Think of the future. Go on! Now tell me honestly what is the furthest point in time that you imagined. If it was three years then I’m not surprised. After all, in business three seems almost to be some sort of talisman. We have three year business plans, 2-3 year product development cycles and of course there is that ubiquitous interview question about where you see yourself in three year’s time.

Now, more than ever before, it is time for a change. Whilst a three year cycle may have served businesses well for decades, the world has moved on. Technology and the internet have combined to create a global marketplace in which potential disruptors can come from anywhere; the internet generations are bringing a new ethos to business life; customers and consumers are becoming ever-more savvy; and lurking in the background is the potential threat from climate change.

All these factors and more lead to one inescapable conclusion; as businesses we cannot simply continue plodding along the same old track, measuring out our days with a short-term outlook wrapped up in a three year plan. If we really want to make a difference then we have to change our outlook and that means not simply talking about change but stepping up to shape the future.

I’m not alone in this belief. Writing in Forbes recently Greg Satell headlined his article “To Prepare For The Future You Need To Shape It — Or Someone Else Will.” He was commenting on a book by Dr James Canton which called on leaders to take a broader view, to become future ready by shifting thinking towards what the future will bring.

The tragedy of the Horizon

Similarly, in a recent speech the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, looked at the potential effects of climate change. Referring to it as the ‘tragedy of the horizon’ Mark Carney commented that ‘the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the traditional horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation has no direct incentive to fix.’ In other words, with monetary and other policies traditionally limited to 2-3 years, by the time that climate change starts to impact those policies it could well be too late for anything to be done. The answer is to step outside the current cycle and really start to envisage the future.

Sadly, whilst politicians pontificate and regulatory authorities issue warnings, vast numbers of businesses continue to tread the well worn pathway of unchanging mediocrity. Sure, survey after survey reveals that business leaders list innovation as one of their top priorities but reality, qualified by every recent survey on innovation, says that while the spirit is willing, nothing is being done to change.

So we still have three-year business plans and we still take as long as we ever did to bring products to market. We still respond to demands from investors for short-term profits rather than long-term gain and we still look to sell to customers now rather than collaborating with customers to create products and services which meet their future needs.

Where is your cozy three-year plan when your entire business sector is changing beyond all recognition?

Why the lack of change? Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that transforming your business culture to one that is innovation-led can require a seismic shift not only in strategy and values but also in beliefs and behaviours, attitudes and approach. Building a culture of innovation requires businesses to look towards creating real solutions; to differentiate themselves by the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ and that can mean operating in a whole new way.

Despite the fact that 90% of global companies acknowledge that they aren’t moving fast enough or in the right direction, the thought of such a seismic shift not only in approach but also in thinking can be daunting so it is little wonder that business leaders seek out the comfort of the familiar, if only for a little while longer. But the longer that you wait, the more that the world either passes you by or changes out of all recognition, thus moving your company or brand even further out of alignment with contemporary customers.

Even putting aside the impact of world-changing events such as climate change for a moment, can you hand on heart really say that a three-year plan will see you through? It didn’t help all of those organisations like Blockbuster, Nokia, Blackberry and Kodak for example which have either gone under or had to radically change their business model in the recent past thanks to the rise in internet sales or the development of digital technology. And I suspect that we are only starting to see the impact which streaming services will have on the delivery of music, TV and other media; let alone the potential impact which driverless cars will have on our entire transport infrastructure and insurance matrix. Where is your cozy three-year plan when your entire business sector is changing beyond all recognition?

Step outside and shape the future

The brutal truth is that businesses which want to look towards the future have to be prepared to step outside now and shape a future which creates sustainable, long-term disruption for the business and exceptional propositions and experiences for customers both existing and new. And you’re not going to do that by simply putting a few people in a room and telling them to come up with some ideas. Building a culture of innovation is an organisation-wide undertaking which draws in not only the people from within the organisation but also customers, suppliers, strategic partners, subject matter experts and other third parties. It requires collaboration, adaptability and a new focus on gaining a deep understanding of customer behaviour. But more than that, it requires an eye to the future which is not prejudiced by current assumptions.

Admittedly, building a culture of innovation is not something to be undertaken lightly. Any change of culture will necessitate some upheaval but when you are asking your people to completely shift their attitudes, behaviours and working methodologies then you have to be prepared to put effort into the change. The key to success is to understand, define, design and deliver the change in a structured and deliberate manner. This means establishing a future focused innovation-led strategy, enabling CEOs and senior teams to become innovation leaders before embedding innovation into organisational culture. Success results in game-changing innovation capability simply becoming part of how you do things.

If you live by the plan, you die by the plan.

If you live by the plan, you die by the plan; at least you do if the plan is fixed and unvarying. Building a culture of innovation doesn’t lead to unstructured chaos and it certainly doesn’t lead to the end of planning but it does transform plans from being blunt instruments to being the shapers of future success.

By Cris Beswick

About the author

Originally trained as a product & industrial designer, Cris Beswick spent over a decade as a successful entrepreneur & CEO building an award-winning design group. After structuring a full exit in 2008 he founded The Future Shapers, a boutique innovation consultancy specialising in working with CEOs and senior teams on the strategy, leadership and culture required for innovation. As such Cris has coached, advised and delivered keynotes to some of the worlds most successful companies on how to become exceptional by building game-changing innovation capability and embedding it into organisational culture.

Cris has also delivered executive education programmes on innovation for leading UK business schools such as Henley Business School, Southampton Business School and Cranfield University’s Centre for Competitive Creative Design as well as international business schools such as Synergy Business School in Dubai and Icesi University in Columbia.

Cris is also the author of the book ‘The Road to Innovation’ and his next book ‘Building a Culture of Innovation’ is now available for pre-order with a publish date of 3rd December 2015. As well as authoring numerous white papers Cris has also contributed to articles for The Times, Financial Times and The Sunday Telegraph to name but a few.

Photo: Decision At Crossroad by