One of the difficulties about the future is predicting time-scales for change. There is no doubt that the world is changing faster than ever before but getting leaders to think about the future never gets any easier.

Image courtesy of artur84 at

Image courtesy of artur84 at

It’s the short term that is the most difficult. 50 years is not a problem, 10 is much more difficult.

Here I share my thoughts as to where boards are in managing for the future and what they can do about it now.

I recently read a McKinsey article on 3D printing. 3D printing has been all over the media, hard to miss it. From printing jolly plastic ducks to heart valves we have seen machines that work, but currently only produce small batches of expensive product. (Have a look at this video explaining how to print a heart valve)

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But we know from history that we can expect to see expensive products get cheaper and small batches become large ones very quickly. If that happens then you would think that the current manufacturers of plastic ducks and heart valves would be worried.

You would probably be wrong.

McKinsey survey of 3D printing

The McKinsey survey of leading manufacturers showed 40% of the respondents were unfamiliar with additive manufacturing technology beyond what they had read in the press; another 12% thought it might be relevant but needed to learn more about it.

But the real worry was that two- thirds of respondents said their companies lacked a formal, systematic way to catalogue and prioritise emerging technology. This is something I have heard time and again from leaders. Too often, senior people say they are too busy trying to deliver this year’s numbers to think about the future.

And like our politicians, senior leaders tend to have a short time horizon. The phrase “I’ll be gone before that happens” sums up how a lot of them react.

What stops boards predicting the future?

Now these are not stupid people by any means but there are a few problems when it comes to looking at the future:

  • Stakeholders of all sorts tend to be short term in their thinking. Shareholders want returns today, union leaders are focused on today’s jobs not on job losses in the future, employees don’t want to undermine the business with worries about the future. Everyone is focusing on the ‘now’.
  • While boards of companies have made some baby steps in terms of improving the diversity of their board by adding an occasional woman, most boards are desperately short on young, savvy, technologically aware people.
  • Boards are typically very good at thinking about the day-to-day risks to their business. I’ve sat on boards where a lot of time is spent on refining the risk register and very little on blue sky thinking about the strategic risks from changes in the market.
  • Boards lack methodologies to think about technology beyond the technology they use in the business – and that is mostly delegated to the CTO who often doesn’t get a seat on the board.

How can your board analyse the impact of 3D printing – and other technologies?

Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield at

Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield at


So what do you do if you are a manufacturer of plastic ducks?

  • Get someone on your board who worries about the future of the plastic duck business in the broadest sense. This is probably not someone who is good at governance or finance but someone who is passionate about technology, reads widely and asks difficult and annoying questions.
  • Take them seriously.
  • At least every six months put aside half a day to think what if what they are saying is true, then what will happen to the business?

That way you might be ready in five years when every toy shop in the world can print its own plastic ducks.