HOW DID YOU GET INTO A STRATEGIC FUTURE THINKING TYPE ROLE?
I think I have always been doing it but not consciously. From my early days in journalism, I would arrive somewhere, see how things were being done and then I would analyse the process. My initial thought would not be ‘how can I master this process’, it would be ‘how can I make it better, how can I figure out a way of doing things that is better’ and hence create more time to do other stuff, like drink, or generate better output. And I had some success with that. I never just did the job I was paid todo - I figured out how to do that job better. And then, as I moved up the ranks, it became less about ops and process and more about strategy. I would see a strategy in the organisation that I was part of and I would think - ‘how can I make that better, how can I bend it, how can I reshape it?’. And it became an almost habitual behaviour.
The further I went along my journey, the more interesting people I met and every time I met someone who was a change agent, a strategic thinker - or somebody who would break things, or took a different perspective to get a different solution - I would talk to them and work out how they modelled their thinking so it was applicable and portable. I would spend as much time as I could listening and I then assembled those conversations and that became how I developed strategies in my own mind to envisage a better path to wherever I needed to get to.
IT FEELS LIKE THAT IS A STARTING POINT TO DEFINING WHAT A ‘FUTURE THINKER’ IS - SOMEONE WHO BEGINS NOT BY USING WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE, BUT BY RETHINKING HOW IT CAN BE DONE.
Ultimately it wasn’t about how to get more out of things - incremental improvement - but how to drive step change. And technology helps with this. It dramatically increases the headroom for growth.
Today and in the future it is technology that will make big step changes possible. Before the digital revolution business was for a long time all about incremental improvement. Optimisation. But there has been a dramatic increase in the headroom for growth - 5-10% uplift is failure now. We expect more. And new markets emerge because of tech.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE FUTURE THINKING AS OPPOSED TO ANY OTHER TYPE OF THINKING IN THE ORGANISATIONS YOU HAVE WORKED IN?
I would hesitate to try and define it, but I view it as the ability to see a broader vista. To connect lots and lots of data points and inputs in order to see further and see wider. You can’t think beyond the inputs you have other than through imagination - and that is creativity and there is a place for that in the mix. But ultimately in order to think strategically you have to be able to make those connections, whether across disciplines, across functions or across business units.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A STEP CHANGE THEN IF YOU ONLY RELY ON ANALYSIS OF CURRENT DATA?
That is where creativity comes in. You have lots of data and you have done lots of analysis - and then, to go beyond the data, you need to add the secret sauce which is imagination. This is probably driven by the ‘ambient’ data you have ingested - the books you’ve read, the people you’ve met, the things you’ve heard. Your ability to project these forwards in a creative way is essential - otherwise you are not inventing, you simply are repackaging and assembling.
I believe strategy is a creative practice that is all about synthesis. It cannot just be based on analysis. Analysis is of no use unless
it can show us the way. Future thinkers are the people who are able to climb up on top the data mountain and get a better bigger view of what the future looks like. It is the combination of creative and engineering thinking - a mixture of right brain and left brain thinking.
I find it very exciting and believe that this future thinking is absolutely critical. Without it we cannot create anything new. You can have a strategy to take you forward - but you need a strategy that goes beyond the data, to get ahead of the curve and generate that step change to create real growth. For me that is forward progress - all the rest is making a better now.
AS A FUTURE THINKER, WHAT ARE THE KEY TOOLS/ FRAMEWORKS/MODELS YOU RELY ON?
There is information. There is the basic human element - speaking to people and listening to them to get that spark of the idea. And there is being open to a lot of other inputs. As you travel through your professional and personal life, you can either do that with eyes open or eyes closed. There’s a lot of stuff happening around you that you need to be absorbing and noting - this fuels your thinking, your creativity. You then need a process to synthesise what you have taken in. You need the time to reflect and distil that into a very simple idea or activity and then go out and test it to validate.
SO YOU TAKE IN A TON OF DATA FROM EVERYWHERE YOU CAN GET IT, YOU DEVELOP A THEORY OF AN IDEA, AND THEN YOU GO TEST IT AND SEE WHAT COMES OF IT?
