Reverse Engineering the Organization

A new book reveals how “future-back” thinking—defining what the company will look like decades from now and working backwards—can encourage innovative ideas that will create breakthrough growth.

Now, more than ever, as social distancing impacts the way we work, as supply chain disruptions inhibit the ability to deliver goods, and as resources are reprioritized in an all hands on deck effort to find and deliver a vaccine, there is a need for leadership amid the COVID-19 chaos. And, that requires a new way of thinking.

Recently, I interviewed Mark W. Johnson, a senior partner at Innosight, a growth strategy firm he co-founded with the late, great Clayton Christensen—one of the most influential business theorists of this generation known for his theory of “disruptive innovation.” Christensen passed away in January, but Johnson, an aerospace engineer with an MBA from Harvard Business School, carries on his legacy through the consulting work at Innosight and the business books he writes.

Johnson’s latest book, Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth, was published in April. And while he and his coauthor Josh Suskewicz didn’t have a worldwide pandemic in mind when they wrote the book, it is extremely relevant right now as the world spins toward an uncertain future—at least in the near term.

It’s the long term vision, however, that manufacturers need to focus on, because “foresight leads to insight,” Johnson has stated. To that end, the foundation of this book is based on what Johnson calls a “future-back” approach to create growth strategy. Different from a “present-forward” mindset which assumes a company’s existing business can simply be extended into the future, future-back begins the planning process by envisioning what the company will look like decades from now. It is a methodology for defining a future state and working backwards to set priorities and milestones. It’s an iterative and nonlinear way of thinking that goes beyond an organization’s established way of doing things. And it requires a fundamental system change.

“In manufacturing, it’s a system problem,” Johnson said. “Trying to get someone to do something breakthrough means not following the traditional path onward and upward. It’s not like following lean and Six Sigma to drive efficiency improvement. It’s a step change. A point of departure. A transformation. And you have to go at it from a clean sheet system. Systems replace systems, so what is the new system? Imagine that and architect it by working it back.”

It can be likened to reverse engineering the business, Johnson told me, but it’s more than just applying the mechanics of the process. It involves humans, which means you have to have a method to learn and iterate and shape the system. “It’s not as clean as the traditional reverse engineering of a system where you don’t want the blueprint to be wrong…you have to be able to test and learn.”

Known for his 'future-back' strategy development, Mark W. Johnson is a senior partner at Innosight and co-author of the newly released book: Lead from the Future, How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth.Known for his "future-back" strategy development, Mark W. Johnson is a senior partner at Innosight and co-author of the newly released book: Lead from the Future, How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth.

So, for example, here we are in a world where companies like Facebook are announcing it anticipates that half of its employees will permanently work from home by 2030, brought on as a result of a pandemic that is changing the way we work. But it’s not so easy to do. It requires technology, policies, process changes, new rules, and a culture shift to ensure people working at home feel as rewarded and in the know as those working onsite.

“It’s a system problem,” Johnson said. “What’s the objective and what do you imagine are all of the pieces of the system in the future? What assumptions have you made and how do you walk back to the experiments you need to start today?”

In manufacturing, the same system applies. “If a paradigm shift were to happen, what will it look like? And then you being to architect or reverse engineer it. Nobody knows what the world will look like 10 years from now, but by having the conversations, bringing in trends and the potential disrupters, and spending the time to ask the right questions and have the right discussions, you start to develop a point of view. It’s filled with assumptions, but innovation teams are often surprised by how much of a sense of direction they have of where they want to go.”

Technology plays an important role here, as well. As manufacturers explore and adopt digital transformation technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, 3D printing, etc., by looking far enough into the future they can begin to talk about how these technology trends will converge together to create a point of inflection to do something in a fundamentally different way than the way manufacturing is currently done.

This exercise requires the ability to constantly start with a clean sheet and figure out how to make “future-back” an experiment. So, when exploring how AI fits into the production process, you shouldn’t be wondering when the right time to implement AI is, or what the right point solution is. The better question is: Do you have a plan to learn?

“The one that learns the fastest is the one that takes advantage of technology to transform manufacturing,” Johnson said. “Question the learning process to start that future vision and continually learn and adjust it.”


For more information on how business leaders can navigate coronavirus, visit PMMI's COVID-19 Resources page.  

More stories of interest:

IoT Adoption: Before and After COVID-19

COVID-19 Spawns New Opportunities for Increasing Efficiencies

Cobot Deployment Shines in COVID-19 Pandemic 

More in Home