Our guest in episode 3 is futurist speaker, strategy and innovation consultant and expert in disruption, Eleanor Winton.
Eleanor is the founder of Foresightfully, a consulting firm whose mission is to help leaders to integrate ‘foresightful’ thinking into their ambitions and plans for their business. That means considering the fast moving external and global environment and the impact of disruption in particular but also what it means to be a truly sustainable business.
Prior to establishing Foresightfully, Eleanor led the Future Institute at KPMG in the UK.
Her specialism is in bringing future trends to life in a way that energises clients around the solutions – how can they innovate to stay relevant and capitalise on change and uncertainty.
She has worked with the boards and executive teams of organisations across almost every industry, from retail to healthcare to mining.
We hope you enjoy this insightful conversation with Eleanor as much as we did.
Full interview transcript
Ray: Eleanor, tell us about your work as a futurist and how you help organizations prepare for major disruption.
Eleanor: Sure I guess. And if you think about sort of metaphorically I guess the rule is to maybe grab organizations by the shoulders a little bit and give them a shake and think about and helping them to get an external perspective on the business. What does it look like in practice? Usually the start point is a sort of an explosion of insights and a burst of energy and a fresh perspective on what the future looks like globally at the sector level. And then translating that down for them as a business the way that it plays out of course depends hugely on the scale of the business the size and the culture as well and what resonates. But generally speaking where we start is that outside in perspective real shake up challenge. And then we translate that down into some really tangible actions. So linking that to existing strategy of course but what are the innovations that we might employ. What is the network we might want to build as an organization, the ecosystem we want to build around ourselves and what are the projects we might want to undertake. What are the things we might want to explore or understand better to make us both fit for the future but actually to make sure that the fundamental business that we deliver is genuinely a sustainable business with a small ‘s’ rather than big a ‘s’.
Ray: [01:28] And are there particular events that can happen to an organization that might prompt them to bring someone like you in?
Eleanor: Yeah absolutely. There are some internal and some external so often it will be something like an existing process that just needs a bit of a reinvigoration. So an existing strategy process for example that’s often where I’m first brought in. But sometimes there are internal shocks, so there may be a loss of a team within the business, there may be a product that suddenly stops working or suddenly it is no longer fit for purpose. Externally there might be a shift in the market, a political disruption. We’re certainly in the world of those at the moment and or it may just be that the organization is going through the process of thinking well what are we actually here to do? What is our purpose? And I think a lot of organizations at the moment are are thinking about exactly that in light of the way that the world is moving.
Ray: [02:25] You’ve worked in professional services firms and consulting firms, describe what do you think the highly successful professional firm will look like in 10 or 20 years.
Eleanor: That’s a good question and I don’t know whether there’ll be one answer to that question. I think if we think about what might be different from today maybe that’s helpful we tend to talk about it so certainly I think we’ll be looking at scaling professional services businesses rather than growth in the way that we understand at the moment. So these will be professional services businesses that are effectively amazing brokers of great insight, great skill and great delivery. They may not actually have at their core very many people. There have to be some but it may not be the thousands of people that we see in large professional services firms today. And I think they will have to be incredibly good at curating for clients exactly what the right response is to the problem that the client is having or the issue that they’re raising or the thing that they want to achieve. So I don’t think it will be any longer acceptable to have a suite of products that you can pump out into the market. Similarly I don’t think it will be any longer viable to organize yourself as a business around own sectors and industries because they will just not be recognizable and from where we are today and certainly it will be grossly inefficient to create different products and services by sector and industry rather than than looking sort of horizontally if you like across the markets that you serve and making sure that you cross pollinate all those sorts of things.
Ray: [04:10] What are the challenges that professional service firms face as they try to make this transition over the next ten to 20 years? What are some of the structural challenges?
Eleanor: I think the biggest challenge that they have is actually around pay and not just part pay you know which we might get into but pay in general. There’s an expectation that professional services pay well that there is all the kind of trappings that go with that for employees and I think there’s a real need to reconsider employee and contractor offer is long term. But structurally there are challenges around how you how you flex these big machines in many cases and of course we’re talking here about a spectrum of organizations from very small to very large and that ability to flex will be different across those. But actually it’s very hard, when you when you hardwire into your organization an efficient structure that says this is done there, this is done here, and these are the systems we use to collect data and so on it becomes very difficult then to assess and assess changes that are coming or assess and ways of approaching something that are not that automatically siloed. And that’s a real challenge I think and the ability to think holistically as an organization. And again that you know on the on the point around hierarchy, in a typical corporate there’s a hierarchy that helps you make decisions more quickly but in many professional services firms where you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of partners in some cases, it’s really tough to get consensus and move quickly in response to what’s happening externally.