Yes. I start initially testing my ideas in conversations. You can float an idea you have had with a smart person and see their reaction. And then you can create a little model, a little experiment, and iterate until you reach a threshold where is looks like ‘a thing’. At this point you have to have the ability to be able to communicate your idea to the people you are working with. Then, finally, you need to be brave enough to commit and follow through on it.
ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC METHODOLOGIES
YOU HAVE INHERITED OR HAVE YOU CREATED THEM ALL YOURSELF?
I have probably used bits of everyone else’s. There are formal approaches that the big consultancies use and there’s merit in those. But there are all sorts of others, depending on what you are trying to tackle. In my world there is no real science behind which models work. We just try to assemble models that help test out opportunities. It changes every single time and every single project - and that is how it should be because we are learning every time and we need to keep updating our approach and therefore our models and methodology.
IF SOMEONE ASKED YOU WHAT YOU DO, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY (OTHER THAN YOUR JOB TITLE)?
My mum once asked my boss at The Times (the editor, James Harding) what it was that I did. He paused for thought. Then he said, ‘Hector’s job is to save The Times’. It was a huge compliment. I’d like to think I just try to make things better.
BET YOUR MUM WAS IMPRESSED WITH THAT.
No, she wasn’t. She was, like - “What the heck does that mean?” James was exaggerating for effect, but my job as Digital Director was to create a scenario in which the The Times could thrive in the future. I took that really seriously. Essentially, we had to create and deliver a strategy that would ensure the continuity and health of something that had been around for 227 years. At the time there was (and maybe still is) an existential threat to publishing because business models were ‘distressed’, but fundamentally there was and is value in journalism. Me and a team of smart people needed to make sure that we could extract that value to allow The Times to continue to hire and pay journalists to do the job they do, without having to compromise its integrity or change its values - and secure what is a very important part of our society for future generations.
ARE YOU DOING THE SAME AT WHICH? - TRYING TO PREPARE THEM FOR THE FUTURE AND SAFEGUARD AN ORGANISATION THAT PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN DEFENDING CONSUMER RIGHTS IN THE UK?
Yeah - 100%. I think Which? is a very important organisation and benefits a huge number of people in the UK - and I want to see it thrive. If I can contribute to the organisation’s future viability and success, that’s great. If I can contribute a massive step change in its fortunes so that it can do way more for way more people then I feel like I will have done a half-decent job.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO WAS INTERESTED IN GETTING INTO WHAT YOU DO? WHAT SHOULD THEY STUDY AT UNIVERSITY? WHAT KIND OF ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE THEM?
I studied economics at University and I wanted to be a banker. Because of Maggie Thatcher. That thinking makes me laugh now. But I don’t think it matters what you do at university. There are certain courses that will give you skills in the analytical areas which are key. And others which will give you ways of developing your creative side which is obviously also extremely important. Both are needed and there aren’t many university courses out there that cover both that I am aware of, to be honest. I wish I could say I have been the author of my own narrative and all of my career was deliberate. But it wasn’t. All I can say is, be curious and do things that are stimulating instead of procedural and regimented. Do stuff that challenges your thinking. Remember ultimately you are not going to be success by yourself, you are going to be successful in a group that is multi-disciplinary. So you can be any one of the components as long as you are open minded and have the right attitude. The new emerging strategy is very different from what went before - it is now the combination of people from many different backgrounds from multiple disciplines with completely different standpoints. So don’t look for a definitive starting point - concentrate on the end point instead (like a true strategist). It’s all about outcomes.
STRATEGY IS A JOB BUT MOSTLY IT IS JUST A WAY OF THINKING. HOW WE SEE IT, IS THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUCCESS AND NON-SUCCESS IN ALL JOBS - FROM AN ENGINEER, TO A BANKER, TO A POLICEMAN, TO A DESIGNER AND SO ON - IS THE ABILITY TO THINK STRATEGICALLY BY THINKING AHEAD AND PREDICTING WHAT THE FUTURE IS, AND THEN CHANGING CURRENT BEHAVIOURS/ACTIONS/SKILL SETS ETC TO MEET THAT ENVISAGED FUTURE AND GET AHEAD OF THE CURVE. DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT?
Exactly that. You have to able to see the big picture, take in the data, make some hypotheses based on that and plot a route and then course correct on the way. That seems to me to be something you should do in business and in life. You need to know where you are going in order to know if you have got there. Without a destination there is no journey. Simple as that.