It took a tooth extraction in 1990 for Anton Musgrave to stumble upon his current role as a futurist. Browsing through an article in a science magazine at the dental clinic, he was both amazed and scared by a new idea called the internet, and its limitless possibilities. That curiosity led to a consulting project with IBM, an unusual switch from commercial law to property management, and subsequently to heading a new-age financial services company. As part of the core team at FutureWorld International, he now helps companies craft their future strategy based on possible ‘action scenarios’ that their senior leadership teams envision. Speaking from his Cape Town office, Mr Musgrave talks to Vikas Kumar about his work as a futurist and how today’s business leaders need to adapt to a dynamic reality to build businesses that endure and thrive into the future.

What is your work as a futurist all about and how much of that has changed or evolved in recent times?

My role is to get senior executives to think differently about the future. It is to engage them in challenging, provocative and inspiring conversations to explore the possibilities the future holds, and most importantly, the choices executives make about that future.

The world of business has become so short-term focused that executives are consumed by short-term operational challenges and short-term success deliverables. I hope to raise their perspectives about what’s coming over the horizon. It’s not about predicting what’s coming, it’s about understanding what’s happening around us, and what future could these events create.

It could range from technology to geopolitical, social and marketplace shifts to business model changes; all of these come together and paint a series of pictures about the future. My job is to get executives to engage in that conversation, which has nothing to do with what I call the business of today, but everything to do with the business of tomorrow.

How do you get executives to blend a lifetime of experience into a vision of the future?

The way I challenge leaders to grapple with the future is to ask them to suspend the present and all of their experience, for a moment. And let’s fast forward the conversation to 10 years from now, to 2028. And let’s just imagine what that world might look like.

You have to frame a set of possible future scenarios and you have to make choices based on those possibilities. You must create ‘optionality’ for your future. What you want to do is build a business which capitalises on the short-term opportunities in the marketplace because that’s important — success next quarter and in the next year are both critically important. But you also want to be flexible and agile enough to make moves ahead of the competition, to create a new industry ahead of the game. So it’s about learning to run the business of today in a way that is less about competition and more about a robust and sustainable business model in a world that’s changing very rapidly.

How does all this work differently from older methods of, say, scenario planning or what other management consultants do?

One of the main features of consultants is that they tell their clients what to do. And that’s one thing I promise never to do. It’s important that a client or the company or the leadership team deeply — both intellectually and emotionally — embrace whatever the future they want, for themselves, businesses, their staff and clients. The emotional bit is actually more important. The intellectual justification comes later. The emotional connection with what’s possible is what fires up human ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurship. When the dream is exciting, you find ways to execute it.

Scenario planning is the easy piece. You can delegate that and a research team will produce a set of scenarios. That’s not very useful. What’s really useful is when senior executives in an organisation understand what the drivers of the different scenarios are, create it themselves and then interpret the same. It’s not just a document they read.

That’s why the success rate of consultants in big strategy projects is so poor. No one really believes in the new strategy. No one really dreams it. No one desperately wants it. They get this 150-page report, and it’s all full of Excel justification and pie-charts. But tell me, where is the dream and why would I, as a 55-year-old senior executive five years away from pension, take the risks? Unless you’ve inspired me and unless you’ve excited me, why would I go and do these crazy things that may or may not work. So, without creating the emotional buy-in and emotional aspiration, most of the strategy remains academic.

What does this mean for business leadership and how is it evolving?

This is one of the things I’m most passionate about. We are now entering an era of ‘naked leadership’. This is a notion of a leader operating in a kind of fishbowl situation, where the whole world observes everything about you in real-time. It’s not like the environment of the past where you could do things secretly, where the world wouldn’t know or understand, and where you could be arrogant and authoritarian. We now have an ecosystem where society is deeply connected and engaged. That requires leaders to behave differently.

There is a very real risk that we will lose control over the future of our species. Artificial intelligence is developing at a startling pace; it’s both exciting and scary.

Look at Volkswagen and their diesel scandal, where they tried to hide their manipulation from the world and were found out. If you go back a few years to BP and their Deepwater Horizon oil spill, initially they tried to lie to the world about what was actually happening underwater. But the truth emerged and it cost them billions in damages as opposed to a few hundred million to fix the problem. In the process, their legitimacy, the brand and the planet, all suffered.

