Our special guest today is Joana Lenkova, founder of Futures Forward Ltd., a London based strategy and futures consultancy company. Joana is Bulgarian-born but can be defined as a cosmopolitan professional with over 15 years of international experience in the field of marketing, innovation, business strategy and strategic foresight across different FMCG, finance and entertainment blue-chip companies (AB InBev, Societe Generale, Disney), as well as successfully growing start-ups. Up until starting her own company,, she held a Consumer Strategy role at The Walt Disney Company.
Joana is a graduate of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford in Strategy and Innovation. She is a founding member of the Global Foresight Advisory Council of The Futures School, and a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and the Oxford Union. She has just pre-sold over 100 copies of her new book, ‘Choose Your Own Future’, which would provide tools and scenarios for informed decision making with strategic foresight. What’s also interesting about it is that the reader will be the protagonist in this “choose-your-own-adventure” type of book. The book will show practical tools, frameworks and case studies which will help businesses with their strategy and futures planning.
Joana, how did you choose to become a futurist?
I am a naturally curious person, and luckily enough, I have been exposed to many different cultures since I was young. Finding the perfect balance between creativity and business acumen has always been my quest.
On the other hand, my professional path has gradually led me to this profession. Being responsible for building innovative brands, market strategies and supporting the strategic management of multinational companies in a variety of industries has taught me to explore different points of view and purposefully remove my boundaries and biases, opening up the door to new ideas and opportunities.
While working at The Walt Disney Company as a consumer strategist for Disneyland Paris, I came across a myriad of challenges. One of the markets in my portfolio was the UK, the largest international market. I witnessed fist-hand how our carefully planned annual strategy was dismantled, because of a mix of external forces we did not account for. They affected consumer confidence and purchasing habits across the UK and the whole Europe: first, the migrant crisis, followed by terror attacks in Paris and London, the BREXIT vote and the panic and the uncertainty it brought along.
I was proud to be amongst the 25 selected professionals from a pool of over 400 candidates at Disney to pass through formal strategic foresight training, and this is how I became an active member of The Walt Disney International team of Futurists. This gave me the opportunity to learn new methodologies and ways of dealing with uncertainty. After several years of practical experience, I founded my own company and currently I am helping companies from different sectors on several continents to find their own path to building sustainable strategies.
How can you explain to a five-year old child what is the job of a futurist?
I would rather ask them how they imagine their perfect future world. I will take notes and work towards that vision. Kids are great, we can learn so much from them. They don’t suffer from our trained incapacity yet and don’t carry that many biases.
If I need to explain simply what I do, I would say that I am a very curious person, who thinks about the future of our planet, the people, the animals and the nature. Futurists are the people who look for interesting information across various areas (technology, the environment, economics, people and society, politics) that can help us imagine what the many different possible futures may look like. The scenarios we build can take the form of fiction stories about the future. We share these scenarios with our governments, companies, colleagues and clients, so that they can take informed action when planning for a better future.
Where do you think companies should start to prepare themselves for the future?
Historically, companies are driven by financial interests and shareholder value. This requires them to project stability and sometimes favours short-term behaviour. But what is the guarantee that what works today will also work tomorrow? That’s why we talk about ambidexterity and finding a balance between exploiting the current resources, while exploring new ideas and opportunities.
We are witnessing how rapidly the world is changing and chances are, if you don’t explore new horizons and capture opportunities to generate new forms of value, you will not have a successful business.
Companies should really start by gaining an understanding of the external environment and what opportunities and threats lay there for the future. Exploring these and taking a proactive approach through building a vision of a preferred future, based on possible future scenarios, is the first step. The next step is to start building purposeful actions directed towards that vision of the future. Copy-pasting or blindly following last year’s strategy without taking into account the emerging trends and the changing world values is a recipe for failure.
How should companies act when they realize that then need to step out of the conventional strategic planning but don’t know where to start from?
Linear forecasting gives us a (false) sense of security but leaves us vulnerable to all the external factors we haven’t taken into account. I strongly advise everyone to get skills in the field of strategic foresight and start practicing futures thinking and scenario planning, which has proven to be a successful way to navigate uncertainty.
My consultancy company Futures Forward provides workshops and consultancy services, working with clients from the public and private sector. These take the form of strategic support when building their future plans, exploring for new markets or opportunities to innovate, as well as strategic foresight upskilling.
In addition to that, we are partnering with The Futures School, USA to provide strategic foresight training to EMEA participants.
What are the most important qualities in a futurist?
Curiosity – learning new things, going out of your information filter bubble, always searching for new inspiration. It stretches your thinking and your brain starts making new connections. You see things, others don’t see (yet).
