Strategy is about first asking questions, then improving the quality of those questions through listening to the answers and acting on the new knowledge. Any effective strategy requires the successful integration of thoughts about tomorrow's new business opportunities with both past experience and the patterns of today's behaviours. We should also improve the quality of our questions, particularly those about the future.
Yet how much time does the top management of any organisation spend thinking systematically about the future, rather than promoting or justifying past performance?
Where do the chief executive and the board obtain their knowledge about the future? Are they future-literate? Are they aware of, and plugged into, the networks that specialise in exploring future trends and potential discontinuities?
What priority is given to knowledge about the future within any knowledge management process? Are knowledge management systems asking the right questions? Unless this is happening, organisations will be deluged with irrelevant information. It's only by asking the right questions that 'information overload' can be avoided.
Most publications on knowledge management seem preoccupied with the technical aspects of the subject. Few consider the role of dialogue, or of asking the right questions, in the generation and development of new knowledge.
Successful organisations have to exploit paradoxes. They need to focus on current core competencies while recognising the need for change and innovation. To start this process, top management should ask itself some key questions: what are the future trends and developments that might have a profound impact on the business; how is future literacy managed; who holds the main responsibility for future thinking and creativity?
Ideally, everyone in the organisation should be involved. Consider whether people are really encouraged to share ideas. Many people believe that they work in organisations where the underlying culture is 'Knowledge is Power'. How can a sharing culture thrive in such an environment?
Again, there are questions worth asking: how is the knowledge available throughout the organisation systematically used in the development of strategy; who is responsible for the management of this process; does the board spend enough time focused on the future; how are future priorities determined?
Asking the right questions is only a start. Effective listening, and effective action based on the answers, is also needed. Listening to the future is key to long-term business success and this is particularly true in periods of rapid change and innovation.
So what should CEOs do to ensure that their organisation responds positively to the challenges of the future?
They need to know not only what questions to ask, and how to ask them, but they must have enough respect for their colleagues to be able to listen constructively to the answers. CEOs should also be knowledgeable enough to evaluate the significance of what they are being told. All these qualities can be learned, or at least developed. So how much time do we spend developing them? Although there is a growing executive coaching industry, how often are the issues raised here an integral part of those experiences? Not very often, if a quick survey of some of the latest literature is any guide. Just check the index of any book on executive coaching and see if the words 'future' and 'questioning' are listed.
Effective questioning is not only at the core of any coaching process, it is a vital part of developing strategy for any CEO. So why does it appear to be so rare in practice?
CEOs should be the fulcrum between the past and the future. They are at the centre of strategy development and implementation processes - but obviously not responsible for all the detailed work. Yet too many CEOs learn the hard way that the 'devil (not strategy) is in the detail'.
Leaders need to be able to focus on their vision of the future while meeting the demands of the present. To achieve this balance, they must identify and choose between the options available. This requires an ability to distinguish between change and progress, which can be achieved only if there is general agreement on objectives and how progress can be measured.
The process is not just a technical exercise; it involves the hearts, as well as minds, of all concerned. Commitment is invariably driven by a values agenda and is often more elusive than competence, as the latter is more easily learned.
The higher an individual is within an organisation, the more he or she should be focused on the future. Whether thinking about strategy or knowledge management, it is critical that relevant knowledge about what is changing and what is not (and what ought to change) is effectively exploited.
Any organisation that is not driven by future needs will soon find that it has become part of the dust of history, particularly in periods of rapid change. Ultimately, the effectiveness of our strategy will depend on the quality of the questions posed by top management and how they have been listening to, and acting on, the answers.