Designing for resilience (and why Future-Proofing is an oxymoron)
If something is fireproof, it won’t catch on fire. If it’s bulletproof, no bullets can penetrate. But “future-proof?” If you’d never heard the term, you might think it described something allergic to the future. In business, however, it’s used to convey just the opposite: a product, service or business model guaranteed to be infinitely successful.
Company leaders can’t be blamed for wanting this kind of guarantee (don’t we all?). But because we’ve thrown around the term like it’s a magic bullet, a confusing catch-all used to sell everything from cloud-based services to cars, we have diluted it into the worst kind of word: a buzzword.
A common place we see the term “future-proof” is in digital migration initiatives. By shifting from static products to cloud-based services, these initiatives help companies increase data security, scale teams quickly, and allow for real-time collaboration. But they don’t prevent obsolescence, as the term implies.
At Method, we don’t guarantee the future. What we do is help organizations become “future-ready” — help leaders define their guiding purpose and foster their organizational agility so they are better able to adapt their products, services and business models in a rapidly changing economy.
Start with a resilient purpose
At Method, we challenge our clients to define the goals of the product or service we’re designing and check whether these align with the larger purpose of the organization. If that larger purpose is vague or non-existent, we facilitate workshops to help our clients define and align on a purpose resilient enough to reduce the risk of future obsolescence.
A resilient purpose is specific enough to matter but never tied to present-day technologies. In The Art of Gathering, event consultant Priya Parker advised hosts to define a “unique and disputable” purpose for any new group or gathering. To become “future-ready,” the same should be asked of your business: are you inviting the right people? Are you building the right thing? The language matters. It’s “we help you power through the day” over “we sell coffee.” It’s “we get you where you need to go” instead of “we drive you home”. This framing is key to unlocking new areas of value.
For the New York Times, it was this transformation from product (newspaper) to service (news) that saved it from crushing debt. As newspaper companies shuttered at alarming rates over the last decade, Times editors knew it wasn’t because people stopped wanting news. They just wanted a different way to absorb the content, former Times Editor-in-Chief Jill Abramson writes in her book, Merchants of Truth. And so came a mobile-friendly digital design, daily podcasts, weekly television segments, and experiments with AR. And an increase in subscriptions.
Build an adaptable organization
Resilience and adaptability are often used interchangeably, but their differences are important. While resilience is the ability to recover quickly under stress, adaptability is learning from that stress to create positive change. To be future-ready we need both: a resilient purpose and an adaptable organization.
How do we know when it’s time to adapt? Almost always, the key is to listen to customers. Surveys, sentiment analysis, net promoter scores, and customer interviews should all be part of the standard listening process. Truly listening also means watching as people interact with products and services in order to understand their relationship with a brand.
Successful companies also listen to their investors, their suppliers, and importantly, their employees. Research shows that purpose is becoming more than a motto repeated at company retreats. It’s also becoming a selling point for young consumers (if it’s authentic, that is). The rise of B-Corps in recent years shows that more and more people are viewing their purchases as dollar votes for their values.
This doesn’t mean every brand needs to become Patagonia, but Patagonia’s resilient purpose(s) — “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to protect nature” — combined with its commitment to not be “bound by convention” will allow it to adapt in a rapidly changing economy, without losing its sense of self.
This is especially important for larger companies, which are less naturally nimble in disruptive markets: “When a company is young, its resources — its people, equipment, technologies, cash, brands, suppliers, and the like — define what it can and cannot do,” Michael Overdorf and the late Clay Christensen wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “As it becomes more mature, its abilities stem more from its processes — product development, manufacturing, budgeting, for example. In the largest companies, values — particularly those that determine what are its acceptable gross margins and how big an opportunity has to be before it becomes interesting — define what the company can and cannot do.”
Rather than dig our heels into a particular business or service model, the best way to be “future-ready” is to define a resilient purpose and consistently nurture adaptability within your organization. It’s oxymoronic to say we could ever succeed at never failing, but we can design our processes and define our values so that we are ready when those inevitable market changes arise. Because the only thing certain about the future is that the rate of change will continue to accelerate and that we will consistently underestimate it.