Back in February, I had the pleasure of visiting my alma mater, the University of Calgary, to speak with about a hundred students at a Business Day Conference put on by the Haskayne School of Business Commerce Undergraduate Society. The theme for the day was hefty: The future of business.
I do strategy here at Axiom Zen, so I’m constantly looking ahead. When I’m not strategizing in the tech world, I compete for Canada in the Olympic sport of Modern Pentathlon — rolling five events into one competition, it’s the ideal sport for the ambitiously indecisive person. If you’re wondering what these two things have in common, I’m getting to that (I live in the future, remember?).
Pentathlon was created to test the skills required of a cavalry soldier: fencing, swimming, horseback riding, running, and shooting. Training is specifically designed to prepare for an uncertain future. And nothing is as unpredictable as combat. Today’s pentathlon competitors must train themselves to exhaustion so they can act decisively in the crucial moment.
Competing at a high level in any sport demands preparing for a vaguely defined future. You must strategize how to win in events like fencing, or how to optimize all five sports for the best possible score. You set out your goals then work backwards, ensuring you stay flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. To perform on demand requires countless hours of practice before the fact.
My athletic life may seem to have little to do with my day to day work, but I see plenty of crossover. Just like competitive sport, designing for the future requires working in ambiguity, getting cozy with uncertainty. You have to envision as many potential scenarios as you can, then map your moves for if and when they arise. Then you take step one. Rarely does the path go exactly as planned, but that keeps things interesting.
When you don’t know what the future looks like, design must be inclusive.
You can’t rely on any one skill or method. Rather than operate in silos you need to collaborate across disciplines: business, strategy, creative, design, engineering, technology, anthropology, and whatever else. This is a core tenet of Axiom Zen’s philosophy. We build multifaceted, multidisciplinary teams. We bring as many perspectives as we can to attack every challenge. The more directions from which you approach a problem, the likelier you are to find a chink in its armour. We’ve gotten really good at working this way, blending teams, products, and companies that don’t just look to succeed now, but to shape the future we want to live in.
Generally speaking, universities don’t yet do a great job promoting this kind of cross-department teamwork. Students toil away in their faculties, surrounded by peers approaching the same problems in the same ways. It’s tough to produce innovative solutions in that environment. Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective to discover a solution that never would have occured to you. While it is essential to master your particular craft, very few professions exist in a vacuum. Most real-world careers depend on multidisciplinary collaboration. Yet so many schools do so little to prepare their students for it. The most rewarding experience from my time studying at the University of Calgary was leading a student organization whose mandate was to do just this: break down walls and build startups and initiatives with peers across many faculties.
Plenty of students show interest in the work we do at Axiom Zen, but they don’t always know what it looks like to actually do that work every day. At events like the one in Calgary, we try to show them the types of problems we tackle and how we go about it.
You can’t effectively design for something ahead of time if you’re only looking at it from your current bias in the present.
You have to project yourself forward into a complex and ambiguous future. Like the pentathlon athlete, you need to hone different skills to ensure they’ll be ready when you need them.
To give the students in Calgary a sense of Axiom Zen’s method, I organized a strategic foresight exercise. We broke them into groups of three, about 30 students each. Then we worked together to imagine a “future of” for three of today’s most essential industries: coffee, pizza, and ice cream. Stakes were high.
We explored how current trends and future scenarios might affect various aspects of that industry: retail, marketing, delivery, even the products themselves. We brainstormed how businesses might test or innovate today to achieve success in the future. Drone pizza delivery. Heat resistant ice cream. Coffee without the crash — dare to dream. We want to get them thinking about every aspect of their business and their product, not just their particular specialization. As always, the ingenuity and energy of the students put a big smile on my face.
At Axiom Zen, we want to shape the future.
We feel responsible to make it as bright as possible. Students and young people like the ones at the University of Calgary are that future. We want to pass on what we’ve learned, to hand them the baton (or reins, or sword).
In elite athletics you cannot coast. You must stay active and engaged, thinking several steps ahead. Chasing innovation in tech is the same. You have to perform, iterate constantly, and sometimes make that mad sprint to the finish. If you sit around waiting for innovation to happen, you’ll get lapped.
We’re always excited to hang out with talented and driven young people, to share knowledge and experience with them, and receive insight and inspiration in return. Whenever we do, we’re doubly energized to get back to work knowing that we’re leaving the future, whatever shape it might take, in good hands.
Written by Kelly Fitzsimmons
Edited by Grady Mitchell