Ability to unlearn and relearn – if you are precious about being right all the time and never change your mind, even when updated information is available, then you are not developing. Unlearning is just as important as learning. Give up the old beliefs when new ideas are available and relearn new ways of doing thing, when they fit the environment better.
Challenge assumptions (including your own!) – watch out for stereotypes and question yourself and others. Asking the right questions is important when you are looking to break the mold and come up with an innovative idea.
Look for diversity in collaboration and communication – look up around you, and you will notice how other people are a source of inspiration, alternative points of view, and knowledge. Discussions and (constructive) debates are a fantastic way to expand one’s thinking - especially if they are with people different than us.
Hard work – thinking about the future is hard work, and comes with a lot of responsibility. You carry a weight on your shoulders, others depend on the information you give them. For example, you have to be able to provide well-written scenarios as important decisions about the future will be taken based on them.
Cope well with change and uncertainty – be ok with the fact you will never be 100% correct. That’s not the point. You are not a fortune teller, you are not there to predict, you are there to show a range of possibilities and also inspire and encourage people to take an active stance and build the future, not just react to it.
What is your favourite methodology to predict various scenarios? Give us an example.
The methodology I use is called Natural Foresight® and it was created by The Futures School. It has 4 stages: ‘discover’, ‘explore’, ‘map’ and ‘create’.
We start with ‘discover’, where we recognize assumptions and uncover deeply-held metaphors. We face our biases and learn how to overcome them. In the ‘explore’ phase, we analyse the impact of trends, find focal issues and envision implications. ‘Map’ is the stage where we create several future scenarios, and ‘create’ is the phase where we bring the information about the future into today’s strategy.
There are different tools we use throughout and while scenarios are a great way to envision the futures, a lot of useful information can be derived throughout the process that can inform our strategy, even before we reach the scenarios stage.
Why do futurists say that following the trends can be your worst enemy in strategic planning?
Trends are falsely perceived as a thing from the future. But how can they be an indication of the future if all of us already know about them?
What’s more important than knowing the trends is knowing what to do with them. Namely, think about the implications of these trends across industries or the PESTEL categories (political, economic, social, tech, environmental, legal).
You also have to spend some time thinking about the reasons these trends emerged. What has changed in society that created the possibility for the trends to emerge and what new trends may appear because of that? And lastly, it’s very important to think about what may happen when trends from different categories clash.
Trends are only scratching the surface, once you start playing with them, a whole new world emerges. Not just one, many possible different worlds.
2020 drastically changed the way we live and work. Could you share two possible scenarios how we would interact with each other?
When we offer scenarios, we usually work with at least 3 options. I am offering you four different ones, based on how quickly we overcome the virus and how quickly the economy recovers.
1. Corona World (Vaccine - / Economy -)
If we don’t find a vaccine soon and our economy continues to go downhill, we may end up in a very fragmented world with inequality rising. This would be unfortunate as we are dealing with a global enemy and we should be collaborating on a global level.
2. Sustainable recovery (Vaccine + / Economy -)
This scenario provides opportunities, as our health will no longer be under threat from Coronavirus. Financially, it will be difficult but it is a good way to set a new direction and work on new systems and sustainable solutions. Here it will be important to focus on supporting innovative practices with sustainability and the future in mind vs trying to save legacy companies which do not fit the new requirements to keep in mind the people and the planet.
3. The Bubble society (Vaccine - / Economy +)
This scenario means we have adapted to the new reality and we are finding ways to communicate and work remotely. New advanced formats of digital collaboration have emerged – I notice that Launchee has already been actively promoting and developing. While this is a solution to continue to keep in touch and do business, the human need for in-person contact would still be there. Possible “safe bubbles” will emerge where communication with a small number of friends and family will be kept in a safe environment.
4. No lessons learned (Vaccine + / Economy +)
Even though it seems like the best-case scenario, I am worried that it may lead to us going back to our old ways and we all know they were certainly not very sustainable when fighting against a global enemy.
The purpose of these short scenarios is not to pick one of them, or to try to “predict” which one is more likely to happen. It is highly probable that what happens is a combination of them but our goal is to think about the opportunities and take measures which would positively impact our future.
Tell us more about your book?
This won’t be an ordinary book about futures thinking, laying forward methods, do’s and don’ts about planning your future. As a reader, you will be put directly in the driver’s seat. You will be given challenges and asked questions. You will also have the right tools to help you make informed decisions. You will end your journey in one of the three future worlds – scenarios which I will develop to help organizations imagine what the future may look like and choose a direction to take their company to.
The book is not written yet, so I love the fact that I am able to include readers’ most burning questions and tackle them in the scenarios. Feel free to reach out should you have one of those or if you are a company who’d like to share a lesson learned or a best practice in the field of innovation, strategy or futures planning!