The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be…

In my speeches around North America, I talk a lot about the transformational nature of business. Such conversations can make people very uncomfortable. The notion that a small or mid-market company could do something radical seems daunting for some. Yet if you think about it, many conventions seen as truths today were once completely unknown[i]. Something as simple as electronic real time tracking of an order was a disruptive innovation 10 years ago, and is just accepted as the norm today.

What is the difference between the future and today? The only thing that we can predict with certainty is that things will change. Predicting such shifts in trends is at the core of competitive advantage. future

Can you imagine your college age student not having any direction for what he or she will be doing in 4 years (this might be close to home for some)? You would advise that student to pick a path, plan a curriculum and build a foundation (through general education) knowing that they may change their mind based on new information (such as finding passion for a particular field of study). Just because making assumptions about the future is hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. A remarkable number of management teams lack the clarity we would expect of an 18 year old.

As a strategic planning facilitator and closet futurist, people ask me if strategic thinking is some form of voodoo. Of course looking into the future does not require a crystal ball. It requires time, research and a lot of patience. Some businesses have defined the very best product and they are able to exploit it in a market they already know. Those businesses grow double digits, have strong margins and are immune to price pressure. Such businesses are typically called monopolies and they are very rare.

The rest of us should have a maniacal hunger to perfect our models and identify new ways to kick the competition’s ass. The average entrepreneur does not have the time, inclination, curiosity or work ethic to innovate. It is just easier to keep doing what they are already doing, which is why they are average. Then they complain that their customers only care about price; because they have not found a way to serve them to earn a premium, or at least a desirable margin. In these situations, a management team must find the courage to experiment with new methods, even if it is not in their nature.

Too often, completing a SWOT analysis and developing an operational plan is confused for strategy. Even comparisons with other similar providers are barely strategy. At its heart, real strategy focuses on pivoting to deliver uniqueness, and unique does not live in what has already been done. Every meaningful product, service and feature will be copied. It is what competitors do.

I often find that success is a dangerous tonic. A company can be successful for many years before running into a wall. I also believe that service model innovation is possible in every industry, whether it be a stodgy old industry, or one that does not exist yet. Every management team needs to continuously evaluate how their competitive position might change.

So as Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

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[i] The post was inspired by the book Zero to One by Peter Thiel