Alice Mann’s latest book, Future First: How Successful Leaders Turn Innovation Challenges into New Value Frontiers is an important read for any business leader or entrepreneur who wishes to embrace global challenges as innovation opportunities. Like the EO members who are making an #EOImpact in their support of United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Alice believes that business leaders are in a position to solve the greatest problems facing our world today: climate change, resource scarcity and social dynamism.
Why did you write this book?
My professional background is a combination of tech innovation, big banking, social science research, and organizational design consulting. Then a disaster struck and really catalyzed the idea of the book.
By 2012, I had moved out to the suburbs, I had twins and a baby daughter, and I was still consulting. Then Superstorm Sandy came along and thrashed the east coast, including New York. It damaged or destroyed over half a million homes, killed more than 200 people, and caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage.
I was really shaken. And we only lost power for two weeks. But I still remember seeing the electric poles ripped off the side of my house by the wind. I couldn’t drive to the store because huge trees had come down. It was like a disaster zone. And it really hit home—literally—for me then that climate change was already creating more extreme weather events. It was just a little taste of the future. But it was real. And if left unchecked, storms like Sandy and the other effects of climate change would only increase and get worse for our kids’ generation.
So, what could I do? I started doing what I do best in my consulting practice, which was interviewing business leaders and gathering data and stories. I spoke with more than 50 leaders and those conversations were really what drove the trajectory of my book.
How do you define future-first?
Let me answer the question with an example. Whether Elon Musk can build the business model for Tesla to deliver long-term on his bold promises remains to be seen. But he has certainly developed the technology for electric cars to outperform gas-burning vehicles in acceleration, speed, and energy efficiency. And now he is zeroing in on the energy sector and developing sustainable energy storage solutions that could remake energy as we know it.
Future first companies get ahead of the pack by innovating within the limits of commercial success while making a net positive material impact on the world’s biggest challenges. Future first innovation transforms entire business ecosystems, like food, cars, energy, clothes, and technology, because it happens through a network of exchange among big and small companies, and their investors, partners, competitors, and customers.
“Future first innovation transforms entire business ecosystems…”
You argue that businesses have amassed unprecedented power and influence—and that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Why?
I don’t see it as a good or a bad thing. It’s just the reality that we live in today. We need to lean on the private sector, as business people and as citizens and consumers, to operate with considerations for longer-term value in mind and with a broader definition of the value that business can deliver in the world.
What are the three biggest global challenges that will impact companies over the next 10 to 20 years?
The biggest challenges we face are the ones I tackle in the book: climate change, resource scarcity, and social dynamism. These are certain to affect our global economy for a long time.
- Climate change from a hotter planet will push the private sector to accelerate solutions in clean energy, manufacturing, and transportation.
- Growing resource scarcity in water, land, and other natural resources will challenge whole industries, like apparel and agriculture, to come up with new materials and means of production.
- Social dynamism from the changing demographics and values of the global workforce and consumers will push companies to redefine how people work, eat, travel, and live.
These are dire problems. Why do you believe they are opportunities for leaders and companies?
Every business leader is in the position of having urgent priorities to deal with today. But the best leaders can plan and operate on multiple time horizons, between the next 18 months and the next 10 years or more. Increasingly, the CEOs I meet who are running the most competitive companies around the world spend a good deal of their time and attention thinking about what is going to disrupt their industry in the next ten to 20 years and they are intentionally designing companies that are prepared to see these innovations coming and lean into them.
What are some techniques for innovating around these challenges?
I recommend asking big questions, like:
- What are the big global challenges that could lead to innovation opportunities in our industry in the next ten to twenty years?
- Which global challenges is our company best positioned to address in the next five years, ten years, and twenty years?
- What are some of the known risks to our business associated with climate change, resource scarcity and social dynamism?
- What is our company’s core revenue stream to maintain and grow in the near-term (1-2 years out?)
- What do we need to know to identify one or two big bets we should make in innovations for the future (5-10 years out)?
- How will future customers think, live, work and play?
- How will their lifestyles redefine the experiences they will demand from our company’s products and systems?
- Is anyone on our team today a superforecaster or someone with the potential to become one?
- How can I hire or develop more superforecaster talent on your team?
What does a future-first talent strategy look like?
Many executive leaders focus their attention on the value of the most senior people in the company today. Those are the people with most power in their company and they often reflect the values that have gotten the company to where they are today. But these are not the people who going to get them where they need to go in the future. So, future first talent strategies intentionally focus more leadership attention on cultivating the next generation of talent and leadership. Future first strategies start with nurturing truly diverse teams at every level of the company, which assumes that leaders are more relational and less power-blind.
“Future first strategies start with nurturing truly diverse teams at every level of the company…”
You strongly advocate that companies learn to both compete and collaborate with their “frenemies.” Why is this so important?
It is a fact now that most companies don’t operate as singular entities anymore. They operate as part of larger integrated global systems with complex supply chains, outsourced operations, and sometimes multiple divisions or even multiple companies nested within a larger company. Most of the things that we purchase and consume are produced by different businesses collaborating with each other somehow.
Future First looks at examples of companies that collaborate with their frenemies as a strategy for creating long-term value. In response to supply chain issues, Nike created an apparel coalition, so perceived competitors like Adidas, Puma, etc., can collaborate to reduce toxic chemicals in their supply chain, but they can still compete on product design.
More and more big global companies like Nike, Apple, Walmart, and McDonalds, are all developing strategies for driving long-term value by collaborating with their frenemies. I recommend in Future First that the smaller, more nimble companies just adopt this as a best practice of the future.
What is the one thing you hope leaders will take away from your book?
I want leaders to take away a sense of hope and agency that they can solve global challenges through their commitment and innovation. Future First is based on more than 50 interviews I conducted with successful business leaders. This book tells their stories. These stories will give new managers and aspiring leaders ideas about every type of innovation, from how to create new business models and business solutions to global problems, to how to change their own and their team’s leadership mindset, to how to build future first mindset into their company’s design, processes and talent strategies.
Alice Mann is an organizational psychologist who advises senior executives on designing their organizations to achieve their mission and strategy. Mann has consulted with and coached leaders of global Fortune 500 companies, preeminent non-profits, and social enterprises to inspire and deliver strong performance results.