I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised at how long the list of changes you’ve seen in the last three years — whether at home, work, or in furthering your education — can be. Changes happen every day. You know that; you’ve seen that. There are changes that appear slowly and are even hard to detect right away, and there are changes that occur swiftly, immediately and cause people to scramble to adjust. The latter changes can be disruptive and dramatic. One hopes such changes are not blindsiding those business managers and leaders who operate the day-to-day actions and decisions of a business.
It takes time and energy to cope with change. What can be done to minimize this effort while at the same time dealing with each change appropriately? Not all changes require attention, and some are welcome and complement the direction and initiatives of a business.
Let’s take the dramatic changes that occur at a slow pace. Often, these changes can be visible, even anticipated, and then dealt with as they occur. I’ve used the expression “faint signals” for how these changes begin and also how they can be anticipated. Often employees see them first because a business owner can be too busy with matters that pertain to the day-to-day needs of the business and its strategic direction.
As a first step, business owners can add as part of their regular meetings a groupthink session of signals that can become the early stages of changes in the near future. For example, questions to ask are, “What do they see that can signal a change in the products and services of a major competitor?” or, “What technology have they seen emerging, what personnel changes have occurred with a competitor, and what changes do they see in the buying habits of their customers?” A lively discussion would provide even more information.
Fast-paced changes occur with greater frequency now than ever before. And they impact every aspect of the business, from marketing to operations. Digital data analyses, new manufacturing tools like 3D printing, the circular economy, changing political and economic policies, and global trade deficits are just a few examples.
Nowadays it’s not just the competitor down the street but those from a host of foreign markets. Keeping track of it all requires a vast network of resources, including contacts in manufacturers associations and with recruiters and suppliers who work across a number of industries and companies. Also, new hires can be another source of contemporary trends and new challenging changes.
When does a change become disruptive? When it directly and swiftly affects your ability to sustain growth, make a profit and survive the next two years. Disruption can be a simple breakthrough like a small implantable device that remotely measures a patient’s vital signs, or it can come in the form of complex disruptions like the iPhone, personal drones, data analytics using cloud technology, robotics, autonomous cars, virtual reality devices and the electronic flash. I mention the latter since there’s a generation of people who’ve never seen or heard of a flashbulb unless they watch vintage movies.
Think of the changes autonomous cars will have on the auto insurance business. Of robotics on American workers. Of digital cameras on the film-processing industry. These are the obvious disruptions; others haven’t played out yet.
Although hard to anticipate, a clever and knowledgeable corporate detective can put together some components of disruptive change by tracking competitors’ purchases and getting chummy with them at local and national meetings. Asking the right questions can force people’s pride to reveal some key components of disruptive technology: “I see you’ve just hired a specialist in digital marketing,” then follow up with a few non-threatening, probing questions.
Competitor websites can be surprisingly revealing, as when a website discloses with its own vision statement that a new product’s capability has expanded. Combined with early marketing statements, this can signal something new that may be disruptive. Dramatic changes that are not addressed can lead to the replacement of not only a product but also business owners and their entire teams.
How can you prevent this from occurring in your company? I read some interesting advice in Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book “Thank You for Being Late.” In it, he quotes advice from Lin Wells of the National Defense University, who suggests that we stop thinking both outside and inside the box. Open your information base so that it has no box and is a wide swath including many nontraditional sources. Wells calls this approach being “radically inclusive.” Read different magazines; attend different association meetings that are only somewhat related to your industry; talk to as many people as possible and examine other processes and technologies. It’s worth the effort in breaking restrictive habits.
Develop very open eyes. Use a non-judgmental approach. Spend lots of time with your customers and discuss a variety of topics related to the future. Challenge everything. It’s what’s happening today in politics, religion and education.