How to Put Foresight Front and Center of Company Strategy

June 21, 2024

Three things company foresight practitioners can do to become high-impact partners to the C-suite.

It can be a touch depressing speaking to foresight practitioners inside big companies. They are generally not at the heart of the action when it comes to key decisions, not sitting at the big table when strategy is discussed, not the ones leaders turn to for critical guidance. They’re not often really shaping strategy.

But they should be. Companies need them to be. Confusion about the future is rife within C-suites, and anxiety about how to transform keeps leaders up at night.

Foresight needs to get proactive and fight for greater impact and their right to shape strategy. I think they can take lessons on how to get that fight right by looking back to the assertive steps customer insights and design departments have taken in many of the world’s best companies to move themselves up the corporate food chain into positions of real strategic influence.

Five or six years ago, I was working as a strategy consultant inside several big companies just as the design thinking craze came sweeping through the business world. In all these companies, leaders right up to the C-suite were being trained to think like designers, and design thinking phases were being added to big strategic processes. I watched, impressed as design functions were emboldened, empowered, and enlarged. “Design” was suddenly part of most “strategy” conversations I had with clients.

Ten or eleven years ago something similar was happening with customer insight, with companies investing in new ways to understand people and customer experts inserting themselves into C-suite meetings alongside finance, strategy and engineering as key decisions were made.

With both design and customer insight, what these corporate functions ultimately achieved was to elevate their impact on strategy, and in most cases companies benefitted enormously. Here are three lessons that foresight practitioners can learn from these examples.

1) Start embedding yourself and foresight in key processes and decision-making systems and stop offering guidance from the periphery

Making cars is mind-bogglingly complicated so automotive companies don’t mess with the process much. It was therefore a big deal when eight years ago Ford inserted a new mandatory step in their product development process – a team of customer experts laying down a set of totally customer-centric requirements to guide all the following activities of Marketing, Engineering and Design. This was in addition to the previous step that majored in quantitative market research, competitor benchmarking and engineering futuring. That product development process was THE process at Ford. It determined where the money went, who was doing what, whether the company won or lost. Making their case and investing time with leadership to figure out how to make themselves a systematic part of it transformed the strategic impact of the customer insight group.

“Customer insight went from guiding vehicle programs within the product program processes to driving the most important corporate and product decisions. It was like magic. It was so compelling that people became advocates for customers, understanding their future, what they would really value and the complexities affecting their lives. You can see the positive impact it had on the market success of many of our key products.”

Susan Pacheco, Former Head of Ford Customer Insight and Strategy

2) Start proactively targeting the emerging priorities of the C-suite and stop passively accepting requests from middle management

One of the things that impressed me most about working with the teams investigating changing user behaviors at Google was how sophisticated they were at prioritizing – boldly forming their own view of which activities would most benefit the company and top-level decision makers. They systematically explored what they thought the next sources of growth could be and the uncertainties of company leaders, and only then decided how they would spend their precious time and resources. Their relevance and perceived value were therefore far higher than the insight teams in other companies I’ve seen drown by more passively accepting a flood of lower-level requests from middle-management. For example, they anticipated company priorities and produced an actionable new perspective on how search behaviors were changing just as the company leaders felt threatened by a new technology, prioritized the topic and sought guidance. This knack meant they have more consistently played a role in the big strategic decisions that have helped Google thrive.

“From synthesizing market intelligence and listening to our leaders we devised our own set of learning priorities. We took the risk of saying “no” to many requests if we didn’t think they were absolutely key to future growth.”

Saeideh Bakhshi, Former Google UX Research Lead

3) Start collaborating with other departments to develop specific implications and stop just handing over inspiring insights and hoping for the best

The extent to which a wider company understands the value of an intelligence function, like design, or customer insight, or indeed foresight is closely connected to whether other departments can translate their outputs into real action. That translation is best done collaboratively, but it takes perseverance and guts to re-position an intelligence function at the heart of a new collaborative process that demands time and attention from busy execs in other departments. Fortunately, perseverance and guts were what the leaders of the Design department in Beiersdorf had in spades. Over the course of a few months in Hamburg, I watched them tug skeptical execs from marketing, engineering, sales, and strategy into a new design-led collaboration to define the future of a key brand. And it worked. Through workshops, they combined the best expertise in the company to develop specific new actions they would take together as a group. These challenged a host of unhelpful business assumptions and have helped keep a €5bn brand at the top of its category ever since.

“We pushed to have leaders from other departments play a big role in the process from the start. This came with all kinds of challenges, but the end point was a set of clear actions they understood and were bought into.”

Jenny Fleischer, Former Head of Design at Beiersdorf.

In the 16 years I have been a strategy consultant, I have never seen demand from corporate leaders for foresight, future readiness, a differentiated view on the future marketplace like I see today. EY’s latest annual CEO survey confirms leaders are prioritizing bold future moves like never before, with 95% of CEOs planning transformational change this year1. Foresight has to be part of this conversation. As the experts on the future, they must guide long-term strategy and big decisions with clear perspectives on future growth. It’s time for them to step up, just as customer insights and design functions did, and fight for their right to shape strategy.

Talk to Us to Enhance Your C-Suite Impact

Are you ready to elevate your foresight function and transform your company’s strategy? Our insights show how embedding foresight, targeting C-suite priorities, and fostering cross-departmental collaboration can revolutionize your strategic influence. Let’s discuss how we can help you put foresight front and center, driving impactful decisions and future-proofing your organization.

 

  1. https://www.ey.com/en_uk/ceo/ceo-outlook-global-report
Eliot

Written by Eliot Salandy Brown

Eliot Salandy Brown, Director of Advisory Services at Foresight Factory, has been advising global companies for 16 years. His work leading strategy projects for the likes of Intel, Mars, Hyundai and LEGO focuses on injecting a rich understanding of the future needs of customers into their key business decisions. Eliot is an executive fellow at Kings’ Business School, a former MBA lecturer at NYU and Columbia University, and holds an MSc from the London School of Economics.

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