July 1, 2014

Business as Unusual

How to “future-proof” your company

What will the coming decade look like? The honest answer is that no one knows. A glimpse, though, can be found in a promising new startup called Oculus VR.

Two years ago, Palmer Luckey was a teenager in Long Beach, California, with a clever idea for a virtual reality headset. The headset, which is worn over users’ eyes to create a greater sense of immersion in a video game, has a new kind of screen that gives viewers vastly improved panoramic vision. Forgoing the traditional path of securing a bank loan, Luckey instead went to Kickstarter, a peer-to-peer lending platform. Within days, he raised $1 million from strangers. This success caught the attention of venture capitalists, who quickly poured in $16 million to create a working prototype. Oculus VR’s virtual reality technology—which has practical applications for the manufacturing sector such as workforce development training and realistically previewing the design of new industrial components—was met with such positive reviews that Facebook purchased the company for $2 billion in March.


From an idea in a teenager’s head to a $2 billion company in barely two years? Welcome to the future—where business as unusual will become usual.


The Big AHA

The business world’s rapidly escalating pace and scale prompt the obvious question: How does a business leader prepare for a constantly changing future? The answer can be found in a simple acronym: AHA, which stands for awareness, humility and action.

First, leaders must become aware of the extraordinary changes taking place across today’s global landscape. For example, advances in nanotechnology are leading to the creation of new materials that can out-compete copper in terms of conductivity and steel in terms of strength. Soon, some nanomaterials will even compete on price. Additionally, the extraordinary advances in 3-D manufacturing show no signs of abating. Chinese manufacturers are already using a 12-meter 3-D printer to create titanium aircraft wings and fuselages. And in Amsterdam, innovative researchers have created an extrusion-like printer that can “print” steel, stainless steel, copper and aluminum without any external support structures.

Continued advances in wearable technology, robotics, Big Data and the Internet of Things also promise to transform the traditional metals service industry. In fact, the Internet of Things (also dubbed the Industrial Internet by General Electric)—with remote and on-site monitoring of industrial processes from the beginning to the end of the supply chain and of products after they leave the factory—has alone been estimated to be a nearly $15 trillion business opportunity in the coming decade.


Yield to Humility

Quick question: What two colors are the yield sign? Did you say yellow and black? If so, that was the correct answer—until 1971. That’s right. The yield sign has been red and white for 43 years. If you got the wrong answer, don’t worry—most people over the age of 40 do. Nevertheless, your outdated response should humble you enough to recognize that not everything you learned in the past about your business, your customers or your competitors is necessarily still true today.

Consider, for example, how advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology have changed global energy production within just the past few years. This startling shift should serve as a reminder that the world—and even big industries—can change quickly due to unexpected technological advances. And when these advances scale, old ideas about business models, as well as customer and market expectations, may have to be unlearned quickly.


Take Thoughtful Action

Once a leader is aware that the only constant in today’s world is change—and is humble enough to accept that unlearning will be as important as learning—what does he or she need to do to prepare for the future?

First, begin by setting aside time to think. I recommend taking an annual “Think Week.” Now, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t even have enough time to do all the things I need to do in a day! How am I going to find a whole week just to think?” If that’s your mindset, what you’re essentially saying is that you can’t dedicate 2% of your time to thinking about the future. Well, if you’re not thinking about the future, who in your organization is? I’d argue that thinking is your most important job.

If one week a year is too hard, break the task down into smaller chunks. Take an hour a week, or 12 minutes a day, to read about advances on the periphery of your business in publications such as The Economist and MIT Technology Review, and then reflect deeply on how various technological advances might disrupt your business or open up entirely new opportunities.

Another way to future-proof your company is to conduct a pre-mortem—the opposite of a post-mortem. Instead of waiting to determine what went wrong after your sales have plummeted, your old customers have left or a new competitor has ravaged your business, you take a more proactive approach. Encourage your team to imagine it is 10 years in the future and you are out of business. Then ask the provocative questions, “What went wrong? What didn’t we see coming?” The dialogue these questions unleash will astound you. It won’t be a depressing conversation but instead a candid one about the threats and opportunities the changing world is creating. You can use these insights to take constructive actions to position your organization for the future.

By their nature, many of these actions are likely to be risky. I wish I could guarantee you that each one will be a success. I can’t. What will serve you well is a policy of conducting small experiments and pilot projects. In an ever-changing world, strategic planning is less and less helpful. What needs to replace strategic planning is a thoughtful policy of experimentation. Try new things, play with emerging technologies, and partner with different individuals and companies to explore new ways of doing business. There will be some setbacks and failures, of course, but there may also be some surprising successes. If you learn from the mistakes and build upon the small achievements, your future might just be unusually successful.

Jack Uldrich is a professional futurist, best-selling author and keynote speaker. He can be reached at jackmuldrich@gmail.com.