Every business leader feels it and knows it — the world is changing at an accelerating pace. Business models are shifting, consumer behaviors and preferences are evolving swiftly. In such an environment, it is difficult to look ahead to the next quarter, let alone the next year. Still, business leaders must position their companies for continued success. But how?
We'd like to offer a big "AHA" containing three unconventional ideas for future-proofing your business. "AHA" stands for Awareness, Humility and Action. You must strive to enhance your awareness of changes on the horizon; have enough humility to acknowledge that what served your business well in the past might not be sufficient tomorrow; and be willing to take action in the face of less-than-perfect information.
Awareness: Try new things
Many leaders today still rely on traditional methods to stay abreast of advances in their field, such as reading newspapers, industry websites and attending trade conferences. This is all fine, but in an era of accelerating change, tomorrow's threats and opportunities are less and less likely to come at you through conventional means. You must learn to see differently.
There are a number of ways to do this. First, expand and diversify your reading diet to include sources outside your industry's "echo chamber." A couple of easily accessible resources are The Economist, MIT's Technology Review and Wired.com. Next, regularly attend at least one conference that is not directly related to your industry to expose yourself to adjacent ideas that might allow you to expand your business in innovative new ways. Finally, hire at least one unconventional thinker. Bring in someone who regularly and consistently challenges your thinking. Consider this person an "un-team" player.
We're often unwilling to unlearn certain things about our industry. In fact, we may not even realize we have anything to unlearn.
The reason so many businesses are disrupted isn't simply because they didn't see the change coming, it is because they couldn't let go of their assumptions earlier. Think Blockbuster, Borders and RIM (BlackBerry). In each case, the companies held on for too long to old ideas about customers' preferences, the strength of the prevailing business model or the true nature of their competition. What might you need to unlearn today in order to succeed tomorrow?
Action: Master inactivity
Give yourself permission to have "a closed door policy" and regularly devote time to the difficult task of thinking about future opportunities and threats. We go even further in suggesting that leaders regularly take a "think week" — an entire week to think and reflect on how the world is changing. Such an amount of time might seem an unaffordable luxury, but here's a different spin on it: If you can't devote 2 percent of your time on an annual basis to thinking about the future, who in your business will?
Alas, thinking is hard work. This is one reason so few people do it. To help jump-start your thinking, ponder this: "What is the 'tomorrow' problem you must begin solving today?"
If you broaden your awareness of the periphery, stay humble about the need to unlearn and master the inactivity of thinking, you will come to your own "AHA" moments and better position yourself and your organization for the future.
Jack Uldrich and Simon Anderson, principals at Venture Foresight, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.