It’s weird that fortune-tellers tend to work for carnivals rather than Fortune 500 companies. If I were a CEO, I would want to hire people who can see the future. It would save me a lot of heartache and worry. I could focus on the product R&D programs that I know would work and wouldn’t waste resources on projects that won’t. Deciding upon a course for a marketing campaign wouldn’t be such a dilemma: Do we go with the talking monkeys or do we tie our product to the Star Wars franchise?
Okay. Fortune-telling has its creepy disadvantages: Most people don’t want to know when or how they will die. Many of us want to discover what is around the next corner without spoiler-alerts. If you take all the mystery out of life, what’s the point? But there are advantages to having someone around who can see a little further down the line than others: Maybe you re-book your flight. Maybe you buy that lottery ticket. Maybe you start wearing sunscreen at a young age. Maybe you invest early in cool little start-ups like Apple and Nike (just like Forrest Gump did). Maybe you sign an author with promise before she has penned her first draft of her boy-wizard story.
Maybe you get the jump on your competitors every single time you make a move. Think products, services, channels, processes, even hires. Imagine if you could get a 12-18 month head start on everyone else in your industry. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that make a huge difference in how your business runs?
Well, like I said earlier, fortune-tellers don’t work for Fortune 500 companies. But trend-spotters often do, and when it comes down to it, that’s almost as good.
Gentlemen, place your bets!
By trend-spotter, I don’t just mean hipsters who hang out with the cool kids until 4:00am and can tell you what the next hot street fashion is going to be, though for apparel makers and retail buyers, that’s pretty important. These folks prepare their seasons months in advance. If they get the trends wrong, three things will happen: 1. Their sales revenues will tank. 2. They will end up with a ton of inventory they won’t be able to get rid of, even at 70% off. 3. Their brand’s relevance will be put in question. They will lose market share. Ergo: Complete disaster.
Every year, companies place bets on a million things: Products, campaigns, services, technology, programs, media buying, hires, trade shows, agency selection, you name it. When you take a step back, it looks a lot like a giant game of pin the tail on the donkey. Nobody really knows if anything is going to work. For every reason why something might, there are three reason why it might not. Any decision-maker anywhere will tell you the same thing: They are in the business of taking risks. Calculated risks, but risks nonetheless. The philosophy then is this: Big risk have the potential for big rewards, but also costly blunders. Small risks have far less potential for rewards, but don’t sting quite as bad when things don’t work out.
This would be a great time for me to segue into the vital connection that exists between vision, courage and leadership, but that isn’t what this post is about. What we are talking about today is trend-spotting: The function within an organization that helps decision-makers minimize the potential for poor strategic decisions and maximize the potential for good strategic decisions. Every day, the big strategic croupier calls for business leaders’ bets, and every day, that call must be answered. Wouldn’t it be nice for these folks to have a roulette or card-counting savant at their side, whispering in their ear what plays will yield the highest probability of success?
In the apparel industry, that savant’s job might be to attend fashion shows all over the world, hang out at popular night clubs, watch teenagers hang out at the mall or at skate parks, or just take regular trips to Tokyo, Paris, Milan, London or New York.
In the tech industry, that savant’s job might be to attend tech shows, hang out with venture capitalists, talk with a lot of start-ups, read key blogs, take regular visits to Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Antwerp, and wherever else innovation is taking place.
These folks don’t have a crystal ball, they can’t actually predict the future, but they see what’s happening. They know what people are working on. They can spot innovation and place it on a timeline. They can see trends emerging and can gauge their momentum. They see how all the pieces fit. They don’t just have their eyes open, they also have a nose for it.
How do you think some mutual funds beat the S&P year after year? What do you think makes the difference between a great quarter and a lousy one for most businesses? Luck? Well… okay, there is always an element of luck. But luck strikes where and when it pleases. Industry giants aren’t betting the farm on a rabbit’s foot. Luck has nothing to do with engineering patterns of success. Having the right people onboard whose job it is to not only keep their eyes open but also understand where things are going, does.
Bubble Blindness Syndrome
Having worked with a lot of companies over the years, I have come to observe that most organizations tend to fall into one of two categories: Organizations that are connected with the world around them (not just their market), and organizations that operate in a bubble.
Save yourself the trouble of arguing that bubbles come in all sizes. I know. Some bubbles are thinner than others. We are talking about varying degrees of disconnect here. Having said that, bubbles are bubbles. No matter how thick or thin, no matter how permeable or impermeable, bubbles effectively shield companies from the outside world. They aren’t just cultural cocoons; they also create a wall of opacity that makes any kind of trend-spotting impossible. As you can surmise, bubbles are bad.
Would you like to know a few symptoms of bubble-wrapped organizations. Here are a few:
- They have to hire people from outside the organization to go find out what their customers are saying.
- They have to hire people from outside the organization to go find out where their customers are playing.
- They have to hire people from outside the organization to tell them what new technologies they should use.
- They like to “wait and see” what the market will do and what their competitors will do.
- They have to hire people from outside the organization to tell them what the market and their competitors are doing.
