Research Articles

Facing the Future, Written by John Slack, M.B.A., PMP

One major aspect of the role of a leader is their performance of an on-going balancing act. The leader must balance the operation of today and the organization that supports that operation versus the operation of tomorrow and the organization required to support that. Simultaneously, the leader is accountable for transforming the operation and the associated organization. We use the term “captain[1]” to reflect the balance between the actions of “managing,” the actions of “leading,” and the actions of “transforming.” An effective captain must balance them all.

This paper is intentionally brief and thought provoking. More discussion of the implications will be addressed in subsequent writings.

What future are we talking about?

We can’t deny the inevitability of a future; however, the leader of an organization can influence what that future will be. Leadership is one major aspect of our consulting. In order to lead a group, the leader must communicate a vision to the group. That vision must focus on a possible future. One key contribution that a consultant can make is to help the leader clarify his or her vision. A vision is, by definition, a model or set of models of a potential future. We have used a set of simple models in our consulting and found them to stimulate productive thinking. The basic model treats the group’s progress though time as a voyage.

Like any voyage, we need clarity regarding:

  • Our current location
  • Our current desired destination
  • The vehicle we will use to get there
  • Our plan to arrive at our destination

The concept of the vehicle frequently generates the most challenge to an organization’s leadership. The operation of our business and how we are organized to execute that operation is our vehicle. One of the major responsibilities of leadership is to maintain a balance between past, present, and future. That balancing act requires the leader to focus upon transforming the organization. Where we are going next is always a step along a longer journey and the leadership (whether one person or a group) must be balancing the requirements of the transition(s) to ready us for the

future versus the requirements of today’s profitable operation versus the transitions we need to make addressing our legacy operations and products.

Though every industry and organization is unique, there are certain consistent requirements associated with a successful voyage. As stated above, the analogy that we use is that any business enterprise is navigating through time. The environment supplies us with factors/resources that the organization can use to operate successfully in the day-to-day as well as to change the business itself. Our premise is that the leadership must keep the business in operation today, yet the leadership must also transform the organization to ready it to operate in the future. We divide the vehicle into three parts and these parts change over time.


The back portion of the ship is where we keep our Legacy operations. These are the operations we keep running based on a commitment to some group of customers or organization, but we do not regard as in the main portion of our craft. That section is critical since the organization must consciously decide:

  • Which products, processes, & technologies should be in Legacy status,
  • Which Legacy products and processes to keep as well as which to transition[1], and
  • What transition strategy will be used for a given product/process? This applies to bringing a product in from Keeping the Lights on (KLO) as well as moving a product/process out of our operation all together.

The central part of the ship is what we do to “Keep the Lights On.” It is typically the main source of our operating funds. For example, we must make payroll this week in order to get ready for tomorrow. Clearly, the bulk of the organization’s focus is here; however, this section must not become the exclusive focus of the organizations’ leadership. The leader/leadership needs to sure that this portion is well managed while also addressing the entirety of the vehicle and the voyage.

The front has Emerging Opportunity section which asks whether the organization is conducting the research and development to determine what threats or opportunities are developing in the world. Leadership must use this information to determine what changes must be made to the organization to prepare for what is to come. The leader/leadership must ensure that the organization is preparing for tomorrow, not just surviving today.

The “Transition” sections focus upon organizational change. The key concept is that term: “Organic.” Organizations behave like living organisms rather than the “Mechanistic” models made popular in Victorian times. This view requires that the organization’s leadership address change management issues that are so frequently over-looked until they become crisis.   Organizations resist change. This is true regardless of the perceived benefit of the change. There will be resistance even if the change is required to survive! We have all seen companies who could not make the changes required to survive.

Unlike a living organism, the business organism can make conscious choices to adapt to the changing environment. Unfortunately, it is easy to address the obvious components of the change required. Our model allows a better discussion of the entire transition. As we will discuss later, leadership needs to ensure that they are addressing the entirety of the required change.

The application of even this simple model can give a leadership team great insight into whether their “captaincy” of their business is effective. Getting a leadership team to categorize what components of their operation are in what part of the craft generates a spirited debate and can surface areas where lack of a shared view causes expensive miscommunication as well as lost opportunity. One issue that we have encountered is a dispute about the vehicle’s front-end.

We don’t do Research and Development (R&D) here!

We hear the refrain “That Emerging Opportunities (E/O) section doesn’t apply since our group/organization doesn’t do Research and Development” all too often. There seems to be a belief that R&D is exclusively a technical discipline when nothing could be further from the truth. A vision establishes a direction. The leader/leadership can’t set a direction without thinking about the future. We would think it ludicrous for anyone to claim to be thinking about the future without referencing what was going on in their industry, their competition, and the general environment. We try to ensure that leadership is constantly doing “business E/O” by asking a set of questions of those who claim the mantle of leadership:

  1. How do you anticipate what your competition is going to do:
    1. In the immediate future?
    2. In the long term?
    3. Where do you think they will change their operation/organization in order to accomplish this?
  2. How do you keep track of the way your industry is changing:
    1. In the immediate future?
    2. In the long term?
    3. Where do you think you will change your operation/organization in order to take advantage of these changes?
  3. How do you select your new product offerings:
    1. In the immediate future?
    2. In the long term?
    3. Where do you think you will change your operation/organization in order to introduce these products?
  4. How do you change the way the organization works?
    1. How do you introduce new processes, products, and career paths?
    2. How do you track the success of the change?
    3. How do you adjust these changes when the environment surprises you?

