The future is coming. It’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives. We might just want to do our best to determine how it will unfold so we can position our companies to generate huge results.
So says entrepreneur Daniel Burrus, a leading futurist on global trends and the author of six books, including New York Times bestseller Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible. During his 30-plus-year career, Burrus has accurately predicted developments such as the creation of cloud computing and streaming video, the rise of fiber optics and the key role that mobile phones now play in our daily lives. He has used his methodologies to start six companies, three of which were national leaders within their first year.
Here is his advice on how you can spot important business trends before your competitors do — and use those insights to accelerate your success.
1. Cultivate anticipation in your organization. Traditionally, entrepreneurs spend a lot of time in crisis management mode putting out fires. That’s why many of them see agility and fast response times as key competencies for business success. But agility is related to reacting and responding to change. It won’t help you leap ahead or differentiate yourself in the marketplace.
The competency that most of us are still missing is anticipation — the ability to anticipate problems before they happen so you can pre-solve them, and to anticipate disruptions before they disrupt you.
Burrus notes that every business disruption that’s occurred over the last 30 years, as well as game-changing opportunities, were there to see if you had the tools to make them visible. Your goal is to adopt the mindset of becoming an anticipatory organization that recognizes future trends and gets positioned to capitalize on them.
2. Know the hard trends from the soft trends. Burrus divides trends into two camps. Hard trends are ones that will happen, guaranteed — you can’t stop them — while soft trends only might happen. Strategies based on the certainty of hard trends are low risk. An example of a hard technology trend is the growth of mobile apps used for key business functions like sales, training and customer service. A related soft trend is which companies will create and implement these apps (a much more uncertain proposition). A hard demographic trend is the aging of the baby boomers, while a soft trend relating to this hard trend is whether companies will systematically collect and share the knowledge that those boomers possess before they punch the clock for the last time.
It’s important to separate the two categories as best as possible, as doing so can make the difference between struggling when things change and using change to innovate. That’s not an easy task, because in the present moment both types of trends can appear to be inevitable. That’s where experts like Burrus come in handy. His track record at predicting hard trends is impressive, to say the least. Among other predictions, he foresaw the rise of the virtual bookstore back in 1993. “I didn’t know who would start it or that they would call it Amazon, but the technology hard trends were there staring us in the face,” says Burrus.
3. If you fail, fail fast. Burrus sees lots of potential value in failure for entrepreneurs. “Your biggest lessons as entrepreneurs come from your failures, “he says. “So how can you learn faster? Fail faster!”
When Burrus left the academic world in 1979 to start his first company, an experimental aircraft business, he didn’t have a huge budget — which taught him to fail fast. “Failing slow is very expensive. Companies like Kodak and Blockbuster failed slowly, unnecessarily, because they didn’t anticipate the future trends.”
In your own business, consider how many people you’ve hired over the years who you knew were not going to work out but who you kept for months or years before finally letting them go. Think about how much that cost you. “You have metrics to measure your success. Well, that means you also need metrics to measure failure, so that you know which direction you’re heading and so you can fail fast and move on,” says Burrus.
4. Use the skip-it principle. Another way to accelerate your route to success is to “problem skip” by examining your plan for achieving key goals, then cutting out the extraneous parts so you achieve success as fast as possible. Burrus offers an example from history. “The U.S.’s initial plan in World War II was to recapture the hundreds of islands between Hawaii and Japan, until someone asked ‘why not skip that step and go straight to Japan?’,” he says.
To problem skip, you must recognize a key fact: The problem you think you need to solve is probably the wrong one to focus on. Otherwise, you would have solved it by now (after all, you’re a pretty smart entrepreneur, right?). That means you’ve got to peel back the onion and identify the deeper issue that is delaying you on your success path.
Burrus cites the example of working with a pharmaceutical company that was struggling with how to hire thousands of additional researchers without a big enough budget. As he helped the executives dig deeper, it was determined that the real problem was a huge need to solve molecular issues so the company could develop a bigger drug pipeline. “I told them to skip their perceived problem of trying to hire a lot of PhDs on a small budget and to instead post their molecular problems on the Internet in a dozen languages and pay the people who submitted solutions,” says Burrus. “That approach was so successful that other companies have since copied it. Once you problem skip, you can get to the solution much faster.”
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