We live in a time of increasing polarity when it comes to geopolitics: Both domestic and international issues are viewed through lenses of culture, experience, history, and more, and we see the challenges of trying to appease the public when it comes to the strategic choices made as a business. 

Businesses often tend to approach these challenges by looking in the rear-view mirror. They begin to examine things at the tail end of a chain of events, whether a PR crisis, political backlash, or strategic misstep of their own or another firm, asking “What just happened? How can we avoid falling into the same trap?” This represents an understandable but limited, defensive posture, where companies fail to look at the horizon or plan for it well. It can also be an outcome of being corporately comfortable. 

In my work, I have found a powerful shift happens when leaders orient toward creating a positive future for stakeholders while grappling with potential political fallout, especially as both the political and operating environments continue to shift. Ultimately, the opportunity is about creating resilience for your organization. As Deloitte positions it

“Organizational resilience is the capability of an organization to be prepared for disruption and to adapt and thrive in a changing environment. It isn’t purely defensive in orientation. It is also progressive, building the capacity for agility, adaptation, learning, and regeneration to ensure that organizations are able to deal with more complex and severe events and be fit for the future.”

Consider an example from my own work: One client, a top firm in fast-moving consumer goods, was evaluating a high-risk country for potential market entry. Risks for this firm included geopolitical stability concerns due to shifting powers within the political system as well as the intersection of that risk with an emerging economy, among others. Based on the work I did with my colleagues (as well as other work), the firm decided to enter the market and has established itself with a significant consumer base. Given the company’s resources, they have promise to disrupt incumbent players as well as opportunity to drive new adoption of products and shape consumer consumption of their goods. 

While still grappling with the “what ifs?” of a high-risk country, the company decided to move forward based on all the information available, as well as considerations about the potential future that was possible. In the time since the move, some of the external factors are more favorable, while some are more challenging, yet my client saw more signal than noise. It doesn’t mean they will never go unscathed; however, if they create forward-looking plans based on the current and emerging environment, they are well-situated to handle the future, and that’s a lesson all businesses need to consider.

It is that forward-looking posture we need today. Whether you’re framing this as strategic foresight, futures, strategic intelligence, anticipatory systems, competitive intelligence, or some other cladding, we’re considering questions including: “How do we create that future we want?” “How can businesses begin to apply more of a strategic intelligence lens to their activities?” and “What kind of business environment can be created by considering the possibilities … and what is the role of a company in fostering that environment?” 

An Example Issue: Clean Air 

Now, let’s look at a current issue in which companies are grappling with risks and opportunities on the horizon. For example, companies may be reluctant to get on board with new standards related to air quality (like ASHRAE Standard 241), and a defensive posture may spotlight the political noise around the issue. 

Yet, business has so much to gain: According to Harvard research, improved office air quality can improve our cognitive function in the workplace. This is an investment that costs approximately $40 per person annually. This quickly outweighs the cost of absenteeism and presenteeism, especially given improved cognitive and physical outputs over an employee’s lifetime. On average, workers in the U.S. were absent due to illness or injury 2.6% of the time in 2022. Improving conditions for workers also can help reduce knock-on impacts of illness such as medicine and hospital visits that may impact employer benefit costs.

Additionally, studies show that clean outdoor air has long-term benefits, such as potentially helping to prevent dementia and lessen volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause health conditions like cancer. Improved air quality also creates greater equity for those who may have compromised immune systems by providing a safer space.

The cost of inaction is also an attack on balance sheets and on equity: According to 2016 research from the OECD, the risk of outdoor air pollution would be 6 million to 9 million premature deaths a year by 2060 and cost 1% of global GDP — around USD $2.6 trillion annually — as a result of sick days, medical bills, and reduced agricultural output, unless action is taken. A 2020 report found that by mitigating 17,000 annual deaths attributable to poor air quality, the U.K. could gain almost 40,000 productive years, which is estimated to provide a £1 billion economic gain in the first year alone. 

Thankfully, action is moving forward that has not gotten caught up in needless political noise: For instance, as mentioned above, ASHRAE (with Standard 241 and others) can give us built environment guidelines, among other organizations. Certain jurisdictions, including Belgium, are also updating laws to give employers guidance on the issue. 

When it comes to clean air, moving forward with improvements to improve air quality will have a positive net result on employee health and safety: That’s very pro-business, and arguably should be close to apolitical. Forward-looking firms should look for opportunities like clean air to adopt. It’s inexpensive and will give you a competitive advantage compared to those that fail to adopt this mindset and ethos of prioritizing employee health. Further, your CFO will likely enjoy the decreased benefit costs being paid to insurance, too.

There are numerous opportunities for businesses to consider how they can create positive futures for stakeholders while grappling with potential political fallout, especially as the operating environment continues to shift. Clean air is just one example of where firms can adopt a forward-looking lens to create opportunity … bringing a strategic intelligence approach to corporate political responsibility.

This article is a modified and abridged version of a longer piece that can be read here.

Jonathan Dunnett is the CEO of Enable Leaders, a firm that helps emerging and established leaders grow and enable leadership and talent development professionals to do their job even better. He is also a Fellow at the Council of Competitive Intelligence Fellows and is a globally-acknowledged expert in competitive intelligence.

He has helped clients all over the world, from one-person startups to top global firms through his ability to understand complexity, identify significant opportunity and bring tangible solutions to the thorniest problems.

 1. VOCs can be found in many everyday elements, including fabrics, paints and other items found in any workplace.

2. A model like that of Karen J Alter’s and Michael Zürn’s brought forward in their paper, Conceptualising backlash politics: Introduction to a special issue on backlash politics in comparison, (Theorizing triggers, Backlash politics, Frequent Companions, and Theorizing outcomes) may be useful.