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Companies need to design the future—not just react to it

To move beyond purpose, companies must proactively design the future they want to work toward.

Companies need to design the future—not just react to it
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Leaders, employees, customers, shareholders, and citizens are all looking for futures that achieve new levels of success. Success that is wider, deeper, and more sustaining. This globally synchronized intent to “build back better” creates a unique opportunity for the world.

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But companies will miss this generational opportunity if they operate according to the default (either sticking to the tried-and-tested or tinkering around the edges). Unfortunately, many are doing that: issuing statements of purpose, sympathy, and compassion but fundamentally running the business as it’s always been run. Capitalism is at an inflection point. The Business Roundtable and the World Economic Forum have stated their intention to evolve toward stakeholder capitalism. But for many companies, this may be more an act of feeling good than doing good.

With clarity and intention, companies can design the future they want to see.

What does it take to design the future?

The first step is leaders’ intention. This may arise from an intrinsic motivation to leave a positive legacy, or it may be compelled by investors (like Blackrock’s Larry Fink), by employees (like Amazon’s workers), or by outside pressure (particularly from governments, customers, or activists). Without leaders’ intent toward something greater than personal success, not much is possible, and a company is left to ride its luck, stumbling into a future that may or may not be kind to it.

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Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, provides a case study in both sides of this equation. Under the Trump administration, the company was fighting future emissions standards—struggling to maintain its default technology and hold the entire market in stasis. One week into the Biden administration, the company surprised many by abandoning its default trajectory, and instead designing a future with carbon neutrality by 2040, “working to establish a safer, greener, and better world.” Its prospects look much better in designing a future than in trying to hold back the tide.

But intent is just the first step. The vogue of company purpose statements looks a lot like a fresh coat of paint on default business. To pick one terrible example: Facebook unveiled a new mission statement, “to bring the world closer together,” but made only partial changes to its business when more than 1,000 advertisers boycotted the company.

To move beyond purpose, companies must proactively design the future they want to work toward. This should be beyond human-centered design to at least community-centered design, because designing for individual gratification may well lead to “negative externalities” for all the stakeholders ignored. And given that most futures will be pretty bleak if design continues to ignore the environment, more companies should consider planet-centered design.

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Far from distracting companies from value creation, we’ve witnessed the business and personal impact of starting with a planetary agenda in Tesla’s success. Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, didn’t just set a lofty goal (“accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”), he designed the future and, unusually, published his design in the top-secret master plan:

Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

Despite seeing a clear future design, most of the rest of the automotive industry stubbornly clung to its default practices; nearly 15 years elapsed between Musk publishing his future design and Barra’s statement in January.

Design for the next quarter (century)

We all know companies love to plan for the next quarter or, at best, the next year. This leads to minor iterations on what’s gone before: 3% better here, 5% better there. With the perspective of a complete career, these almost always seem inconsequential—too many people spending too much life energy tinkering with the default. One example of many: Before the pandemic hit, Marriott framed its strategy to investors as 1% to 3% annual growth. It’s hard to argue that’s much of a design for the future, certainly not one that’s likely to energize its own people, let alone create the world we all want to see. Meanwhile, Brian Chesky of Airbnb was designing a radically different, long-term future of travel with a societal vision for communities and cities. Airbnb is now more than twice as valuable as Marriott. Future design pays off.

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Here’s a wonderful and liberating thing about future design: Companies can try on multiple futures and see how they feel. Each future design should be a fully rounded picture—a plan for what the company is doing, how it’s operating, how it works with communities and the planet, and how shareholders benefit. Future One might be a more conservative option; Future Five might be radical. The very act of engaging in these conversations is energizing, and is a shortcut to substantive conversations between teams about what success really looks like; it’s a fundamental conversation that’s often overlooked.

Future design requires a new kind of process

At Enso, we have found this approach works for companies at moments of inflection.

Finding what’s needed: Instead of determining immediate needs (“share photos more easily”), identify bigger, more enduring needs (“create greater belonging with others”). While people’s immediate needs may change rapidly, designing for higher-order needs will always be relevant and lead to more expansive solutions.

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Exploring what’s possible: Rather than creating a financially oriented five-year plan, create a narrative description of the world the team wants to create. The dialogue needed to arrive at a shared vision is often revealing, unifying, and sometimes cathartic. Knowing what each other views as a successful life or career creates stronger cultures than just agreeing to KPIs for next year.

Align action with intention: Instead of a siloed strategy team developing a plan of action behind closed doors, run a collaborative design sprint with key stakeholders—but rather than using the sprint methodology to arrive at new products or features, use it to arrive at new futures.

Building a shared mission: Depending on the futures envisioned, the process then turns to making, measuring, and evolving. This likely affects multiple teams in a company, or every team, because creating new futures is not as simple as creating a new process, ad campaign, or product feature—but it may well include all of those things, and require external collaborators.

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The past year has been incredibly challenging for so many, but, more than ever, the future’s not predetermined, it’s there to be shaped by leaders and companies willing to put forth a compelling design for the world. The multiple crises of 2020 have raised the stakes: The default will not hold, and the companies that make a mark will be those that proactively, bravely, collaboratively design the future.


Sebastian Buck is a cofounder and partner at Enso.

About the author

Sebastian is the co-founder of enso.

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