Ray: [05:50] And that hierarchy in the partnership is just one layer in that horizontal structure isn’t it? There are all these other layers that are really excluded from decision making?
Eleanor: Yeah. And that’s I think that’s a real – that’s an opportunity because the level of and knowledge and expertise within professional services is absolutely enormous, you know. And I was always amazed in that environment you would you would meet people who were doing a particular job. You know they were actuaries or whatever who, in workshops where we were developing innovative propositions, would produce these incredible illustrations and prototypes of what the things would look like. And that element of them was never being used in their day to day job. So there’s something about how the structure of the organization taps into people outside of a role and a responsibility and a particular task but brings them to bear around things that might might not be directly relevant to that role. And part of the answer to that might be and not actually employing people in the traditional sense but working through associate networks or on a kind of pay as you go basis or tapping into people for particular things at particular times. And that seems to reflect the direction of travel anyway towards smaller businesses, more flexible working, portfolio careers, all of those things.
Ray: [07:11] Because those people, those sorts of talented people, perhaps younger people, technologically savvy people have an enormous amount to offer these organizations over the next few years.
Eleanor: And let’s not forget the oldies, because of course you know we’re now at a point in time where we have the most educated elderly population in history and there’s a fantastic project in the U.S., where a journalist whose name I can’t remember, he is using elderly people to investigate cold cases. So you know people who have time on their hands who can investigate cases that the police don’t have time to clear. There are any number of things in the professional services environment that you know those scrapped partners or anyone in the business who’s left in whatever capacity could be applied to and we shouldn’t just think about young, although you’re absolutely right at really important to engage younger people. And this reverse mentoring idea is a really important part of that.
Ray: [08:16] The current model does weigh heavily incentives in favour of partners. Is that sustainable as the range of value producing roles and you’re talking increases and diversifies?
Eleanor: No. That might be controversial but no absolutely not. And it’s even not sustainable for partners, right? But in the context of the partner trajectory yes sure those first couple of years are very different perhaps that what you expect. But what we got to think about is actually not about extracting as much value out of the business as possible once you reach the top of the pile but what legacy are you building. And that sort of suggests to me that you know you partnership might be less about seniority and rewards and more about some of those real leadership qualities. Not to denigrate anyone who is currently a partner of course, but but the ability to get the most out of particular communities in the business for example in response to what is happening externally much less about that structural thing of ‘I’m here at the top of the pile’.
Ray: [09:39] Where do diversity and inclusion fit into the future?
Eleanor: I mean it’s hard to understate how important that is you know and I know everyone is doing a lot of work around diversity and inclusion but I still think we’ve got to remind ourselves that diversity and inclusion is about diversity of thought and mindset. You know as well as the kind of more visible factors that we might be able to kind of pinpoint and measure. And diversity of mindset is not something that’s either – it’s not something that you can say this person has it and this person doesn’t. It’s actually about how people interact. And so how you bring together those viewpoints now you facilitate collaboration and co-creation between them and that I think is a really critical asset that potentially professional services firms can bring because they have the ability to broker all of these different viewpoints. Critical to have it internally in terms of your own people, but actually if you’re struggling to do that internally quickly enough then create it by building an ecosystem around you. And that brings fresh insight fresh perspectives and critically that brings challenge and then build a culture in your own business that actually allows people to challenge without finding that their careers have sort of hit the brakes.
Ray: [11:00] So when you go into organizations and facilitate these sorts of discussions if there isn’t that diversity you’re consciously trying to bring that in?
Eleanor: Absolutely. Yeah. Because it’s so it’s so common to see group think you know and I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t know but group think it exists on all sorts of levels. You know how many rooms that we walked into where you’re going in to deliver a presentation – and I’m sure there’ll be people listening to this who are you know the very junior level of their organization – they’ve walked into deliver a presentation to a dead room, to a room that is not listening. And that is that is a problem for diversity and inclusion and that’s not something you can fix by sort of shifting percentages. That’s about attitude and it’s about facilitating the right environment and the right conversation.
Ray: [11:50] And do you think that organizations into the future need to be pushing for some higher purpose – this concept of a license to operate?