When United Airlines dragged a passenger from the plane, for the first 48 hours the CEO said to the world, “but my staff followed the process”. That’s an arrogant, hierarchical, top-down response to a real problem, and it was a deep cultural issue at the company. It took 48 hours of public outcry for him to finally realise that he could no longer behave in the same authoritarian way and he needed to connect with society, be humble and vulnerable, and apologise.

In contrast, take Indra Nooyi who recently faced flak for an advertisement for Pepsi that went completely wrong. She immediately apologised and said, “I’m deeply sorry. We had no intention to offend and we will cancel the advert immediately.” Because she was human, vulnerable and exposed, she connected with the world immediately and won their support rather than lose it. Those are some examples of how leadership is changing.

Business today is all about networks and ecosystems. That requires leaders to think differently; it’s about how you align your interests with multiple players in the system, all interconnected, all observing transparently what’s going on. That’s a very different context for leadership than a linear, power-dominated supply chain.

And if I were to get even more philosophical and fast forward to 20 or 30 years from now, will the construct of a company as we know it even exist? And if you then start thinking what could replace it, and how would that work, then you start having very interesting leadership discussions.

What about the new crop of leaders, people who are setting up new-age businesses today? Do you see them ready with the skills and understanding that you talk about?

In many ways, I think they are better prepared than we are. They understand the tools available to them. They are not bound by constraints and there’s nothing too scary or too big to tackle. And they are not concerned by the things they may not know because they’ll just find a way of solving them through their networks and connections. However, they are naive about the realities of our world. So, the question is how to blend their unbridled, unlimited potential with the harsh realities of the actual world we live in, good or bad. We don’t take them seriously enough and we don’t listen to them deeply enough. That’s something the current leadership of the world has to embrace.

Three days to redo the future

Anton Musgrave has a three-day process for unleashing creative futures. Day One is about executives racking their brains and challenging their core assumptions about themselves, society, their business, customers and clients; in short, getting their brain rewired. On Day Two, Mr Musgrave gets the leadership team to imagine that the organisation has been vapourised, to assume that the company has ceased to exist, and the only thing left is a cheque representing the current valuation. He then asks the leaders what kind of future-relevant business they would like to recreate. Would they rebuild the business in the same way, or would they build something different? This process forces executives to think of a future world that is different, better and more exciting. Day Three is about finding creative ways to overcome all the challenges. There are no constraints and the executives unleash their creative thinking to discover the steps to build the ideal future.

You have often spoken about a future dominated by data streams, AI and connected-ness, where wearable devices and implants are ubiquitous. Where does that leave the human mind, its imagination and people interactions?

There is a very real risk that we will lose control over the future of our species. AI is developing at a startling pace; it’s both exciting and scary. I think that it’s better to let the machines do the labourious, tedious, non-fulfilling work and enable humans to become better humans, whatever that means. The debate then shifts to how those humans will live and what they will do. The potential exists for us to reinvent ourselves. In fact, the relevance of humans in the future will depend upon our human-ness, not on our ability to beat the machines. We won’t win that race.

We should start at school level. Stop teaching children to remember and stop rewarding them with high grades if they remember things. Reward them if they can ask really difficult questions, if they are curious, if they can connect the dots in a set of facts, and seek out connections and patterns.

For a conglomerate as massive, diverse and globally distributed as the Tata group, mapping the future can be a daunting and complex exercise. What would your advice be to make it work in this context?

I think it’s crucial for Tata’s senior leaders to have aligned views on the major forces shaping the world of tomorrow, the future of humanity and of specific industries. This journey will lead to insights on the drivers of future success and market relevance, even in a profoundly changing world. Senior leaders have to agree on a master ‘sense of purpose’ for the group and on critical decision guidelines that will inform and direct the strategic and operating decisions of the various subsidiaries.

In addition, the group has to be very purposeful about creating rapid agility as a core feature. This will enable rapid response to future market variables without the typical ‘slowness’ of a large multinational and diversified group. The leaders have to be ruthless about building decision-making structures for speed.

The benefit of a large group is the ability to fund R&D and to create shared learning platforms. The group structure could be more of an ecosystem than a hierarchy, driving collaboration and innovation rather than preserving hierarchies and power structures. Ultimately, the Tatas need to have compelling answers to the question: “What will the world miss if Tata as a group were to cease to exist?”