Futurism: Understanding Emerging Business Trends

We all know the story of Blockbuster, once a retail giant offering almost any movie, digital music, or video product available at the time. However, lurking in Blockbuster’s shadow was the rival Netflix – a company that developed the ability to utilize technology and video streaming for the future. In this case, industry-specific disruptions became the industry-specific technology that transformed the digital entertainment world. And Blockbuster became irrelevant and disappeared, leaving behind only a good example of the importance of understanding potential disruptions and emerging business trends.

“Prediction is very hard, especially when it’s about the future.” — Yogi Berra

The Importance of Understanding Emerging Business Trends

Business futurism – the practice of identifying these critical trends and disruptions in the business world – has long been considered an extravagance, something to think about once the day-to-day business challenges are resolved. However, futurism is now a necessity for any organization that wants to be agile, innovative, and at the edge of advancement in business, in differentiation, or automation. As the professional landscape is transforming – this year, right before our eyes – it is and will be necessary to look ahead in order to maximize the unique skills of your workforce to maintain a competitive advantage.

One of my favorite examples of business futurism is a 1993 series of television commercials that were narrated by Tom Selleck. Each ad began, “Have you ever…” and ended, “You will… and AT&T will bring it to you.”  These predictions for the future included seeing a doctor without going to a clinic (telemedicine); showing up for a meeting in your bare feet (video conferencing); keeping an eye on your home when you’re away (home automation and security); and getting a phone call on your wrist watch (smart watches). While not the only company to bring this new technology forward, AT&T’s ads were remarkably accurate in predicting the technology that would be developed in the next couple of decades. The businesses that were able to stay on the forefront of these technologies that once seemed impossible are among the biggest household names today.

What does successful futurism look like? In her book “Humanity Works,” author Alexandra Levit shares the example of the new Xerox self-service multi-function printers in Staples stores. Xerox and Staples worked together to envision and then create a Business Centre, in which customers’ mobile phones and cloud-based apps could connect to every device in the store, from printers to credit card readers, allowing business people to get in and out quickly and efficiently. The innovators at both Xerox and Staples identified an emerging customer need and found a way to leverage technology to meet that need.

Back to the Roots: Core Aspiration and Core Motivation

As a bridge to business transitions and strategic alignment, we have often helped organizations determine their core aspirations and core motivations. This allows an organization to envision an ideal future state and determine how the organization will know when it has arrived. It is critical to the concept of business futurism to understand what these terms mean to your organization. Chasing the latest trends and technologies alone will not help your organization reach its goals unless you understand how those changes support your core aspiration and motivation.

Core motivation articulates the fundamental reason or purpose for the transformation. It generally answers the following question: “At the heart, what is our true intent?” Core aspiration is a goal that is strongly desired. It is a vivid, visceral portrayal of an outcome or destination that clarifies and will motivate individuals and organizations to embrace a common vision. It generally answers the question: “In the end, what will be the most compelling evidence that we have succeeded?”

A great example of this is Bill Gate’s core aspiration, which he shared in response to an interview question. He said, “Paul Allen and I had used that phrase [core aspiration] even before we wrote BASIC for Microsoft. We actually talked about it in an article – I think in 1977 – where we said, ‘a computer on every desk and in every home…’ and also said, ‘…running Microsoft software.’  If we were just talking about the vision, we’d leave those last three words out. If we were talking an internal company discussion, we’d put those words in. It’s very hard to recall how crazy and wild that was at the time, you know, ‘on every desk and in every home.’” Gates and Allen used their core aspiration to guide the company as they pursued technological advancements, and the measure of their success is obvious: as of 2016, 1.2 billion people utilized some kind of Microsoft Office product or service.

Become a Business Futurist: Five Questions to Consider

Knowing where you want to go with your organization includes knowing what forces or events could become disruptors. In order to incorporate emerging business trends into your organizational strategy, you will need to answer these five questions:

  1. What disruptors in the marketplace have the potential to be game changers? As you consider all potential factors, you should take into account the degree of likelihood and the significance of impact if a potential disruption occurs.
  2. Where might potential disruptors originate? 2020 has certainly shown us how quickly economic and human capital disruptions can occur. Technological innovations and social and political scenarios also have the potential to change or disrupt your organization.
  3. Are the disruptors likely to linger, versus creating a flash bang to be dealt with in the moment? Consult with subject matter experts in your organization to determine whether your action plan will be a temporary shift or a long-term change and then determine what new products and services you will need to cope with those changes.
  4. Where might you find intersections between disruptors such as developments in technology and maintaining your human edge? Some of the best new ideas come at the intersections of change. For example, your organization may need to create new ways to absorb the evolution of FINTECH (financial technology). Utilizing the creativity of your team to determine how your organization can optimize the effects of emerging FINTECH (or other) technology will reassure your people that their input is still relevant. Involving a wide array of your organization’s leadership will also increase your chances of finding fresh, new ways to achieve greater relevancy and differentiation in your marketplace.
  5. Once potential disruptors are identified, what will be your next steps? While you navigate the present, you also need to map out a longer-term vision for the future. Consider ways to incorporate potential disruptors into an agile strategy. Do not be afraid of the unknown, but rather, embrace the opportunity to revise and expand your organization’s vision of the future. Uncertainty can usher in a new perspective on what it will take to achieve success.

The future is coming at us – in some instances, it is already here. As you thoughtfully scan the horizon ahead, you will be able to build a holistic approach toward your organization’s survival and success. Even when disruptive events impact the world as we know it, futurism will enable you to identify emerging business trends and incorporate strategic adjustments as necessary to meet the challenges of fast-changing times.