Monday, January 29, 2018

Step One: Identifying the Megatrends

A few weeks ago, in Letting the Future Guide the Present, I provided some background for a Scenario Planning exercise my Board chair and I decided to conduct at our upcoming Board meeting.

In case you're not familiar with the term, Scenario Planning is based on the premise that the future does not yet exist. Many strategic planning techniques rely on the group being precisely right about the future they will face and, unfortunately, often result in exactly the opposite: being absolutely wrong. The future is a moving target, and even discussing the future influences the shape of things to come.

In addition to dealing with this uncertainty about the future, Scenario Planning is also a way for a group to challenge its deeply held assumptions. Most people assume they know what is going to happen next, but what if those strong convictions turn out to be wrong? What if our current beliefs about our industry, our technology, or our association were to be inverted? What effect would this radical change have on our organization?

Scenario Planning helps us combine these uncertainties and trends to create a number of distinctly different futures. As the diagram accompanying this post helps illustrate, the breadth of uncertainty increases the farther we move into the future. Scenarios A, B, C, and D help to bound a "Cone of Uncertainty" with regard to our possible future. When each scenario is internally consistent, challenging yet plausible, and connected to the strategic concerns of Board and staff members alike, they provide a context in which the organization can adjust more quickly to actual changes in the environment.

The first step in this process is identifying what we call the Megatrends.

A Megatrend is an external force acting on the industry our association represents. It is something everyone agrees will create change in our environment, but for which few can accurately predict the full impact of that change. It could reasonably force our industry in multiple possible directions.

Now, in setting up the Megatrends for our upcoming discussion, we face a bit of a conundrum. As I'll describe in future posts, we need to settle on just two Megatrends to frame the exercise around. And remember, we've done this exercise once already (in 2013), and there are two Megatrends that were identified as part of that discussion which, on their face, are just as relevant today as they were five years ago. Should we push forward with a new exercise based on these two existing Megatrends? Or should we wipe the slate clean and spend the time that would be needed to discuss and decide on new Megatrends for 2018?

It was a question I took to two other leaders on our Board -- the chairs of the two strategic task forces that would be helping the lead discussions on whichever two Megatrends wound up being chosen. After some good discussion, we made two clear decisions.

One, starting over from scratch was the better way to go. As soon as one of the task force chairs Googled "Megatrends in Manufacturing" and reported the results on our call, it was clear that the world was, in fact, a very different place in 2018 than it was in 2013. We all agreed that the 2013 Megatrends still resonated, but they were just two among several others that could carry the same weight.

And two, the process would be best served by surveying the Board members in advance. This was more a recognition of the limited amount of time we would have at the in-person meeting to conduct the exercise. We were already planning to split the exercise in two parts -- the first to be conducted at the upcoming Board meeting and the second at the one after (more on that in a future post, too). If no one started thinking about the subject before the meeting was called to order, we feared that we would spend too much time in exploratory mode, and perhaps even chose Megatrends based on the immediacy of the moment rather than their perceived future impact on our industry.

So we constructed a short, one-question survey for the Board members to respond to. Tell us the Megatrends you see having the greatest possible impact on our industry in the next five years. We plan to collect all the suggestions that come in, examine them for common themes, and prepare what appears to be the most relevant subjects for deeper analysis and discussion at the Board meeting.

I'll describe more after the responses come in.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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