By Jim Altfeld
Nearly fifty years ago, Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are a Changing”.
Only, no one, not even Bob Dylan could have anticipated just how powerful, long term and constant that change would be. Today, change happens so fast, so dramatically and at such a dramatic rate that many are predicting that much of all current knowledge and accepted practices will be obsolete within the next five years. Furthermore, the current life span of new technology that is already down to 18 months will continue to grow shorter.
Whether we like it or not, we are living in an Alice in Wonderland world. What we thought were croquet mallets were actually flamingos. Playing cards change suit before our eyes and then get up and walk away from us. And just like Alice experienced in her croquet tournament, the rules keep changing. Actually, the game itself keeps changing. Nothing is constant. Everything is in flux and a lot at first glance, seems to be unpredictable. We get the feeling that any resemblance of today’s world to the past is merely coincidental. And as a result, we share the same frustrations and same fears that Alice did.
As my father used to remind me, “life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” None of us can control the unexpected, but we can control our response to it. We must not resist the unexpected by holding steadfastly to our original plan. Sticking to conventional formula leads only to extinction. We need to remain flexible and to move with the change. It is imperative that we maintain a constant vigil for the unexpected and deal with it making up the rules as we go.
In the movie Fracture, Anthony Hopkins proved the unexpected can sometimes prove deadly. It could be a new technology that suddenly makes you obsolete. It could be an old technology used in a new way that causes you to lose business. Or worse, it could be a disease, bug, scandal, flaw, death or tampering that could put you out of business . For instance, when scientists cloned sheep, our reaction to it was under-whelming at best. We are so bombarded with change, that we’ve become immune to it. That something even that resounding has no effect on us. It does on the pharmaceutical companies, however. As a result of that sheep and the study of gene therapy, the day will come when disease will not be cured from the outside in with pharmaceuticals, but from the inside by our own bodies. Instead of large pharmaceutical companies manufacturing pills, there will be herds of disease specific cows producing milk with the right dna combination to cure specific diseases. Or, sometimes the unexpected can be a revolutionizing but friendly opportunity (and a threat only if viewed that way) like the internet and social media.
Way back in 1990, Robert D. Tuttle, then CEO of SPX Corp. was quoted as saying, “It is not an exaggeration to say that more scientific and technical advances will happen in the next year, than happened in the entire decade of the ‘70’s.” Is that what we will be saying in 2010 about the first decade of the ‘00s?
We used to be able to use technology to ward off our competitors. You could introduce a new product and know it would be years before anyone would introduce a better one, especially one based on “state-of-the-art” technology. Not anymore. Today, state-of-the-art is down to “state-of-the-nanosecond.” It is an entirely new ball game.
“If I take care of the present, the future will take care of itself.”
A philosophy that can kill you.
Scientists believe that millions of years ago a giant asteroid struck the earth and completely wiped out the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were busy taking care of the present. They had no concept of a future beyond the now. As a result, they remained fat, dumb and content for as long as they could. But what actually proved to be their demise was something OUTSIDE of their peripheral vision. The same holds true today. Look at the Internet and social media. Who saw it coming? Very few of us. You could have taken care of the day to day stuff and been on top of it, but all of a sudden you are living in an “Alice in Wonderland” world. Everything has changed and you’ve never even left your office, much less the planet. The way things used to be done aren’t done that way anymore. The future that you thought would exist for you exists no longer. Not only has everything changed, everything continues to change! It’s downright volatile. You can just stand still and feel like you’re in a different world. The trick then is to look to the future and determine proactively what your company will look like when it and maybe you, get there.
Sure we have vision, we just can’t see.
Unfortunately, history has shown us it is not quite that simple. Just being smart enough to look out into the future is only the half of it. The other half has to do with your mindset while you are looking. IBM, Sears, the Encyclopedia Britannica and Barnes & Noble were all at the top of their game and quite brilliant when they looked toward the future. They were the T-Rex’s of their respective industries. But none of them ever saw their own impending asteroids. None of them chose to see them. They were all overly confident and content. They were complacent and suffering from structural inertia – a built-in resistance to change. These companies were all betting their futures on the fact that the future would be a continuation of the present. And from a historical perspective, it’s really old news. Look back to the $750 Million vacuum tubes market of the 50’s. In a last great act of defiance, both RCA and Sylvania chose to stay with tubes in spite of the introduction of the transistor. Or the Swiss! They not only had the reputation as the watchmakers of the world, but they actually invented quartz technology. They had it but never used it. Seiko ran with it and the rest is history.
