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It is so easy to miss! When the future was lobbing softballs at you, you could hit the trends every time. But the future has upped its game. It’s throwing fastballs and curveballs now.

What software company would’ve thought five years ago that Amazon would be its biggest competitor in the cloud? What automobile manufacturer thought five years ago that a simple mobile app would force them to rethink their business?

We hear the complaints with increasing frequency today: trying to see the future is like trying to see around the corner. You don’t know until you get there.

But there is a better way. It will not guarantee a certain vision but it will dramatically improve your accuracy.

To understand this better way, we need to appreciate that trends don’t really matter. New technologies don’t really determine the future. When you seek to understand the future by looking at these things, you are distracting yourself from the true, direct driver of your future success.

We must recognize that what limits the progress of innovations are not the new innovations themselves but the concepts that people use to discuss them. In 1968, Dick Fosbury jumped over the high bar backward. He won the Olympics. He revolutionized his sport.

There was no new technology that suddenly made it possible to go over backward. What was lacking was the idea, transmitted by the concept. Once Dick Fosbury proved his technique superior, the competition should have quickly adapted. But it took them eight years. Not until Olympians began using the term “the Fosbury flop” did we see 90% of Olympic high jumpers going over backward.

Cloud computing is not new. We’ve had this capability for decades now. It seems to have just arrived not because the technology has arrived but because we found a name to give it, a metaphor that helps us understand it. This makes it easier for us to adopt it.

Around 7000 BC, when a hunter picked up a stick and started using it as a plow, that activated the transformation of humankind from primarily hunter-gatherer societies into agricultural ones. It was not the technology that enabled this transformation. The first plow was simply a three-pronged stick. What changed was the understanding of what that technology was called. It was no longer called a stick but rather a plow.

Five years ago as we were researching our book, Outthink the Competition, we noticed a new concept emerging among companies that were more successful. We call that concept “coordinate the uncoordinated.” Uber has come to be the universal exemplar of this concept; we are starting to hear now about the “uberization” of everything from financial services to manufacturing to retail.

In all of these cases, it was not the technology that determined the pace of progress but rather it was the time it takes concept to catch up to that technology.

Sometimes, the concepts even precede the technology. It was not until John F. Kennedy said “put a man on the moon” that the technology to achieve that came to be. It was not until the concept of “inventory turns” was invented that companies clearly understood why they could be selling so much but struggling financially. It was not until Michael Porter in 1980 introduced us to the term “competitive advantage” that we could with confidence explain why some companies succeeded when their peers failed.

To peer around the corner then, you must not only look at the trends and technologies and societal shifts and regulatory changes that we can see occurring around us. You must also look at the language. How is the language changing?

Put those two together – technology/physical things and concepts/language – and you have the East and North, the X and Y, that will enable you to peer around the corner and see what is coming next.

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Here is how you can peer around the corner to assess the future your business will compete in so that you can execute with greater clarity today:

  1. List trends: Make a list of the top 10 trends that experts in your industry believe will shape the future.
  2. Identify emerging winning concepts in your industry: Make two lists – one with the five best-performing companies in your industry and one with the five worst-performing. Read whatever you can find written about how they describe their strategy (e.g., annual reports, public filings, websites). And look for differences in the way the best-performing companies speak about their strategy and the way the worst-performing companies do. What concepts are being used by the winners but being overlooked by the losers?
  3. Identify emerging concepts in related industries: Conduct the same exercise (Step 2) with one or two industries that are related to yours. Perhaps suppliers or distributors. Successful new concepts emerging in those industries are likely to soon affect yours.
  4. Combine: Step back and look at the trends and new concepts, lay them over each other and see what future emerges.
  5. Prepare: Ask yourself, “What should we do today to prepare for this future?”
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