Eleanor: Definitely. I don’t think you can exist without purpose as an organization. And I think that my view of that has become stronger as I’ve left as I’ve left that kind of world of corporate confessional services and started to work amongst lots of smaller and independent entities. And then as a generational point as well a little bit that actually if you’re establishing a business know, if you were able to create your business on a blank sheet of paper you would not imagine it without asking that question what are we here to do. What value do we deliver? Do we make the world a better place? And it’s a challenge for established organizations to try to re-engineer that in. And I experienced that myself in the world of professional services trying to do that backwards into the organization. But I do think we look at what’s happened with plastics and we went from ‘oh there’s plastic in the ocean’ to ‘oh my God I’ve seen you walking down there with a plastic bottle – I’m judging you!’ You know Proctor & Gamble and Unilever are saying actually we need to get together to create a physical Internet in which we have and product packaging that is interchangeable and can flow through freely and can be reused. You know that’s happened in a six to eight month period probably – it’s really accelerated in that time we’ve got countries that have banned plastics. How did we ever get to a point where a single use plastics were ever OK? Was ever the right solution – that was spent cutting costs and speeding up distribution. And no I don’t think it’s acceptable to and to look at the world that way without considering whether there is a harm that occurs further down the line.
Ray: [13:43] And should that affect the way in which professional firms advise their clients should they be moving away from what you can do to what you should do?
Eleanor: That is a thorny question isn’t it? I think that’s a really great challenge for professional services firms because of course you know you need the ability to work across all industries and sectors and you can’t say well actually we’re just not going to do anything for Big Tobacco because we believe tobacco was bad you know and you just can’t do that. I think maybe the guiding question is in doing this work, are we comfortable that the business that we’re doing the work for has an intention to change for the better? And even if that is not completely apparent you know if it’s an order or something like that that might not be a question that’s on the table. But even if that’s not completely apparent how can the way that we behave and the way that our values and culture are expressed help to bring that business on this journey with us? Because if if there’s one thing that professional services firms can do, whatever field they’re in, it’s bring clients with them on a journey and create trust and create confidence that actually this is the right direction of travel.
Ray: [14:58] It’s the essence of that trusted advisor role, isn’t it?
Eleanor: Absolutely. Yes.
Ray: [15:04] Do you think there’s life in the growth model for professional services firms?
Eleanor: I think, again I don’t think there is a yes no answer or one right answer here. But certainly body growth, more people doing more of the same stuff – you know there’s no industry or business in which that’s a viable long term option for so many reasons. Not just for tech technological reasons but actually just because there are so many great ways to consolidate learning, consolidate information and deliver more value to clients without having to throw people at the problem. And I do think there’s something about the growth model responding to future changes rather than again just trying to kind of move into it. So I guess maybe I’ve expressed that badly, so it’s about not just selling existing services into new markets as they emerge. It’s about anticipating what new services might be needed in those new markets as they emerge, but also constantly changing up what you’re delivering in your existing markets. Because it again links to the previous question, you want to keep moving, constantly moving forward. You know it’s never a fixed proposition that you sell in. It always has to be something that’s evolving and moving forward.
Ray: [17:38] Eleanor, as you said earlier the capacity of a firm to solve problems might not just be about its capacity to solve those problems internally but might involve it leveraging resources from outside that firm.
Eleanor: Definitely. And there’s something really exciting there about understanding what are those areas where we can collaborate versus feeling that we have to compete. And I think that’s a real role for professional services to look across their client base and whether it’s by sector is the wrong way to look at it. It’s probably by issue as you say. So there may be a there may be a known problem in the way that a market operates or that we may be a known challenge that we should address, environmental, social, whatever. And actually that would be a really powerful role for professional services to act as broker there and say ‘Do you know what? It’s hard for you guys to find this collaboration zone because you’re running full tilt with business as usual and the instinct is to see competitive space between businesses. But actually there’s so much space on which you could collaborate and the potential results of that are incredible. And there’s so just to share a story from outside the personal services sector there’s just an amazing example of that from the third sector which is a collaboration between Network Rail and the Samaritans in the UK. So lots of suicides on the railways and obviously a tragic, tragic issue, however you look at it. Tragic for drivers, for the victims, for their families. Just a horrible fallout from that. And so these two organisations got together to say ‘well how could we collaboratively work to reduce suicide?’ And it is worth reading about, you can read about it online on both websites, but they’ve reduced suicides by something like 30 percent as a result of this collaboration. And that’s a social gauge. Now you could run the numbers on that problem and there would be a financial benefit there too. Obviously that’s not the primary one. But from the point of view of consultants or from professional services in general it shouldn’t always be about the pecuniary benefit of course it should be about their purpose helps to deliver a better outcome for everyone.
