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Alien & Strategy

In 1981, the young boy I was entered a movie theater in Geneva to watch a Disney movie, but sat down in front of the wrong screen. I was ten and watched Alien on my own, despite its R-rating. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. This week, I watched it again with the family. The movie has remained a grand ’classique du genre’.

However, it also shows some limitations of the mind: the action is set in a spacecraft in 2120 or thereabout. Yet, the monitors are bulky, voice recognition has not replaced keyboards, the computer screen images and texts are worse than in the original PacMan game, there are fat wires everywhere, the communication devices would have been fashionable in Starsky & Hutch, there is no android in sight, etc.… It appears to be difficult to fully project oneself into a distant future.

A report which has just been published by M.I.T. Sloan in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group illustrates that point. Most companies appear to be attune to the potential changes that Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) can bring to businesses (including to Industrials). But they are failing to take the relevant action required to deal with their future implications. Almost 85% of respondents believe AI will allow their companies to obtain or sustain a competitive advantage, but less than half of them have an AI strategy in place. The striking disparity between expectations and action can be explained amongst other things by the absence of a clear perspective on future business cases.

Ironically, an old tool from the 60’s could be used to deal with this new challenge: scenario-based planning. Rather than to predict the future, the approach was designed to open the mind of executives through the development of plausible scenarios which enhance firms’ capacity to perceive and respond to change. The planning process was also deemed to help keep executives in the reality-based community to use a Bush-era expression, away from the agreed-upon reality they may have created over time for themselves. Fifty years ago, Shell pioneered the systematic use of scenarios to challenge itself. It is well-described in a 2013 Harvard Business Review entitled Living in the Futures – worth a read.

Going back to aliens, a little outfit called SciFutures even argues that science-fiction narratives can be relevant to corporate strategy. Its idea is to rely on the approach used to develop Sci-Fi novels to disrupt thinking through speculative fiction, and to imagine future business scenarios with a view to forcing companies to embrace uncertainty.

OTT? Maybe not.

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