Though none of us can sanely claim to know what the future holds (I leave that to the fanatics), it’s abdicating your responsibility as a leader not to think about it. How do you go about that? In the most general terms: Creatively, deeply, and with a view to watching keenly to see what leading indicators may be trying to tell you. Somewhat more specifically, unlike telling stories about business history—where, by hypothesis, we know how it ended—telling stories about business future requires at least a modicum of suspended disbelief and trust that there’s value to be had in thinking about probabilities and likelihoods even if the hard core promise of “learning something” is beyond reach.
That’s why today I commend to you the approach taken by GE’s chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, as described in an interview he granted McKinsey a few months ago.
Immelt’s theme, and GE’s theme for its future, is “digitizing in the industrial space,” and although that might sound about as far from Law Land as one can get, we’re all still for-profit enterprises staffed by human beings facing capable competitors, with clients who have ample choice in the market, and we’re all operating under uncertainty about the future.
The premise of “digitizing industry” is straightforward and familiar enough: The big machines GE makes—jet engines, MRI scanners, locomotives—have all become massive data-generating engines, with easily 100 sensors in (for example) a jet engine. According to Immelt, on a single flight from New York to Chicago, a GE engine could create a terabyte of data (temperatures, fuel consumption, turbine blade wear, etc.) As Immelt put it, this means industrial companies including GE “are in the information business whether they want to be or not.”