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Michael König, WU strategy expert and long-standing faculty member of the WU Executive Academy, provides invaluable insights into foresight techniques and scenario planning, offering leaders of today and the future the keys to thrive in a constantly changing business landscape.
In Michael König’s office at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), the atmosphere is both scholarly and whimsical. First thing that WU’s strategy expert shows us is the towering bookshelf on the right side of the room, filled to the brim with books of various sizes and colors. “They‘re somewhat my secret companions,” declares König.
Michael König is senior lecturer and strategy expert at WU as well as a long-standing faculty member of the WU Executive Academy (the business school of WU). His passion is teaching, be it children, youngsters or elderly. “I have the privilege of teaching a diverse range of individuals. Not only do I teach university students at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, but also engage with younger learners through the Children’s University program,” explains König. “On top of that, I have the honor of teaching the esteemed elder faculty, a group consisting of faculty members aged 65 and above. It is a unique experience to work with different generations, and although it wasn’t something I specifically planned for, I find it rewarding and fulfilling.”
In front of the bookshelf, a comfortable couch is positioned and behind König’s desk, an element of whimsy comes into play. What catches the eye are the stuffed animals that are perched on a shelf just above the desk, which he uses when he teaches children; a dodo and an octopus take center stage. The dodo, König says, serves as a reminder of the consequences of our actions and the importance of learning from history to avoid repeating past errors. The octopus, with its multiple arms and complex problem-solving abilities, symbolizes the diverse ways in which intelligence can manifest.
The former CEO, who gained valuable international exposure while holding high-level positions in renowned companies, reflects on his unconventional journey and the importance of lifelong learning. After pursuing a typical career path, he realized the need for broader knowledge and decided to pursue an MBA in London. This experience, in turn, led him to pursue a PhD in Social Sciences and Economics, combining quantitative skills with business acumen. However, he felt a deeper calling and discovered joy in empowering others and enabling their growth. This realization brought him back to academia, where he currently serves as a tenured Senior Lecturer at WU, teaching and conducting research in strategy and innovation. He believes in the value of engaging with executives and collaboratively finding solutions to real-life challenges at the WU Executive Academy.
König’s teaching style aims to combine his practical experience and insights with theoretical knowledge, bridging the gap between theory and practice for his students. He believes in empowering students to explore their own talents and potential futures. König sees his role as a facilitator rather than solely responsible for imparting wisdom, recognizing the existing understanding and perceptions students bring to the table. He values personal engagement and embraces the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives among his students. The fulfillment he derives from their growth and achievements outweighs the financial sacrifice he makes by choosing this path.
As a strategy expert, König’s current focus is on ways of reaching success in a chaotic landscape, rather than in a tranquil one. This amounts to utilizing methods of foresight as opposed to those of forecast. “Forecasting is a valuable tool that thrives in a stable environment where everything is running smoothly and predictable indicators can be followed,” he explains. “However, reality has shown us that we live in a world of multiple futures. Unexpected events and surprises are always lurking around the corner. For example, the moment a budget is released, it becomes outdated and irrelevant.” Foresight comes to rescue by offering a method of thinking about alternative futures.
Acknowledging and embracing the fact that one cannot accurately predict the future prepares one for the various potential futures that may unfold. Admittedly, this acceptance contradicts human beings’ innate desire for certainty. The concept of “unequivocality” refers to this desire for clear-cut, unambiguous solutions or answers. People have a natural inclination to simplify complex issues and overlook or dismiss nuances, potentially disregarding important information or perspectives in the process. “We often seek simplicity and avoid complexity when confronted with a problem,” König highlights; “however, despite our cognitive biases and errors in thinking, we possess a remarkable capacity for foresight.” Intuition and rapid information processing enable humans to make decisions, a skill developed by our early ancestors as a means of survival, allowing them to anticipate both threats and opportunities.
