100 years ago, Louis Cartier launched his famous tank watch. It was a design that broke all rules within watch-making. Until then, most watches had been round and carried in a waistcoat pocket. If you wanted to know what time it was, you stopped whatever you were doing and took out your watch, switched it open and looked at it. Time wasn’t that important then – but that was not the future Cartier envisaged. He understood that the world was heading for a modern industrial age, where time was important and you needed both hands to control machinery. A waistcoat watch was out of the question – so he created his functional wristwatch.

Almost at the same time, an Italian artist and philosopher, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, gave some amazing music performances. He played loud industrial noise recorded from factory machinery and motor cars while blowing heavy smoke into the room, leaving the audience with ringing ears, and coughing. This was how the future would be, according to him, and he found it beautiful. He was right, in a way. Everything he foresaw happened: we are now caught in a gigantic global traffic jam, suffocating in smoke and pollution, and industrialism is threatening life on earth.

Cartier was right, too. For a century, his square tank watch has been sported by celebrities and trend-setting women from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Cartier and Marinetti both provide a wonderful recipe for how to navigate in a seemingly unpredictable future.

Firstly, you need a vision; you need to be able to imagine your future completely differently to what you know now. And if you can’t, you must surround yourself with people more imaginative than you. ‘But can’t you just adopt to change as it happens?’. In most cases, no. The world is changing so fast that when you notice the change, it’s too late. If you don’t have a vision that stretches beyond what you can see today, you can’t make strategic decisions. At best, you can make tactical decisions.

Secondly, you need to be able to interpret trends correctly. Marinetti didn’t make any practical applications – he just predicted a noisy and smoky future. Louis Cartier was smarter; he took Marinetti’s scenario and asked himself, if the future will be defined by an industrial revolution, how can I design a watch that will be in sync with time? His watch stayed modern for a century.

This is the dilemma most business leaders face today.

Nils Elmark is a consulting futurist and the founder of Incepcion, a London-based consultancy that helps organisations develop new and braver dreams.

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