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The skill of seeing around the corner of history belongs to anticipatory issue managers. Using curiosity and insight, these individuals or teams look for trends that can represent opportunity or oblivion for businesses that respond to what’s coming next.

The Best Issue Management Strategy is to Head Off the Next Big Issue

Issue management involves more than figuring out how to douse a PR fire. Issue managers must be able to see around corners to detect incipient danger to prevent a fire from breaking out. You call this anticipatory issue management.

Studies have shown that attacking a sticky issue sooner than later offers a higher probability of success. Think of it this way. Successful firefighters put out fires, but often only after a building has burned down. If a fire inspector finds faulty wiring and the building owner fixes it, there won’t be a destructive fire. The anticipatory issue manager is the fire inspector who looks for potential danger and does something to avoid that danger

For knowing afar off the evils that are brewing they are easily cured. But, when for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow until everyone can recognize them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.

Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513

Confronting an issue in its infancy is usually more productive than waiting for the issue to mature into a movement, a law or a regulation – or into an aggressive, innovative new competitor.

Like many professionals, issue managers can be overloaded with must-do-now assignments that don’t allow spare time to look down the road for an approaching calamity. ‘Looking down the road’ doesn’t really capture what anticipatory issue management requires – reading, observing, conversing, watching movies and thinking.

For example, if you worked as an issue manager for McDonald’s and never saw Super Size Me, you were probably unaware of an approaching tsunami of criticism for promoting poor nutrition for profit. It was too late to see the danger by the time the documentary by Morgan Spurlock was nominated for Academy Awards and was turned into a comic book. As a result, McDonald’s found itself as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by two overweight girls who blamed their plight on eating its fast food. McDonald’s prevailed in the lawsuit but was forced to spend untold sums to lobby state legislatures for laws to outlaw similar product liability actions. Hardly a testament to the chain’s “I’m lovin’ it” catchphrase.

Legos pulled itself out of business oblivion by embracing digital technology and putting its creations in the movies.

Lego pursued an anticipatory issue management approach, albeit at a corporate lowpoint. After decades of success, the toy company saw sales drop and debt grow in 2003. Lego had rested on its laurels and not introduced anything new to excite its customers. New management made the necessary business decisions – selling off unprofitable Lego parks, stopping the production of Lego clothing and reducing the number of different kinds of blocks it produced. The new management found time to look ahead, foreseeing the internet as a friend, not a foe and innovation as a brand-saver. Lego began celebrating people’s creations online, putting Legos in movies and crowdsourcing new toy ideas. By 2015, Lego surpassed Ferrari as the world’s most powerful brand.

In Lego’s case, it began seeing around corners when it was in an alley with no outlet. The optimal moment for anticipatory issue management is when a business is on top. Like a rollercoaster, a business will hit a downslope. You can see the dips and curves of rollercoasters, but the ups and downs of businesses are less obvious. The role of issue managers is to look ahead and spot those impending dips, rough patches or market disruptions that could send an enterprise spinning into oblivion or propel into new realms of success.

Forward-looking issue management is often overlooked because of the hustle-and-bustle of dealing with current issues. There is only one way to break the cycle of looking at your feet instead of what’s ahead – you need to look up or hire someone to look up for you. Hiring someone to look into the future may seem like an extravagance, a distraction, a dilution of focus on the here-and-now. For a harried business manager, anticipating and avoiding the next big problem may seem unthinkable. In reality, the inertia of ‘now’ isn’t a good excuse for not looking for ‘then’, especially when the stakes are high if you misjudge the road ahead.

You never know, the future may be walking around your office. I worked at Tektronix during its waning golden years. I remember engineers slapping each other on the back for achieving 99 percent of market share for analog oscilloscopes. I also remember the same engineers rolling their eyes at their lonely colleague who carried around an oscilloscope on a computer chip. Few paid attention, and Tektronix paid the price by failing to move to digital test equipment.

Technology is changing, and so are markets. Companies that anticipate the changes will thrive. Those that don’t will have the hangover of the century when the party’s over. 

Alexander J. Trotman, CEO, Ford Motor Company

The Tektronix engineers were guilty of the same hubris and blindness as the RCA engineers who never thought vacuum tubes would be made obsolete by something called a semiconductor. They didn’t look up. They were too absorbed with their current success to be curious. Curiosity is the fuel that makes anticipatory issue managers look up, look out, look anywhere for clues of what comes next.

There isn’t a formula for anticipatory issue management. Nervous energy helps. An open mind is essential. Resourcefulness is key. Challenging assumptions is critical. Vulnerability audits can be helpful. Seeing the patterns of the future is like solving a super Wordle puzzle. Anticipatory issue managers identify emerging issues, check multiple sources and perceive future trends. Anticipatory issue managers go from puzzle-solvers to superheroes by sharing what they learn and pushing for a constructive, forward-looking response.

Looking over the horizon can reveal both opportunity and opposition. It’s hard to seize an opportunity you never saw. It can be impossible to ward off a competitor or new technology you never saw coming. Anticipating what’s next is perhaps the greatest strategic advantage to being successful. Failing to anticipate what’s next can be the first step toward history’s trash heap.