Five crucial starting points for futures work

Sensemaking / Five crucial starting points for futures work

Kit-fong Law of MTR explains why an organisation must listen to its people and understand their motivations before it can plan for the future – in an interview with Anna Simpson.

By Kit-Fong Law / 10 Sep 2015

MTR Corporation runs the Hong Kong metro (as with other cities in the world – Crossrail in London, Stockholm, Melbourne and several cities in Mainland China) and is a major property developer in Hong Kong. Realising that it could be better prepared for some big changes on the horizon, MTR embarked on a partnership with Forum for the Future, using futures as a way to understand other emerging risks and explore new opportunities.

Anna Simpson: Can you tell me why MTR is interested in using futures to explore longer-term risks and opportunities?

Kit-fong Law: I should start by saying that we’re still at the early stages and yet we have already learnt a lot about what this will mean for us, and what we can do right now.

There has long been a very strong culture of risk management within MTR, which is a great foundation of doing futures. We have many working groups or committees to deal with the risks we know about, but we also need to see new ones coming.  

It just makes a lot of sense to look at the future if we are to prepare ourselves for the future and not just traditionally, as most companies do, look at the past.

AS: How have you begun to encourage people to look up from immediate challenges to emerging risks? 

KL: I realise that first you have to understand where people are currently, and what motivates them. Asking people to take a leap for more than 10 years into the future is a big commitment, and so it helps if you can show how doing this will help them achieve the goals they are already working towards.

To do that you need to understand their language, and learn to use it. For example, many of our operational managers associate ‘sustainability’ with environmental issues because – when we started exploring sustainability over 12 years ago – one of the main tasks was an Environmental Impact Assessment. Since then, there have been a lot of external changes in Hong Kong, such as the Stock Exchange introducing ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) reporting requirements, and so more people understand that it’s not just about the environment, but about how you do business. The future success of your core business depends on how you integrate these factors.

So, by using the language of risk and opportunity in the futures workshop, to talk about long-term trends and sustainability challenges, people could look beyond their day-to-day concerns, but also see these in a new light.

AS: Are you also managing to have such conversations outside of workshops?

KL: That’s certainly an aim. We have some internal programmes on further strengthening our company culture, improving the way we work, risk awareness and other innovative ways to solve problems, led by different departments such as our HR and Risk teams. We worked with the relevant departments working on these projects to find synergies and to lay some of the foundations for the futures workshop.

These programmes promote values which I think tie in very nicely with this culture of long-term thinking of collaboration, constructive debate, and agility – these are also what we are trying to achieve through the Futures workshop.

AS: What methods are you exploring to help engage people?

KL: Hong Kong is quite a unique place, and so I think a lot of local knowledge is needed to make the trends more relevant and help people understand them. Colleagues who read the report on trends that Forum produced perceived them to be global trends rather than local trends. People needed support and expertise to help them understand the implications for their daily work.

So it’s important to have local information to hand, but it’s also about managing expectations. We need to help people realise that this isn’t so much about gathering data to tell us what the future will be, but an exercise in being open to different futures. We have no defined future; the important thing is to have constructive debate about how things could be different.

AS: And what can help to make this sort of constructive debate possible?

KL: You have to have the right mix of people at the workshop, because it’s a very interactive format. They will be proposing ideas to each other, discussing ideas, debating, and then collaborating, or forming new ideas together. They don’t have to be into futures or sustainability – the reality is that across the company, and within society, not everyone is like that. But you have to help prepare them for a very open-ended discussion!

Of course, I can’t forget the importance of the senior management. The people at the middle level are implementing, but at the end of the day, the senior management fix the position and lead the direction. And so it helps for the key people to join the workshop. It may seem a lot for them to leave their job for half a day, but we really want to prepare the organisation for the longer-term, some may feel it’s too much to ask, so we just needed to be mindful of that.

AS: And so to summarise, what suggestions would you have for an organisation beginning its futures journey?

KL: I’d say the five crucial starting points are:

  • Listen to people’s motivations
  • Learn to speak the same language
  • Make the trends locally relevant
  • Manage expectations
  • Involve the right mix of people.

Kit-fong Law is Sustainability Development Manager at MTR Corporation. Anna Simpson is Curator of the Futures Centre at Forum for the Future.

Image credit: courtesy of MTR Corporation

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