A recent masterclass held by CRF, “Future Insight – responding to trends, threats and opportunities”, provided a valuable business lesson. You can’t plan for the unknown.

That might go against the approach of many business leaders, but it’s true. The reason? We can plan for complicated scenarios (patterns that are intricate and predictable), but not those that are complex (unpredictable and human-related).

According to speaker and author Margaret Heffernan, super forecasters can predict a maximum of 400 days out. The average for good forecasters is a mere 150 days. This doesn’t stand anyone in particularly good stead for strategic three-year or five-year business planning.

So, how can we be prepared for business change, or grab new opportunities, if we can’t truly plan ahead?

The answer:  have greater readiness for multiple eventualities. This means experimenting and planning for different scenarios, rather than creating a detailed plan for a single business route.

This requires a change in approach to planning altogether. We need to do things ‘just in case’ rather than ‘just in time’. We need to sacrifice efficiency for readiness. And we need to develop our agility so that if the unexpected occurs we’re more likely to be able to deal with it.

Of course, this has implications for every department. For HR, it means we need to think about who we hire. We need curious people – those who see the unexpected as a positive, who have the imagination to identify potential threats and opportunities, and those who have the stomach to work through conflict.

What about leaders who have firm three- to five- year strategies?  Business planning is still valid. But it needs to become more agile. We need to review and revise strategies on a very regular basis, allowing us to adapt to changes as they happen.

Leaders are often conditioned to be decisive. This needs to change. Leaders are also used to surrounding themselves with people who don’t challenge them. This needs to change too.

Today’s leaders need to develop ‘conceptual flexibility’ – their ability to assess future threats and opportunities, combined with the skill to collaborate to facilitate creative conflict.

Only by evolving from the traditional norms of business can leaders, and HR as a whole, be best prepared for what they don’t know is yet to come.