Ray: [19:49] It’s a great example of complex problem solving.
Eleanor: Yeah absolutely.
Ray: [19:54] Do you see clients or professional advisers taking increasing control over the supply chain? Is something you’ve noticed and how should firms respond?
Eleanor: It’s a really interesting one because I think that’s happening everywhere, in every sector, in every industry where information becomes more available and where some of the things that we would once have sat in our ivory tower and said ‘this is our IP’, you know, we create this view on this. Where that those boundaries don’t really exist anymore. It’s definitely happening everywhere. I think there’s some I mean there are examples from multiple industries but there’s a very interesting sort of live example with Deliveroo and the way that Deliveroo is approaching its global dominance, where it’s actually seeing you know one time we were the distribution partner for many existing businesses and now they’re building their own kitchens, adding their own chefs and doing distribution and creation and actually what’s to stop them then turning that around and starting to do distribution of the core food product that goes into the meal that is then delivered? And in professional services, that’s you know it’s often harder to conceptualize because it’s not physical stuff but in terms of intellectual property that’s 100 percent what’s happening. And that’s one element of disruption if you like there’s the customer up then there’s kind of the outside world in and then there’s all the disruption inside too. So yeah that’s it’s definitely going to continue.
Ray: [21:26] Eleanor, do you have a favourite example of disruption?
Eleanor: I do have many but what I want to share with you matches my accent. I think it’s very appropriate. Are you a whisky drinker?
Ray: I am.
Eleanor: You are, so you’ll like this. If you think about how whisky is traditionally been produced, it has not changed very much for hundreds of years, really. You would get the core spirit, dump it in a barrel, and using language it’s probably slightly unfair on how the industry operates, but stick it in a barrel and close the door. Leave it to sleep for maybe 25 years upwards, certainly upwards of 3, 5, 10 years, and during that time it’s costing you money. It’s not producing any value pops out at the other end, goes into a bottle delivered to a usually distributor or retailer, not the end customer most of the time. Most of the time the end customer has zero contact with the source of the product but they are happy to pay a premium for the brand and history and all of that stuff. That is how it’s always been done and linking back to this point of curiosity, what would happen if you ask the question ‘is there a better way to do that?’ And actually that has happened. So there is a business based out of the US. They’re called Time And Oak, and they were a Kickstarter funded business, or at least the first product they produced was Kickstarter funded. They produced something called the whisky element, and they said ‘actually look, instead of putting the whisky in the barrel, let’s put the barrel in the whisky’. And actually they’ve produced this very small piece of wood which has sort of little cuts in it. You can find these on Amazon or you can Google it to have a look. And that wood maybe a cherry cask of bourbon cherry cask or something like that. You pop it in your bottle leave it there for 24 hours, and when it comes at the other end in the morning, when you pour that whisky – not in the morning! – when you pour that whisky in the evening it will be delicious, aged-tasting whisky. So at that point you’ve got to ask yourself ‘as a customer, what am I buying?’ I’m buying 25 years in storage when actually I could get the same taste from 24 hours in my kitchen. That completely upends that whole industry. All of the values that sit behind it, heritage, age, story, and legacy, you know, location. All of those things become potentially irrelevant. And I think that story is in just one industry but it’s being repeated in every industry and it’s powered by that core question: ‘is this the best way to do this?’ And usually the answer is no, it isn’t.
Ray: [22:36] That assumes that the market responds in a rational way though I guess, doesn’t it?
Eleanor: Yeah absolutely. Well that’s an interesting point. So you’ve got to fight for what you’re selling. So maybe heritage and legacy is really important. You know I’m Scottish, I think: God please save our whisky industry. No but you’ve got to then articulate that very clearly in your brand proposition, and you can’t do that after the fact. You know that’s going to be there before, because if this less believable after the fact, it looks as though it’s a justification for costs after the fact. Whereas before the disruptor comes in, then it creates trust and authenticity. And that’s something that professional services need to be thinking about. You know again it goes back to this point about core purpose, you know, are we are we really punching for the values that we represent so that when a disruptor comes and tries to steal our customer, that the customer can make a choice, a fully informed choice about the value that we deliver, not just about the cost that we charge.
