What is a practical futurist and why do you need one?

Over the last few years I’ve started to focus my energies on discovering how best to stay ahead of the change brought about by digital disruption, with practical and actionable answers for my clients at IBM as well as a range of corporate clients.

I’ve given many presentations around the world, and in one of them recently, an audience member dubbed me “The Practical Futurist” – a term which has stuck with me as it accurately describes what I do. Below is a short clip of me at an event in Hong Kong explaining the difference between a Futurist and a Practical Futurist.  

Why did they call me a practical futurist? I think it had something to do with the advice that I gave from the stage that they could go and implement straight away.

A practical futurist, as apposed to a straight futurist is someone who can see how current trends are likely to disrupt a business in the near term – ie this quarter versus the next 5 years. The practical futurist is likely to be an existing practitioner in a specific field or industry, and so can see first-hand how things might be impacted, and provide advice that can be implemented straight away, especially when faced with the impact of digital disruption.

Three practical tips I give people wrestling with how to be “more digital” are:

  1. You need to a have a digital first mindset
  2. Set aside a digital budget
  3. Get a digital lens on your board and ensure you have digital diversity

Expanding on each of these points:

Having a digital mindset – you need to not just think how you can convert existing processes and products to being “digital”, you need to think from a point of view where your first notion is that things need to be accessible and consumable in a digital way.

Setting aside a digital budget – In order to transform into a digital organisation you will need to invest in digital technology, team and techniques. This means you will have to stop doing something else. Ring-fencing a budget for digital, even in the early stages of your transformation will ensure that funds are available and won’t be consumed by other projects. It will also give the digital team freedom to operate, knowing their initiatives are fully funded.

The need for digital diversity – When I ask people about how their board of directors is comprised, few clients admit to having digital savvy people in place. My strong view is that in order to see the company through a “digital lens”, you need to recruit people that already have the qualities of a board director in their own right, but also come with a strong set of digital credentials. Importantly, you need not one but two digital non executive directors to ensure their views don’t just become those of “The digital director”. Read more about the need for digital diversity in a longer blog post on the subject I wrote recently.

Practical vs standard futurist?

Now I’m not for a moment saying that futurists are not practical, far from it. Many futurists around the world look far ahead to try and discern what might happen down the track in terms of technology, business models and also society.

Futurists of note include HG Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell, all who looked at what life might look like in many years to come – some with blinding accuracy.

While there are many contemporary futurists, and many of them are my peers, those that look too far ahead may provide a reduced impact in a corporate environment where you need to grasp what is happening next week, next month or next quarter.

What I have seen happen in the past is that many companies employ a futurist to kick off their annual sales-event or strategy retreat, and they can be great catalysts for a discussion about change. I’ve been in those audiences and often afterwards when people are talking about the keynote they say look that was interesting, but how does that help us with our business strategy for the rest of the year?

This is where a practical futurist comes in – someone who can give you easy to consume and implement advice for what do do next.

I recall when speaking to a well-known bank, I looked at the near-term things that the digital team could do, and provided them with some practical and actionable insights. To my delight, directly after my talk, one of the senior managers present took up one of my suggestions and mentioned that the bank would be in a position to introduce the concept I outlined in under 12 months.

If you’re still not convinced that a practical futurist could add value to your own thinking, have a look at this 90 second clip where I was interviewed by Jonathan Ross who has established a London-based group solely dedicated to better understanding digital transformation.