At ASUGFORWARD, Sheryl Connelly, manager of global consumer trends and futuring at Ford Motor Company, gave a keynote presentation about how organizations can prepare for the future and become more agile. ASUG caught up with Sheryl after her address to talk about her role as a futurist, the impacts of COVID-19, and more things organizations can do to bolster themselves for the future.

ASUG: Can you describe your position and what you do day-to-day?

Sheryl: As a futurist, my job is to remind people that no one can predict the future. It sounds like a deceptively simple task. However, it is daunting as it is complex. Embedded into every single business plan is a set of assumptions on how the future will play out. These assumptions are so deeply rooted into our subconscious, most would struggle to identify them—let alone challenge them. My days are spent questioning the status quo, upending deeply held institutional beliefs, and searching for potential weaknesses in long-term planning and strategy. To make a persuasive case, you must be able to back up your reasoning and logic.

Accordingly, most of my time is spent reading. I am forever scanning global trends in social, technological, economic, environmental, and political arenas. Once I have a point of view on what are the most pressing trends, I collaborate with other experts, people we call remarkable and provocative thinkers, to better understand the potential implications at a global, marketplace, industry, and company level.

ASUG: Why is it important for organizations to keep an eye on the future?

Sheryl: The goal of futuring is not to predict. It is to prepare. Organizations that do not have a long-term view or a so-called North Star will find itself wholly unprepared for disruption. As the pace and scale of disruption continue to accelerate, only the strongest organizations will thrive. Said more simply, those companies that keep an eye on the future are setting themselves up for a future of choice versus a future of constraint.

ASUG: In your opinion, what were the most significant business impacts of COVID-19?

Sheryl: Supply chain management is probably the most significant. Since much has already been written on this topic, I’d like to focus on another equally deserving area—customer satisfaction. Consumers’ expectations have changed irrevocably. Throughout the quarantine, companies were surprisingly adaptative. They were forced to rethink their entire operations to keep businesses afloat. This meant developing new and different ways to meet their customers’ needs. Price, quality, and convenience remained constants, but consumers were adding safety, hygiene, care for others, and community to their list of priorities.

Communicating plans for sanitation, no-contact purchases, and curbside delivery were table stakes. The best focused on care, compassion, and creativity. Recognizing the human need for connection, Zappos opened a hotline to chat with customers. Other brands simply looked for ways to help those in need. Pharmacies started offering home delivery during the pandemic. As adaptability became a marketplace mandate, commercial airline carriers suspended cancellation and change fees. Brands like Budweiser, which redeployed $5 million earmarked for marketing to the American Red Cross, were revered as heroes, and perfume manufacturers shifted to production of hand sanitizers.

As we look forward to closing the chapter on COVID, it will be critical for companies to continue to deliver to this heightened level of customer service and community engagement. In the eyes of the customer, brands that revert to a pre-COVID lesser standard of care will do so not because they are unable to do better—it will be because they choose not to.

ASUG: How are these impacts affecting the future business landscape?

Sheryl: COVID was a sobering reminder of how dramatically the world can change in short order. It was extraordinary in that its impact was universal. Countries, companies, institutions worldwide came together in crisis and found new ways to collaborate. During the global shutdown, technology was accelerated in a manner thought unachievable, air quality improved (albeit for a short period) to levels unthinkable, and online communication tools expanded in ways that were unimaginable. These changes set a new standard of business and left many wondering what other aspects of daily life will remain unchanged.

ASUG: Part of your keynote focused on the importance of businesses being adaptable. What are some things that every organization can do to be more agile?

Sheryl: As we discussed, no one can predict the future. The only way to truly prepare is to imagine multiple futures. This can be done by paying attention to outliers. The one-off events that seem to be an anomaly. Then ask yourself, what would happen if this trend were to become the norm? Would your business be prepared for such a change? Would it tap into the organization’s strengths or weaknesses? Engage in scenario planning. I know of no better way to develop foresight thinking at an institutional level. At a bare minimum, organizations must develop a contingency plan for the wildcard events.

ASUG: I like how you encouraged attendees to try and rethink “orthodoxies.” How are these orthodoxies potentially harmful to organizations, and what do businesses gain by flipping orthodoxies on their heads?

Sheryl: Orthodoxies are harmful because they prevent meaningful change. They are built upon imagined constraints. They show up in conversation innocently enough. “Not in my lifetime,” “Not under this leadership,” or “We have always done it this way.” Yet, these unwritten rules influence decision-making and behavior at all levels of an organization. They confirm unfounded biases and discourage critical thinking. More significantly, they stifle innovation.

Consider the cautionary tales of Eastman Kodak, Nokia, and Blockbuster. These brands were the dominant players in their respective sectors. Unfortunately for them, they wrongly assumed their leadership position would protect them. Familiarity with their brand would create an ever-lasting bond with the public. They were mistaken. By repeatedly asking why a problem exists, you will reveal the critical underlying issues.

ASUG: You spent some time discussing the importance of a “global” mindset. How does adopting that mindset help organizations be better prepared for the future?

Sheryl: It is tempting to narrow our attention to matters within our domain. It gives us the illusion that we control our destiny. It is why the SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis is so popular. It concentrates exclusively on matters within our field of expertise. However, it is this inside-out thinking that makes the SWOT analysis so dangerous. It does contemplate the forces that are most uncertain. The matters that have the greatest capacity and likelihood of disruption. Thinking big and thinking global are the mainstays of the futuring practice. It reinforces the notion that preparation requires that we focus on the things that are outside our control.

ASUG: Why do you think it’s important for companies to not only focus on their strengths, but also take stock of their weaknesses as well?

Sheryl: Strengths can cause companies to become complacent. They can also blindside us when what we deem an organization strength, the marketplace deems a weakness. Consider the large international hotel brands. They pride themselves on name recognition and consistency. The thought that individuals would consider staying at a complete stranger’s home was unimaginable a decade and half ago. Today, one of the largest providers of overnight accommodations owns very little real estate.

ASUG: What is one thing every organization should be doing right now to prepare for the future?

Sheryl: Organizations cannot become true innovators without creating a culture of curiosity. Give employees explicit license to challenge the status quo, rethink orthodoxies, and explore topics that have very little to do with their job or your industry.

Missed Sheryl’s keynote address? You can still watch it on demand! Register for ASUGFORWARD and watch the session at your convenience.

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