Strategic foresight is a critical and proactive strategy that helps leaders look into the future and identify relevant trends in time to take advantage of them—or to avoid being broadsided by them. It’s a means to prepare your business for impending changes from outside forces that are capable of annihilating not only your business, but the entire industry.

If the taxi cab industry had employed strategic foresight it may have foreseen the cataclysmic changes coming in services like Uber and Lyft that have completely transformed pay-per-ride ground transportation.

PPAI is employing strategic foresight to understand the changes that are coming to the promotional products market and position members to not only survive them, but to capitalize on the opportunities they will bring.

Since 1903, PPAI has been the trusted leader in the promotional products industry, delivering essential knowledge, resources and community to ensure the success of its members—those who manufacture, import and resell promotional products—and to the promotional products industry as a whole.

In 2016, the PPAI Board of Directors made the decision to further enhance the organization’s effectiveness toward members’ continued growth and success. To do this, the board knew it had to tap into the expertise of outside business strategy experts. It hired Seth Kahan, founder of Visionary Leadership, who has worked with more than 100 organizations, including Shell and Prudential.

Now, as one of PPAI’s four primary goals, the board has adopted a strategic foresight initiative to help members stay abreast of the changes that are coming into the market and to foster expansion through advertising, branding and marketing. Specific objectives include:

  • Gathering strategists
  • Researching industry trends
  • Building on what we learn
  • Identifying opportunities and successfully implementing them
  • Measuring results

Success requires the ability to be out in front of change and demonstrate dexterity in implementing adjustments that have significant impact on your business. The business landscape can be tumultuous, and rapidly changing markets affect our profitability, customer service, and overall growth and success. Businesses and organizations that are successful are those that employ the confidence, strategy and resources to innovate as needed.

Implementing a strategic foresight initiative requires taking the following five steps:

1. Engage - The first step is to  bring together the leaders who are responsible for your business growth strategy. This includes internal leadership and forward-thinking professionals and customers who are focused on your success. 

2. Scan - Be aware of and understand business and industry trends. You will want to identify the emerging forces that are most pertinent to your success, and understand changes that the promotional products industry will be facing, including customers’ expectations and needs. 

3. Connect - Study the trends and identify their likelihood of materializing and how fast they might become real forces that affect your business. This will quickly alert you to which trends require serious preparation and what impact they will have on your business.  

Here’s an example that shows the importance of identifying emerging trends and how this can contribute to your success. Let’s assume the community school district is one of your customers. You learn an emerging trend is a labor shortage which will result in a shortage of teachers for area schools. As a promotional products partner, you may help them with employee retention. You roll out a pilot campaign in schools to educate administrators on how promotional products can assist them in retaining teachers. The campaign may offer additional insight as to how your area schools can differentiate themselves as an exceptional place to work, thus solving the teacher shortage. This is one way that understanding and being on top of emerging trends can help your customers rise above a potential threat and, at the same time, help grow your business. 

4. Act - Dedicate resources (time, money, people) to specific actions that prepare you for the future. In this step, you decide how much to invest in a trend, and using your professional expertise and those of your leaders, determine which trend you will act on that will be most advantageous for your business’s growth.

5. Measure - As with any initiative, measuring results is important to success. You will want to review analytics and other data that is instrumental in growing your return on investment. Understand what didn’t work, and refine those efforts that did. 

Using this five-step strategic foresight cycle, PPAI will be putting together a playbook, a collection of tactics that you can use. The activities will be designed for both large and small companies, for those that have not previously conducted strategic foresight and for those that have well-developed business processes in this area. The goal is to make PPAI’s Strategic Foresight Playbook a powerful tool that is accessible to anyone in the industry.

This exciting work will help each of us, and all of us together, to position ourselves for success in the years ahead. When we use strategic foresight to elevate our members, we are doing a great service for the entire promotional products marketplace.

Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS, is CEO of distributor CE Competitive Edge LLC in Stevensville, Michigan, and chair of the board for PPAI.