Do you ever walk down the road, not fully observing what’s around you? If so, there is a high probability that at some point you will trip up or just miss something important. It’s the same in business; when you get so focused on the present that you fail to observe the changes occurring all around you that will determine the – and, more vitally, your – future.
In the early 1990’s I was a director of a business which had a contract to clean 50,000 telephone kiosks per week for BT. We owned the little vans that removed all the naughty adverts in the middle of the night. It was a great business with amazing profit margins. The only thing we didn’t see coming was the mobile phone. After all, they were as big as bricks at the time, hardly likely to take off?
Within a few years, the business no longer existed with the explosive growth of the palm-held mobile phone and it taught me a vital lesson of the need to assess P.E.S.T. (Political, Economic, Social, Technology) risks. The changes around us are accelerating faster than ever before, particularly those driven by technology, as Raymond Kurzweil eloquently explains in his book “The singularity is near”.
Bill Gates explains this in a different way in “Business at the speed of thought”: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Sounds familiar, based upon most business plans I’ve seen.
So what can we do about it? At IRIS, I tried an experiment in 2002, after I was introduced to Michael Jackson, a futurologist, who runs www.shapingtomorrow.com, a research business which analyses emerging trends. We held a company meeting with all 100 employees one evening after work, and Michael did a short presentation on some future trends.
We then put people into mixed teams to think about the five key changes they expected to see over the next five to ten years in our sector and what they felt we should do about it. These ideas were collated, and presented back. They included on-line accounting, the shift towards mobile electronic payment systems and a few other changes just at the start of the curve. The most enjoyable aspect of this exercise was that some of the best ideas emerged from the most unlikely people and the benefit of wide collaboration was obvious to all.
Another way I’ve gained an insight into the future has been at home with my two daughters (they are now in their 20s), who have been embracing low-cost new technology (e.g. webcam over the internet) long before me and certainly well before it emerged in the workplace. Yet, their generation will be and already are going to be driving the changes and expectations of both consumers and employee workplace expectations that those of us not born in the digital age (i.e. the over 35s) are just playing catch-up with. Nowadays, any management team discussing new technology and social media without including the views of a 20-year-old is, in my view, very short-sighted. So, observe what the kids are up to and encourage it.
Is it better to be an innovator and make the “land grab” or a “fast follower” and grab the initiative, avoiding the innovator’s mistakes? There are many examples to prove both cases. The most important thing is to be aware of both the threats to your business and not to miss the opportunities for new growth streams or extending the life of your products and services.
Over the next five to ten years we will see significant advances in:
- Alternative energy;
- Edible Packaging;
- Intelligent Clothing;
- 3D Printing;
- Mobile everything;
- Driverless cars;
- New uses of Big Data;
- Predictive Healthcare and many more areas.
The key is to proactively spot the ones which will have the biggest impact on you and your business. Happy hunting.
Martin Leuw is a serial entrepreneur and former CEO of IRIS, the UK’s largest private software house.
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