Ray: [23:38] You advise clients on disruption and and the importance of agility, how can professional services firms become more agile?
Eleanor: That’s a great question. So many different ways. My biggest, I think the thing I would always say is be more curious. Curiosity about what’s happening in the outside world, about whether something that you’re doing is working, about whether this is the right and only way to deliver this thing, about how clients are responding, about how your people are responding. As soon as you activate that curiosity and create that conversation things will start to move. That’s a kind of soft so touchy feely kind of thing which, I know a lot people view it that way. But actually if you can feed that into a system that says ‘you know what, where we get an outcome from some of those conversations we’re going to we’re going to find an easy way to allocate budget, we’re going to experiment more’. So we might say okay let’s prototype that in a small part of the business. You don’t have to boil the ocean and completely restructure your business from top to toe. In fact you don’t do that because that would be very risky. But certainly create space to allow people to be more curious but also to experiment with the results of that curiosity and in doing so you’ll start to soften the edges of some of those hard areas within the business.
Ray: [25:05] Can you train for curiosity?
Eleanor: Well, I don’t know if that is a resolved debate, but you know we all have innate curiosity, there’s no doubt about that. It’s important to say of course you cannot be curious all the time because if everyone in your organization is curious all the time you’ll never anything done. Because they’ll constantly be asking ‘why we’re doing it this way? What about that?’ And of course you’ve got to have some – I guess this is the balance you’ve got to create isn’t it? – between the kind of the efficient and rigorous business, and then the softer edges where you have a feedback loop that enables you to to continue to evolve.
Ray: [25:40] What are the skills – you’ve mentioned curiosity, we’ve talked about problem solving – what are the other sorts of strategic competencies that professional services firms and their advisors are going to need in order to live in this complex client world?
Eleanor: Yeah I guess the biggest influencer on the answer to that question is technology of course. So we’re all thinking and worrying – mostly worrying – about unfortunately – when maybe we should think differently – about the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive automation and all of those things and I think, you know putting that to one side for a moment, let’s not think about where we can compete. I think the critical capability that we all need to have is to understand that for ever we cannot stand still with what we know, and that we must be constantly learning new things, trying different ways of doing things, exploring the things that we don’t know, understanding how other people do better and continually learning and evolving, as you know the concept of continuous improvement point. But that’s the only way that we’ll stay ahead of the threats of our jobs being taken by the robots, as everyone says.
Ray: [26:57] Given some of the subjects we’ve been talking about today, some of the really big changes we’re asking professional services firms to make, are we better off seeking adaptation in the market or do you think we need to start afresh?
Eleanor: I love the idea of and of just doing a skunkworks, you know. And you know I’ve heard I’ve heard it discussed in conversations within professional services firms. But it takes a lot of bravery to create a skunkworks and I guess, just to explain skunkworks. It’s this idea that you create space in your business to do something that is completely outside of business as usual, that completely tests the boundaries. It has a different culture, a different way of operating, probably in a different location. And I mean a brilliant example of that, you can look up the original skunkworks, but a brilliant example of that more recently is Daimler, obviously car manufacturer, who created a kind of internal skunkworks to build a car sharing platform, knowing full well that you could not just do that business as usual. It would be killed by all of the the corporate antibodies, you know, and that car sharing platform became the biggest car sharing platform in Germany. And they’ve subsequently gone on to build the Volvo copter or two to back the company that built the aerial single passenger drone that’s kind of flying around in Dubai. So it is possible to separate some part of the business or to create some new part of the business that really has the scope and the mandate to innovate and I think that’s probably the only way to do it within an existing business. Of course you could just start afresh. You know there may be many people out there who’ve left professional services themselves and who are who are now building businesses that disrupt them, right? And I think that links back to the to the kind of points we covered earlier, that if you have a good enough relationship with your people and you see what they have to offer beyond the job that you’ve given them, then they might come back to you in that new capacity or at least you might be able to create a sort of symbiotic relationship with them. The risk if you only use your people in a very specific way, the one defined by their job role, is that when they leave they’re gone, because they don’t see a space for themselves there anymore.
Ray: [29:20] Eleanor it’s going to be a very different professional services firm in 2030. Thank you for joining us today.
Eleanor: A pleasure. Thank you so much.