crystalballAs another year dawns and we turn our eyes to 2014, it’s still clear that we are living and working in an era of extreme uncertainty.  A global recession continues and is combining with significant disruptive forces in technology, politics, economics, corporate organisation and societal values.  In other words, we are living at a moment in history when a large number of different trends are all working together to generate more change than we’ve ever experienced before.

We cannot just continue with business as usual.  And we can’t wait for things to “go back to normal”.  It just isn’t going to happen.

An era of change such as this brings both threats and opportunities.  The threat is that as the rules of success and failure are redefined, your business fails to keep up and becomes outdated – when the rate of change outside your business exceeds the rate of change inside, you are becoming a dinosaur.  But there are opportunities too.  In order to identify these potential new business opportunities, you need to be able to see what is changing and anticipate how this will affect your industry.  A key part of ensuring your ongoing success is to better future-proof your strategy by looking in new places and directions.

A crystal ball would be useful.  But assuming you don’t have access to some supernatural knowledge, here are nine ways in which you can gain insights into the future of your industry and create tomorrow’s competitive advantage today:

Ask new questions to new people – Companies often don’t realise they are stuck in a rut.  They repeat last year’s activities, listen to the same experts, run the same focus groups and ask the same questions of the same people year after year.  Broaden your horizons and ask new questions to new groups of people inside and outside your organisation – especially the young, bright ones who find it easier to embrace change.  You might discover that there are people other than your current customers who are interested in what you do.

Data, data, data – the radical power of knowing everything – Businesses have access to more data than ever before.  Capture everything you can and use it – but with a twist. Look for new trends and the likely impact of any disruptive change by combining different data sets.  This new science of business analytics is sometimes called ‘big data’.  Understand that this is a real source of competitive advantage and insight.  You will need to employ a new type of person (“data scientists” or “data detectives”) to do this – it will be worth it.

Enjoy the discomfort (and bring ‘uncomfortable’ people into your life) – In a world dominated by disruption, you need to ensure your people are comfortable with constant change.  Changes in our working environment, increased globalisation, technology advances and changing social values are all challenging people to work differently and forcing us to change our habits. Employ people who can take you outside your comfort zone and engage with new technology and business practices to help your business transition to where you need to get to.  Don’t just look for people who are similar to your existing team – bring in a few mavericks and stretch your boundaries a bit.  Do something every day that takes you out of your comfort zone, and meet with one person every week who will do the same.

Change the physical space – Our physical environment shapes our habits, and these in turn shape our thinking. Move things and people around, and allow your people to work in different places and at different times. Sometimes change really IS as good as a holiday.  Nothing opens the mind more than travelling to different parts of this diverse planet. When you travel on holiday, do at least one activity that deliberately is aimed at chasing an insight that will help your business.

Learn to share – 83% of Generation Y (teenagers and 20-somethings) will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible and 79% want to work for a company that cares about how it impacts and contributes to society.  These are your future staff and customers and they are looking for you to demonstrate that you are not only making a profit but sharing the value that you generate not just in terms of cash but also knowledge, technology and people.  Future-proofing your business by ensuring you contribute to community and society is a simple, but highly effective strategy.

Watch the competition you didn’t realise was your competition – This is quite difficult to do, because you spend a lot of your time watching your own industry.  But recent history shows that in times of uncertainty and change, there is the potential for your industry to be ambushed by unexpected competitors.  There are plenty of examples of missed opportunities: Kodak spectacularly failed to see the shift to digital photography; Nokia has fallen so far so fast by missing the smartphone revolution; Sony, EMI and the other music giants failed to see Apple coming in to dominate their markets.  And I wonder if the car companies of the world realise that Google will become big competition with their driverless car?

Who could come into your market and ambush you?  Learn from them: not just the competition you know, but innovators and start-ups in other sectors.  Your future competitors may well be in a completely different industry.  They don’t pose any threat today – but who might they be?

Mind the Enemy Within – talking of the competition you don’t realise is competition, our team is convinced that the biggest issues you will face in the next few years will not be from market forces and competitors, but actually from inside your own company.  We call these the enemy within.  This has to do with your mindsets, your orthodoxies, your systems and structures that actively work against your future plans.  It’s also to do with a significant percentage of your staff that are actively disengaged from your business, some even working against you.  This is not just an HR problem.  This is key to future success.  And not many leaders are prepared to take both the time and the hard work to look inside and honestly identify the internal hurdles that need to be overcome.

Read, watch, listen – Make it a habit to expose your mind to content that doesn’t directly relate to your industry or even to business.  There are thousands of great publications, blogs and websites out there to keep you up to date with what’s coming.  Try TED videos, The Economist, Wired, Popular Mechanics, or The Futurist magazines.  Get your team to report back on what they’ve seen and how it has helped them to think differently.  There is remarkable value in looking at innovations and change in other industries and sectors – you never know when a radical idea will spark a creative thought for you.

Use stories to make sense of it all – Some of what you learn will have a huge impact on your business; some less so.  The same data can help you reach different conclusions.  Use you business knowledge to create scenarios or narratives not just facts.  How will your customers live and work in the future?  How will they commute?  How will they exchange ideas?  What will meetings look like?  Or will they work from home – in another time zone?  How will this impact your sales team?  Your customer service centre?

Build scenarios and play with new ideas in your mind.  The future is ours to both discover and create.

Our ability to see the future is not a matter of luck or fortune telling.  It’s a skill that can be developed.  And it is something that everyone in your team needs to be involved in.  Thinking about the future is no longer something for just the senior leaders to do once a year – everyone at every level of your organisation needs to be looking for the threats and opportunities that lie ahead of us in a changing world.  Only then can you really future-proof your business.

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