Travis Johnson declared that October 2012 could be considered the start of a major commercial battle. Or, as his post is titled: “Television 2.0 — ‘The $2.2 Trillion War for your Living Room Begins Now'” [link].

As you may know from my recent e-book [link]e-book icon, Apple is expected to engage in that battle, if not emerge the big winner. Yet the larger question for us goes beyond any one industry, even one as mammoth as television.

Instead, let me explain how a company such as Apple — or yours (!) — should approach matters when past-tense success seems to be fading into present-tense anguish. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like to be among a group of senior managers talking about the future of a business when there are infinitely more questions than answers, when the future of the company seems to be hanging on the outcome of some hard thinking and some candid discussion. The trouble is: too many executive teams shrink from the challenge, preferring to allow the status quo to prevail until the company is truly desperate.

The goal of our nextsensing project is to offer managers a better way to approach such situations. If you’re now in that spot (as Apple most definitely is), what should you do? Here’s my general guidelines for any organisation that needs to find its next.

The first step must be for you and your senior leadership team to fully diagnose the nature of the challenges you are facing. To do so, you must be able to answer with some confidence the following questions:

a. What problem is the market (namely, our customers) asking us to help them solve right now?

b. Are we fit for that purpose? Do we now have, or can we acquire, the competencies needed to address the problem?

c. Beyond the known problem, what other problems are our customers facing for which there does not seem to be any viable solution in the market, including from our company?

d. How can we capitalise on those problems by framing them as opportunities?

Second, based on your answers to the question about your customers’ problem at-hand, the next step must be to then discuss, debate and align around your most important strategic priorities. Where is your company heading — and where should it be heading? From these discussions, you can convert your insights into a coherent and shared strategy to address the problem. As Theodore Hesburgh noted, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

question markFor your third step, you must evaluate the organisation’s relative capabilities to see if they are a match to the new priorities you have set. Now is the time to study clearly the structure, culture, systems and processes your firm uses to get things done. Before you can win a battle, you must prepare to win.

The final step in addressing a new challenge is to focus the entire organisation on the strategic priorities and empower everyone to succeed. Do not discount the amount of work needed here. You need to leverage your firm’s educational systems to prepare leaders at all levels of the organisation to understand the strategy, know where and how to participate in it and systematically build a lasting set of capabilities to drive value creation over time. This preparation must be well-articulated and explicit, as your firm most likely will require a mix of present-tense capabilities and novel future-tense capabilities. In other words, there will more than likely be a broad array of personal and organisational development required.

The role of the senior management team is to moderate how the company moves from here to there, from the present to the future.

The moderation process must be based on a structured conversation with those on the front lines very much like the one you and your senior management team have been having, and these embedded conversations must form an integral part of your strategy formulation process in real time. In other words, your strategy needs to be reshaped into a continuous process of asking, then answering, mission-critical questions at all levels of the organisation.

In my recent e-book, I featured the Opportunity Canvas that is core to the nextsensing process. More than any other tool, it will help you and your senior team to frame these required conversations, build the process that surrounds them so the dialogue can be expanded to others, and provide simple tools and templates to make the processes transparent and accessible to the entire organisation.

Additionally, it will also be mission-critical that you can bring to the table all the existing organisational stakeholders and leverage their collective expertise to make things happen. Everyone? Absolutely.

You will need HR for the organisational design, needs assessments and learning & development components. You will need IT for the systems and processes support. You will need Communications to help you build the stories and empower you and your senior leadership team to lead the organisation forward. You will need Finance to establish mission-appropriate performance metrics for future-tense activities. And you will need a leadership team that embraces a new mindset and corresponding new leadership approach, one that is comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and leads with questions more than with answers.

Recently, Grant McCracken in Harvard Business Review [link] can project that a new Apple TV will be a “Trojan Horse” (once in the door, there will be many surprises):

The new Apple TV will have the form factor of TV but its real and revolutionary purpose will be telecommuting so good it’s going to feel like teleportation. The Apple TV will whisk us to work, to school, to conferences, to the city, to Second Life, to our memory palace and virtual library, to shared worlds like Eve and Halo. The Apple TV will be a portal to worlds now accessible only by planes, trains and automobiles. Apple TV will turn our offices and living rooms into portals.

But keep this in mind: Apple can’t do those things now. If it chooses, it will have to find its next using the steps I’ve outlined above. That’s Apple’s trillion-dollar question. Will it?

But, you, too, are quite probably facing a mega question dealing with the future of your own firm. Will you answer it in a way that steers your company profitably into the future?