also artefacts of the future. The course participants are guided through an interactive process and learn from and with each other. The course is based on theories, methods and models that have proven themselves in practice, including Strategic Foresight according to IFTF.org, Future Thinking, Storytelling, Systemic Transformation.

The course starts on 20 August 202, the registration form and further information can be found here.


About the person

Christina Taylor has over 30 years of experience in strategic leadership roles around innovation, customer experience & transformation at companies such as Swisscom and Omega, in Europe, USA and Asia. As VP of Innovation at Swisscom, she spent 5 years at Outpost in Silicon Valley and then founded and led the Human Centered Design department. As a member of the business unit management, she initiated and orchestrated Swisscom’s 15-year innovation and transformation journey. In 2017, Christina transferred half of her 60-strong team to Creaholic, one of Switzerland’s most established innovation factories. As Managing Partner, she worked with a wide variety of clients such as Migros Group, Nestlé, Axa, Botnar Foundation and Swiss Post. Today, Christina is co-founder and managing partner of scenarioC and lecturer at various universities of applied sciences such as ZHAW, BFH and HSLU.

Judith Wimmer has over 15 years of experience in the management, implementation and anchoring of innovative projects. As a project manager, she has led over 50 teams from the generation of new ideas, through the creation of functional prototypes, to the development of sound business cases or convincing customer experiences. As a systemic and client-oriented consultant, she designs and accompanies the anchoring of meaningful ideas into operational implementation. Her clients include SMEs, large international companies and associations from various industries, such as mechanical engineering, the food industry, agriculture, healthcare and the luxury sector.


References

  1. Christina Taylor. 2018. Oops! Innovation is not an accident. W. by Editions Weblaw.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Anne-Careen Stoltze

Anne-Careen Stoltze is Editor in Chief of the science magazine SocietyByte. She works in communications at BFH Business School, she is a journalist and geologist.

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