A lot has been said and written about what makes a great business leader. According to the literature, good leaders should display contagious enthusiasm for the business and willingness to hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their decisions. They should also reconcile genuine curiosity with unwavering ethics, empathy, and team spirit. But, to some extent, these are also the qualities expected from virtually any employee or member of an organization. Just browse the classifieds! In contrast, “regular” corporate employees are seldom expected to have a knack for anticipating future conditions. This is usually the preserve of senior managers and business leaders. Great leaders differentiate themselves from others by their ability to anticipate.

Anticipation as a Key Pillar of Strategic Planning

From a business leadership perspective, anticipation can be defined as the ability to envision a desired future state — one that does have real chances of coming true —, to imagine or expect what may happen to encourage or thwart the realization of that vision, and to take preparatory action in order to tilt the scales in the desired direction. In other words, anticipation is fundamentally akin to strategic thinking and foresight.

Team, department, and organization leaders should be looking at things with a far reaching eye. They need the ability to clearly understand and visualize the relationships, connections, and dependencies between multiple moving parts and to accurately consider the implications and possible outcomes of any change. By evaluating both the current situation and possible future states, they can come up with relevant tactics. This helps engage in projections based on sound analysis. In a nutshell, they cannot do without a solid ability to anticipate what’s to come.

The Importance of Anticipating Risk

The ability to think ahead is actually most critical when it comes to anticipating the hurdles and problems that might arise in the future and endanger your plans. That is risk. In our increasingly complex and uncertain world, correct identification, appreciation and appraisal of the risks to our businesses and initiatives is more essential than ever. When crafting their plans, when charting a route for their business, corporate leaders have a responsibility to allow for the risk that the expected outcomes and benefits might not be realized. This requires capabilities (including skills and tools) to perform proper and timely assessment of major technical, organizational and external risks. Most of all, this requires the ability to anticipate risk ahead of time.

This is in direct contradiction with the very human tendency to overlook risk. Although risk and uncertainty are inherent in any business endeavor, the human brain usually prefers downplaying them and focusing on the prospect of the expected rewards. Understandable? Most certainly. Business smart? Not really — although going overboard in the other direction and basing decisions on the spectre of extremely unlikely risks is not recommended either. The role and responsibility of a business leader are therefore to find the right balance and to settle for an objectively reasonable appreciation of the risks and threats to the business.

When Leaders Just Can’t Anticipate

We’ve established that great business leaders and managers will strive to engage in realistic anticipation of any likely opportunities and threats down the road. But what of the outliers? What of COVID-19? Business leaders — however seasoned, however talented they may be — could not have anticipated for a sudden shock of this magnitude. Making provisions or contingency plans for the occurrence of such an extreme event would actually have sounded like madness. Building what-if scenarios and anticipating future situations and possible setbacks won’t totally safeguard your business against the unexpected. As a matter of fact, even the best leaders in the world have found themselves blindsided by unforeseen challenges at some point. 

This means that a good leader or manager should be ready to respond to challenges they did not predict or prepare for and to embrace uncertainty. In a volatile world, adaptation can be viewed as a necessary complement to anticipation.

Anticipation is often underrated and overlooked as a business management skill. It is key for a leader to be able to recognize patterns and to detect future trends in order to analyze and understand possible outcomes and to come up with appropriate action plans. However, it is equally crucial not to get locked into your anticipations, however sound and sophisticated they may be. No one can predict the future accurately. Anticipations are just that, and surprises always find their way in. So, when your anticipations fail you and turn out to be wrong or inaccurate, be prepared to improvise.

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Valerie Zeller

Valerie is Sciforma Chief Marketing Officer. Main interests: digital transformation, change management, strategy execution. Send your thoughts @valeriezeller