“If you don’t know where you’re going, you will wind up somewhere else” – Yogi Berra
Consider this: There are a near-infinite number of possible futures for your business. Inherently, most of these possibilities aren’t very good. Virtually every one is not optimal. Why not choose to create one of the best possible futures for your business?
Choose your future? C’mon Steve. What do you mean, choose my future?
Yes. Choose your future.
The hard truth: You choose your future whether you want to or not.
Every time you do anything — yes, anything — you are affecting the course of your company’s future. Sometime’s these actions are as momentous as the CEO’s decision to cook the books; sometimes they are small gems, like the receptionist offering to hail a cab for a client in a snowstorm. In every case, they have an effect on the future. Take the receptionist’s action, for example. Like the apocryphal butterfly flapping its wings in South America and causing a hurricane half a world away six months later, this client’s view of the company has been altered by her small gesture. Maybe he’ll be in a better mood on the way to the airport, have a glass of wine during his snow-induced flight delay, and decide to award the next contract to your company. You never know what effect a tiny action can have…
Now, zoom out from single actions, and think about the cumulative effect of the thousands of things you do every day. Can any of us think, for even a moment, that the sum total of everything we do doesn’t affect the course of our business’s future? For example, if people in your company regularly ask customers for input and feedback, then just as regularly respond to that input and feedback, won’t that inevitably affect the future course of your business? Conversely, what if people in your company share a bad habit of ignoring customer input? I don’t even need to ask you if you think that would affect your future.
No matter whether you try or not, you inevitably choose your future. It might not be the future you really want, but your actions will choose it. Everything you do is an overt choice about the future you will have.
I wrote in a blog post recently about the film What the Bleep Do We Know? which connected one of the basic ideas of quantum physics — that the observer influences reality — with the choices we make in every day life. The film does a great job of showing how our minds influence our realities by affecting our worldview and the actions we take in response to that worldview.
What future do you want to choose?
So, if you’re going to choose your future, you might as well choose a good future. I’ll let you in on a consultant’s secret little observation: When I first meet most companies, it’s very clear to me that they haven’t spent a lot of time talking about what kind of future they want to have. Oh, sure, they’ve discussed their future… a bit. They may have a rough ongoing conversation about expansion into Europe, or about developing new products to meet new government regulations, or about someday going public. But, in virtually every case, their picture of their company’s future is fuzzy and unformed.
How often does your company ask, “Who do we intend to be?” How often does your senior team work together to create a clear, rich picture of your company’s optimal future? Or do they just muddle through and end up meeting an unexpected future when it arrives?
“Who do we intend to be?” is a question you should ask now and continue asking every day you are in business.
I wasn’t using the term “Invent Your Future” 25 years ago, at age 25, when I graduated from business school. But I was asking myself “Who do you intend to be?” on a pretty regular basis. I was a bit obsessive about choosing my future, and now that I’ve turned 50, it’s interesting to look back and see the future I chose for myself. I really wanted to be a dad, and now Arna and I have three wonderful kids, ages 23, 21 and 17. I wanted to play in a band, and now Shakshuka has been together for 15 years and released three CDs. (My 21-year-old son Levi is our drummer.) I wanted to have my own business, and I’ve been doing that for the past 12 years. I wanted to write a book, and now I’ve written two. I decided I didn’t want to take cholesterol-lowering medicine every day for the rest of my life, so I got myself in good enough shape to go off the medication. I did these things because they were important parts of the future I wanted for myself. I get frustrated sometimes when I think about all of the other things I haven’t done, but the reality is that I haven’t done them because I haven’t chosen to include them in my future. Our ability to accomplish things has less to do with skills and abilities and more to do with the choices we make. I just made certain choices that were important to me.
The Window and the Mirror
“But there are too many variables that affect our company’s future,” you might be thinking, “and we can’t affect them all.”
Of course there are many variables. Some of these variables are not in your control, such as interest rates in 2013. Other variables are in your control, like where to invest your capital.
So a first step in choosing your future is to recognize what is in your control and what is not. I like to think of this distinction as“The Window & The Mirror.”Know what is going on in your environment — outside the window — and understand it with great depth. Then, look into the mirror and say, “I understand what is going on out there, and here’s what I’m going to do to make the best of it.” When you acknowledge where you have choice, you are making a very important step in choosing your future.
You can’t choose all futures.
In his (fantastic, amazing, highly-recommended) book,Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes a wonderful chapter called Keeping Doors Open: How options distract us from our main objective. Ariely’s point is this: In our quest to leave too many possibilities in place, we end up diluting our efforts, our focus and our chances for success with any one option.
Isn’t this the truth! Virtually every company I’ve ever worked with (including my own) is in dire need of a “to-don’t list” that will keep them from being distracted. You just watch. When you commit yourself and your company to a focused future direction, you will enjoy much better “return on effort” with everything you do.
You can make mid-course corrections.
Yes, keeping too many doors open can distract you and dilute your efforts. But it’s very difficult to limit your options, because it’s natural to worry about the opportunity cost of the things you give up. Don’t worry about this opportunity cost too much. As the future becomes the present, you will inevitably learn new things about yourself, your company and the world you compete in, and it will be possible to alter your course. Your choice of a future can evolve as the future evolves.
The most important things are these:
- Admit that you are choosing your future, every day, by the actions you take.
- Be bold and choose a future.
- Recognize what you can choose, and what you can’t choose. Distinguish between “the window and the mirror.”
- Focus! Don’t leave too many options open.
- Make mid-course corrections as you go forward.
You can invent your future, and to do that you must choose the future you want to invent.