“Preparation is best done in advance.” — Stephen Colbert

In the heady days of my early career, I had string of successes. Unfortunately, this gave me an exaggerated sense of my capabilities:  “I am the smartest person in the room!” 

This illusion came to a screeching halt when a major economic downturn arrived. Suddenly, some of my greatest successes unraveled and turned into monumental failures. After the shock wore off, I began to ponder: “If I’m so smart, how did I end up in THIS situation?” 

The answer was simple. I wasn’t Thinking Ahead. I had never considered worst-case scenarios or how to prepare for them. “What will I do if there is an economic downturn?” never entered my mind. I was woefully unprepared.

Shame on me. I was a Boy Scout and our motto was “Be Prepared” and that means that “you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body.” 

What I Learned (the hard way!)

When you’re not thinking ahead, there is no way to see what’s coming. Sooner or later, you’ll be hit by something unexpected, maybe something really bad.

To avoid being blindsided, keep an eye on the future. Stay informed about trends, both inside and outside your field of expertise. The world’s most successful leaders do this to spot new opportunities, and avoid new dangers.

There is another compelling reason for leaders to Think Ahead. One of the chapters of The Leadership Challenge, a classic that has sold more than two million copies worldwide, is titled “Forward-Looking Is a Leadership Prerequisite.” One of the authors, my friend Jim Kouzes, told me that after surveying thousands of people on ideal leadership qualities, he and his co-author, Barry Posner, have found that the ability to look forward is second only to honesty as the most admired trait. It has continued to be rated this way for over 30 years.

The day I realized that not being “Forward-Looking” had serious consequences was a major milestone for me. That’s why I now Look Ahead as a matter of habit, always with a Big Picture perspective. 

Imagine trying to watch a baseball game through a knothole in a fence.

A ball flies by your knothole. You have no idea what it means. It’s not until you climb up and see the Big Picture ─ the whole playing field ─ that you get a sense of what is really happening. You see the scoreboard. You know which inning it is, who is on base, who is in the batting box, and who has the momentum. The state of play is clear. 

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” — Yogi Bera

The same thing is true in the world at large. You can’t make sense of things with a narrow Knothole View. You need to watch the game with a wide angle lens.

This is the secret to a prescient perspective ─ CONTEXT ─ understanding the circumstances surrounding an event or piece of information. This helps you evaluate the implications and make informed decisions. 

Think about YOUR Big Picture. What is happening around you today in your organization, in your industry, and in the wider world? 

When you know the answers, you’ll be better equipped to evaluate the individual pieces of information as they arrive.

“Foresight beats Hindsight.” ~ Leland Russell

According to the ancient myth, the Greek gods assigned the responsibility of putting life on earth to two brothers—Prometheus, whose name in Greek means Forethought, and Epimetheus, whose name means Hindsight (reflect after the fact).

Epimetheus went first and populated the earth with all the animals. Then it fell to Prometheus to create man. He saw a big problem. His brother had given the animals all of the powerful physical attributes.  So, he asked himself, “How can I give mankind an edge?” 

Prometheus realized that man could prevail against more physically powerful adversaries only by out-thinking them; thus, his first gift to mankind was Forethought the capacity to Think Ahead.

Thinking Ahead offers you many benefits. Here are my top three. 

  • Lowering the possibility of being blindsided
  • Increasing the potential to preempt problems
  • Seeing new opportunities sooner than others

By Thinking Ahead, you also gain a compelling advantage: the chance to be first to the future. Think about the brand value of that. 

  • Who was first to walk on the moon? Neil Armstrong made that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
  • Who was the second? Most people don’t remember.

Many moons have passed since I woke up to the critical importance of Thinking Ahead. Today, I am perpetually curious about how to look forward in a warp-speed world. This is no mean feat.

The challenge has grown geometrically. Consider the implications of these mega-change drivers, which are intertwined and accelerating:

  1. Climate Change is the biggest challenge our species has ever faced.
  2. Global Competition is increasing pressure on performance and pricing.
  3. Economic Shocks suddenly and dramatically impact supply or demand.
  4. The Technology Tsunami alters how we live, work, play, learn, and interact.
  5. Political Paralysis poisons potential solutions to our most urgent problems.
  6. Terrorist Acts disrupt society and diminish our sense of safety and security.
  7. Cyber Attacks can cause catastrophic, cascading damage at any time or place. 
  8. Disruptive Innovations can make a business or an entire industry obsolete.
  9. Customer Expectations continue to increase; they want more value at lower cost.
  10. The Trust Gap grows wider as honesty, loyalty, and confidence continue to decline.

This colossal collision of change forces generates VUCA  — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity,  Ambiguity.

Volatility: Because change is happening simultaneously in different sectors, in different forms, and at different rates, conditions are fluid and fluctuate to extremes.

Uncertainty: Analyzing past data and current trends to forecast future events is problematic. It’s unwise to rely on expert predictions. There are about as many opinions as there are experts.

Complexity: Our warp-speed world has many varied parts, patterns, and elements. The complexity is compounding for many reasons, including the intertwining change drivers described above.

Ambiguity: Discernment is difficult when facts are fuzzy. Because everything is more interconnected than ever before, there is often cause-and-effect confusion.

When you consider all of this, it’s confusing. But one thing is clear: VUCA IS A PERFECT STORM.

Thinking Ahead is now more critical than ever, but it is easier said than done. In the VUCA  Perfect Storm, so much is happening, so fast, in so many different arenas, it’s hard to understand where you are. Familiar landmarks keep disappearing.

Sometimes I feel like the legendary Kentucky frontiersman, Daniel Boone. When a group of reporters asked if he had ever been lost in the woods, he slyly smiled. Then, he replied, “I can’t say I’ve ever been lost, but I was once confused for two whole days.”

What will it take to effectively Think Ahead in the VUCA Perfect Storm?

Since it’s impossible for one individual or even a small elite group to have a complete perspective in the VUCA Perfect Storm, smart solution is to expand the circle of thinkers. Intentionally gather a diverse group with a broad repertoire of knowledge, experience, and perspectives ─ one that is as wide, and deep, and nuanced as the challenges you face.

There are three leadership lessons in this Knowledge Byte™:

CONTEXT IS CRITICAL – The secret to a prescient perspective is understanding the circumstances surrounding an event or piece of information. This helps you evaluate the implications and make informed decisions.

FORESIGHT BEATS HINDSIGHT – When you Think Ahead you reduce the possibility of being blindsided by change. You also increase the potential to preempt problems, and see new opportunities sooner than others.

THINKING AHEAD IS NOT EASY – In the VUCA Perfect Storm, so much is happening, so fast, in so many arenas, its hard understand where you are and what is important. It’s nearly impossible for one individual or small elite group to have a complete perspective. The solution is to expand the circle of thinkers and tap the Collective IQ.

Thank you for spending time with this GEO Knowledge Byte™. What are your key Takeaways?

Enter your takeaways in the form below and I’ll get back to you with my thoughts.

Leland Russell
Founder / CEO
GEO Group Strategic Services


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