Living in an "Alice in Wonderland" World

Part I

Nearly forty 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 by 2001, 25% of all current knowledge and accepted practices will be obsolete. 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 Aliens, Sigourney Weaver discovered 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, scientists have cloned sheep, yet 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. Another example for consideration is the light bulb. Now, new LED technology being developed in Japan may obsolete and replacing the incandescent light bulb all together. Or, sometimes the unexpected can be a revolutionizing but friendly opportunity (and a threat only if viewed that way) like the internet and e-commerce.

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 2001 about the decade of the '90s?

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 now 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 e-commerce. 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 no longer exists. 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. 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 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.

Part II

The CEO as the chief strategist, visionary and leader.

"Leadership is not about sitting in your office and dreaming up strategy. It is about touching your organization through values, personal presence and relationships." Jack Welch, Chairman, General Electric Co.

There are both tactical and strategic ceo's. Whether the CEO is one or the other, s/he is always looked upon as the chief strategist. The CEO is always the one person who can speak for the entire organization and no major changes within the company can ever be made without him or her. Being a CEO of any company today has become a more demanding job than ever before. The massive volatility and rapidity of change combined with the speed of the communications revolution can be quite taxing. And just as the company is in constant motion, so must be the CEO. Both the company and the CEO must constantly be reinventing and renewing themselves on the fly. As Chairman Jack Welch so aptly put it, "You have to change the tires while the car's still moving."

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think a new and act a new. We must disenthral ourselves and then we shall save our country." A. Lincoln

Whether tactical or strategic, all CEO's must be restless, impatient, never content and above all, focused. What differentiates the strategic from the tactical leader is that the strategic leader knows the principles s/he wants to follow and inspires others to pursue those principles with him or her. "Important principles may and must be inflexible." Said Lincoln in his last public address. Strategic leaders serve as powerful role models whose actions and personal energy demonstrate the desired behaviors. Their behavior and standards are above reproach. Through their commitment, effectiveness and consistency, strategic leaders build a personal bond between themselves and the organization. They provide a psychological focal point for the energies, hopes and aspirations of their people.

Keep in mind, too that strategic leadership is not infallible. There are always policy failures. The difference is that in spite of failure the strategic leader never loses sight of the real goal. Countries can survive a tactical leader. Companies cannot.

Strategic planning then becomes the guide for the strategic CEO. It enables the company to look at the chain of cause and effect over time. It is a planning process that lets you fight on two fronts simultaneously. It allows you to confront today's challenges while probing tomorrow's opportunities and preparing for tomorrow's predictable problems. And like the organization itself, the plan is in constant motion. It too must be flexible enough to be reviewed, reinvented and renewed on the fly. Whether the plan holds together for a quarter of a year or a quarter century, it is the planning process that allows the strategic management team to look at alternatives. It develops the mindset for and encourages opportunity management. Yes, there is always the outside chance that an asteroid will come out of nowhere, completely undetected, and slam into your company, your market space or even your entire industry. Your plan may be obsolete and your company changed forever as a result of it. But with a planning process in place you can revise and rebuild quickly.

What was important yesterday, may no longer be important today, or especially tomorrow.

CEO's are well aware that listening and responding to their customers' needs, however quickly and precisely, is not sufficient for shaping the future of an industry, warding off disruptive technologies, creating major new market opportunities, or attracting the attention of new groups of customers. There is a need to be out well ahead of your current and future customers. Your customer's of today only know their immediate needs and tend to merely ask for refinements ­ faster, better, cheaper ­ of what they already have. By staying such a course, a company, or an entire industry for that matter, will merely plod along making improvements to what currently exists ­ until some outsider or some new revolutionary technology comes along and changes everything. Like Federal Express and UPS did. Before them, every major company had its own shipping department and a fleet of trucks. The trucks are gone and so is the expense and aggravation of maintaining them. Did anyone ever ask for a Federal Express or UPS? No. Or Southwest Airlines. Before their arrival you either drove or took a bus to the places they fly to. Rather than take on the airline industry they have successfully revolutionized the ground transportation industry. Did anyone demand they do that? No. How about Quiken's Intuit. Its primary competitor was not the computer, it was the pencil. They saw a need for speed, accuracy, simplicity and low price and filled it. Was anyone pounding on their door asking them to hurry up? No. For that matter, who asked for the electric light bulb, or continuous aim gunfire aboard ships? No one. Was anyone seen demanding the PC, CD, DVD, the cell phone or worldwide web? Again, no. None of us know what someone or some new technology can do for us until we learn about it and see it first hand. But once we do, nothing is ever the same again.

"It's not where we stand, but what direction are we heading." Oliver Wendell Holmes

There are at least twenty technologies and thirty new tools out there for you to use. Because our peripheral vision is normally confined to our own immediate areas, we are too often unaware of these technologies and tools being used elsewhere in other industries. Yet, if applied to your product, service or industry they could actually prove to be revolutionary. In the words of Wm. Faulkner, "don't bother being better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself." Quit watching your competitors and move ahead. Create new offerings, redefine, reinvent and renew. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to what is out there. Go beyond the markets and industries you are currently serving. The only way to predict the future is to invent it. If you don't like the way the game is being played, change the rules. Don't lose yourself in what you already know. Give your customers something that they don't know about because it didn't even exist until you just created it (whether in your mind, on paper or as a tangible item). Fighting tomorrow's battles with today's products and services is eventually going to be losing proposition.

In no particular order, a list of recommendations for accomplishing all of the above is listed below. Reading the list is one thing. Actual implementation, execution and follow through is quite another.

Be honest enough with yourself to discern your own realities
Achieve actual disclosure
Anticipate an accurate future of your company
Share the dream
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Take appropriate actions to ensure that the vision becomes reality
Do not allow outsiders to shape your future for you
Involve, inform and inspire your people
Use all available technology and your uniqueness to either distance yourself from your competitors, or eliminate them completely
Shift from crisis management to opportunity management
Focus on your customers' future needs
Focus on your customers' customers' future
Prevent tomorrow's predictable problems from ever occurring
Remain committed
Hold true to your values
Be curious
Be open to new ideas and other ways of doing things
Be consistent
Be flexible


Keep in mind that the future remains an invisible place only until you start thinking about it. The result of NOT thinking about it and NOT doing something to shape it can cost you dearly. It could, in the end, lead to your ultimate demise, if not extinction.


Do You Kaizen?

Who Could Have Predicted It?

Strategic Alignment


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