These questions clearly demonstrate that leadership is looking ahead (or should be looking ahead) to what the future will be. That is research. The leaders may do some or all of that research themselves and they must decide how much of their organizational resources will be dedicated to research.

Similarly, the leader/leaders are responsible for transforming the organization so that the future doesn’t find the organization unprepared to survive. That transformation is development. If we don’t do it proactively we are going to be doing it reactively.

A critical question for any leader is whether they are ensuring that this forward-facing part of their time-travelling vehicle is sufficient.

The E/O section

As the organization moves through the sea of time, the environment around us is giving a continuous stream of input. We must have an on-going operation that is looking ahead to determine what changes are going to impact us as well as how we could take advantage of the change’s occurrence. Changes in the environment may affect us positively, negatively, or may have a varying impact depending upon what we do and when we do it.


We have been using the analogy of the organization being a vessel moving through space and time. Just like the sailing vessels of old, every organization is at the mercy of its environment. Those who are captaining the organization need to be looking at the environment so that they can anticipate the impact of change and position the organization appropriately. One stress that any competent captain faces is that their decisions must address the needs of the moment as well as the needs of the future.

Historically, the captain of a sailing vessel had to respond to the immediate needs such as the on-coming squall while still maintaining progress towards his destination. In order to make effective decisions, the captain needs information about the ship and the immediate environment, as well as what lays ahead in order to make the right decisions. On a sailing vessel, some person, or persons, fulfills the role as the ship’s lookouts.

Similarly, the organization must have an E/O group that is looking ahead for risks and opportunities. The leadership of the organization should be receiving information from the E/O group so that the leadership can make effective decisions. In a small organization, the leader may be the one to fill this role. It is critical to fill this role in any organization

 Developing new knowledge

The first decisions regard what experiment to pursue and how to pursue it. Not every change needs to be pursued; conversely, some changes must be pursued. How will we recognize the difference? This aspect of the decision process seems to vary by industry, but it is a universal requirement unless you have unlimited resources. Regardless of your industry, the process should lead to decisions as to what should be pursued. The pursuit has several options as well. The most obvious is adoption. Some opportunities can be addressed immediately. Some threats must be addressed immediately. Another category is addressed by “proof of concept” experimentation. Basically, this is an opportunity or risk that we don’t understand well enough yet. This leads to a set of “proof of concept” projects. Some projects transform the organization while others determine whether and/or how to make other transformations.

The Project Portfolio belongs to the leadership

Not all projects change the business overall. Some projects are done within a specific section or department. There are other projects which impact the entire organization. These are always challenging, if not outright dangerous, to the organization. This model also helps clarify the roles of projects and project management in an organization operations and operational management. Any project will require resources/investments. Organizations need to become better at recognizing the “domino effect” of changing the operation. That is the reason we show the two (2) areas of transition that might apply to a given project. Transition has two parallel components when the leadership decides to pursue an Emerging Opportunity. One transition is to move the opportunity from the E/O section into the KLO section. Resources must be dedicated to moving and receiving the change. We emphasize the receipt of the change because that is one major source of resistance!

Each segment of our vehicle (Legacy, “Keep the Lights On,” and Emerging Opportunity) has a set of promised deliverables (products) and associated processes to produce them. The operational managers in each section keep those processes operating as promised and produce products that conform to specification. When the leadership decides to make the change required for future success/survival, the operational management is faced new requirements; yet, they may still be expected make their former/assigned goals! Where do the required resources come from?  The required change may be all to the good, but the impacted people may have no rational response but to push back. They have a set of real questions:

  • How are my priorities changed?
  • What leeway do I have in how I address this opportunity/threat?
  • What happens to my people as a result of this change? What do I say to them?
  • What happens to my customers as a result of this change? What do I say to customers who are affected by the changes whether its positive or negative?

This is all part of the project portfolio management. Our transition sections are designed to address this.

The captain of a sailing ship that has encountered a storm has to have resources performing maintenance on the ship at the same time that they are having other crew members continue to sail the ship. The captain can’t ignore either activity. Once again, the term “balancing act” rears its head. Unlike our captain on a sailing ship, the captain of a business organization can’t sail back to a shipyard for refitting. The business leader is constantly rebuilding their vessel while keeping it operating.

The Change never stops

We started this paper in order to get people thinking about the structure of the vehicle that they are captaining through the sea of time. Hopefully this paper had generated some thought. More importantly, we hope that it has generated some topics for you to discuss with your peers, superiors, and subordinates. Please contact us with any questions that you would like to explore.


  1. Collins, Jim. “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t.” HarperBusiness, 2001.
  2. Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras. “Built to Last.” Harper Business Essentials, 2002.
  3. Smith, Paul. “Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire.” Amacom, 2012.