Today, in the scientific world, thanks to new and more powerful telescopes being launched into space, astronomers are now discovering about one new planet every month. They are even able to watch planets form. One interesting discovery that will probably not affect any of us living today, was made by a group of astronomers, who are probably the best at looking to the future. They recently identified an enormous asteroid that is expected to slam into the earth in about a thousand years (you may have seen the movie a few years back). Not only are they aware of the threat, but they have already begun making plans to do something about it. Talk about eliminating tomorrow’s problems, today.
Like it or not, the future is coming at us like an enormous wave. It is unrelenting. It seems to come faster and faster with each wave larger and more powerful than the one preceding it. Our ability to adapt quickly to not only the changes in the markets we serve, but the changing needs, wants and desires of the customers within those markets, will determine our survival.
Start looking for tomorrow’s opportunities, today.
The late Walt Kelly once wrote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To paraphrase that, “We have met Alice in Wonderland and she is us.” The times they are a changin’ and the change is constant. The change each of you reading this article needs to make, if you haven’t already, is to become visionaries. To look beyond today and start thinking outside the rules.
To witness what I’m talking about first hand, simply watch a group of children play a game. They spend as much time arguing about the rules, as they do playing the game. The rules are never cast in stone. The boundaries are never secure and even the roles of the players are always in question. Kids are constantly creating and re-creating, never allowing themselves to be bogged down or constrained by some old, established guideline. They are constantly redesigning the game to fit their needs.
The same needs to hold true in business. We need to think outside the lines. By going outside certain parameters, daring to stray beyond certain boundaries, and playing flexible roles under breakable rules, we can stimulate innovation and encourage visionary thinking. Consider your own product or service. It is seldom if ever used in a vacuum. If your customer has an objective, how can your product or service help him or her attain it? Is purchasing your product or service merely satisfying a sub-objective that contributes to yet a larger main objective? Can you help them meet their main objective? How do you transform your customer from a caterpillar to a butterfly? How do you make doing business with you, not just purchasing from you, a wonderful and memorable experience? (Making it a terrible and memorable experience is easy. Just treat the customer badly.) What opportunities and untapped values exist beyond the bounds of your product or service of which you can take advantage? What does the customer have to do before making the purchase and using your product or service? What does the customer have to go through after making the purchase but before using it? What is his/her experience when they actually put your product or service to use? And, what experiences does s/he have they do? The real question then becomes “What business are you in?”
Next, the playing field itself needs to be changed. Why play on a level playing field with everyone else? The trick is to hold the high ground, get the advantage, anticipate, prepare and distance yourself from your competition. You want to position yourself to make the most of these changes. Which means you must anticipate them as best you can while simultaneously remaining flexible enough to deal with the force of the unexpected. Change and the unexpected — The only two elements you can be absolutely certain of throughout the new millennium.
Unless you are clear about where you are going, any direction is fine.
As we face our “Alice in Wonderland” futures and look beyond today, all of us really do have the ability to begin seizing control of it. Unfortunately, as business owners, ceo’s, presidents, vice presidents, and managers we constantly fall prey to crisis management. We get caught up in the day to day challenges that prevent and delay us from taking control of our future. All too often we find ourselves becoming so entrenched in crisis management that it becomes nearly impossible to even think about solving and/or preventing tomorrow’s predictable problems. (Remember the asteroid.) Finding the time to envision your future may be difficult, but it is more of a necessity than ever before, and in most cases, it is far easier to do than having to react to an unexpected reality. Much like the old Fram filter commercial when the mechanic said, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Waiting, watching and wondering is a formula for disaster. Taking appropriate actions, on the other hand, and make things happen is the only way to ensure that the future you envision for you company will be achieved. You must also make certain that your employees at every level are living that vision you’ve created.