The idea of foresight is that embracing the inherent complexity of life and acknowledging the limitations of unequivocal thinking can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of situations and better decision-making. “The environment we find ourselves in can be either calm or chaotic, and it is crucial to identify the type of situation we are dealing with,” König says. The concept of the BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, and Incomprehensible) environment represents the kind of chaotic situation, characterized by an ever-changing and unpredictable nature. “It is crucial to differentiate between tranquil and wild environments and apply appropriate tools to tackle each. Companies often make mistakes by using tranquil environment tools in wild situations,” König adds.
In a BANI environment, strategic foresight is the key to successful future management. In the realm of chaos, traditional forecasting methods have serious limitations, often leaving one unprepared for what lies ahead. Strategic foresight can eliminate this issue, as it goes beyond traditional forecasting by considering multiple future scenarios, exploring alternatives, and enabling one to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.
Foresight evolves from early-warning systems towards integrated tools that identify potential future scenarios. Scenario planning as a strategic tool that involves creating a set of plausible future scenarios based on a range of factors and uncertainties, is of special importance in a BANI environment. These scenarios serve as stories or narratives that enable one to envision different paths the future might take. “By engaging in scenario planning, we aim at identifying potential risks, opportunities, and challenges that may arise in each and every scenario,” König says. “This process enhances our understanding of the complex and uncertain nature of the future, enabling us to develop more robust strategies and make informed decisions.” Thus, scenario planning complements foresight by providing a structured framework for exploring and anticipating future developments, ultimately empowering one to navigate uncertainties with greater confidence.
A practical tool within strategic foresight is the strategic SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, which takes a future-oriented approach to the classic SWOT analysis. “I highly value simplicity and straightforward approaches, which is why I always advocate for the use of strategic SWOT analysis,” König says. Sometimes, individuals, be it managers or employees, tend to rely on biased assumptions about the future. However, by employing a SWOT analysis correctly, valuable insights for scenario planning can be obtained. “When I say correctly, I mean using existing classical strategy tools with a future-oriented perspective,” König explains. “To identify potential threats and opportunities, we look at the macro environment, considering factors such as political, economic, ecological, technological, legal, and social aspects that may occur in the future, rather than focusing solely on the present.”
One way of perspective-taking here is the continuous questioning of “what if?” What if our customers no longer purchase our products? What if our current strategy proves to be flawed? What if we face challenges in recruiting talented employees? What if our organization lacks diversity? How can we address these issues and bring about change? Furthermore, what if the external environment undergoes significant transformation? What if the planet experiences a three-degree Celsius increase in temperature?
Asking “what if?” is not meant to induce hysteria or panic, but rather to encourage a culture where everyone, from the top executives to all employees, consistently poses this question.
For instance, one might analyze the impact of future EU directives, like the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) sustainability regulation, and make informed decisions today to be better prepared. “Similarly, we apply the same approach to the microenvironment, using tools like Porter’s Five Forces to examine industry rivalry, substitutes, suppliers, and customer dynamics.” König explains: “By looking ahead three to five years, we can identify changes and potential opportunities, such as industry cooperation or strategic alliances, that may not be apparent when only considering the current situation. Additionally, we assess our own strengths and weaknesses compared to competitors within the value chain, enabling us to leverage future opportunities and mitigate threats effectively.” It’s important to emphasize that foresight and scenario planning are not solely focused on rigid financial figures, but rather on plausibility. While probability also plays a role, the emphasis lies nevertheless in exploring plausible scenarios.
Amid the turbulent currents of the business world, executives can stand tall and become undeterred by the challenges and uncertainties that lurk, with a lighthouse to guide their way: strategic foresight. By carefully examining the vast economic and social web, as well as the complicated dynamics of their industry, these leaders gain invaluable insights. Strategic foresight is more than mere rhetoric; it is the elixir of life that runs through the veins of visionary leaders.
Michael König is a strategy expert at WU and a long-standing faculty member of the WU Executive Academy. He has a diverse range of experience, having worked as an auditor, group controller, CEO, and managing director, before returning to academia. He is passionate about teaching and has taught a range of individuals, including university students at the bachelor‘s and master‘s level, younger learners through the Children‘s University program, and executives and managers within selected leadership programs of the WU Executive Academy.
Fotos: Katharina Gossow