- They often operate under the delusion that by virtue of the fact that they have been in business for 50 years, they will still be in business 5 years from now.
- They believe that having been relevant in the 20th century automatically makes them relevant in the 21st.
- They rarely hire from outside the industry. Most of their managers and executives have either worked there all of their careers or used to work for their competitors before coming to work for them. In these organizations, seniority and tenure in the industry are prized far above ingenuity and strategic insight.
It is virtually impossible to see what is coming next if you lock yourself up into a windowless room all day long, day after day after day. It is also VERY difficult to score big wins, much less engineer a string of them, if you have disconnected yourself from the field.
One of the first people I always ask to meet with when I begin working with a client is their director of innovation. This all too often draws blank stares. The people in the room with me look at each other and flex their eyebrows at each other, trying to figure out who that might be. Invariably, the question is asked: “How do you mean?”
“I mean who manages innovation for the company?”
Crickets. Then begins the discussion. “Maybe he should talk to Pete in I.T.” “Yeah, or Mike, our COO.” “Maybe Louise in Digital?”
“Okay,” I ask. “Who’s in charge of consumer insights?”
Crickets. “Um… maybe Paula in marketing?” “I think our agencies handle that.” “We work with research firms.”
And you wonder why so many companies adapt to change slowly, why so many CEOs tread lightly when it comes to integrating social media channels into their communications mix, why the ship turns so painfully slowly when it comes to incorporating social business principles across an organization.
Everyone is so task-oriented that companies forget the importance of using qualified spotters and scouts to help with navigation.
It isn’t about Pinterest. But in a way, it is.
I can’t go ten seconds without seeing an article about Pinterest all of a sudden. The company’s name is on everyone’s lips. And naturally, every strategic meeting I go into, Pinterest comes up: “What is this Pinterest thing I keep hearing about? What does it do? is it the new Facebook? Should we be on it? Bob, call Pete in I.T. See if he can join us. He probably needs to hear this.”
Pulling up Pinterest on the big screen and giving them a demo isn’t enough. You also have to give them context, and aside from numbers and demos, here is all the context they need:
“It’s interesting to see how conservative marketers are being with Pinterest. There seems to be a lot of wait-and-see happening and many pokes at how people are planning for action they’ll never take. I’m all over Pinterest and would recommend it as a strategy to many of my clients. I’ve been on Pinterest for about 6 weeks, or so. Just this morning I received the 7th thing I’ve purchased after seeing it on Pinterest and following the link to the main site.” - Sheila Germain
There. Get it? People share stuff because it’s fun. People discover that stuff as a result. Then they buy it. Your socks, your car, your leather gloves, your #2 pencil: The more people post about it, the more mindshare you earn and the more you increase your chances that people will buy it. Why this works doesn’t matter. That it does is what matters.
It’s like advertising without the advertising. It’s word-of-mouth publishing. Compared with the relatively low cost of being there, a platform like Pinterest can yield enormous dividends.
Now here’s the choice: As a company, you can sit around and talk about strategies year after year after year. You can hire consultants and research firms and agencies to tell you what’s hot – or rather what was hot last year. You can scratch your heads at all that newfangled stuff and end up “sticking to Facebook” because you’ve already committed to it this year and it is a known quantity. You can operate under the premise that if Pinterest is still around in three years, it will have probably grown into a legitimate channel that you will want to invest in. Until then… Meh.
Or, you could wrap your mind around the potential that this and other new platforms or products have to offer and see what you can do with them. I don’t mean just task your agency with proposing a campaign that includes Pinterest or whatever next thing comes along (although… knock yourself out). I mean start thinking about ways that new platform and product capabilities fit into what you are trying to do: Sell something. It doesn’t matter of your company makes toothpaste, aluminum foil or ball bearings. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a non-profit or a government agency tasked with promoting good hygiene in the workplace. Use your brain: How could you use this?
But this isn’t about Pinterest. Pinterest is just one platform. There will be others. New ones pop up at regular intervals. So the question bears asking: Who in your organization was the first to bring up and recommend Pinterest? Who was the first to see the angles? For that matter, who first started talking to you about using Facebook and Twitter a few years back?
If no one in your organization saw this coming (or thought to bring it up), you have a serious problem. Your bubble has reached maximum density. You may not see it, you may not even believe it, but aside from a few narrow channels whose relevance is at best limited, you have become completely disconnected from your market and the world at large. Denial won’t help. Accept it and do something about it. Today.
On the flip side, if you are fortunate enough to have someone on staff who noticed Pinterest a few months back, if some of your managers or staffers even suggested that perhaps you should look into it, my question is this: Why didn’t you listen to them? The question is worth a few minutes of your time because at its heart is a key reason why your company is not doing as well as it should be.
The business sense of funding the trend-spotting function
Catching the right wave, not just once but set after set, requires both focus and insight. It also requires a certain instinct, honed over time through trial, error, habit and acclimation. Understanding emerging trends is about far more than crunching numbers and poring over data. The process of becoming good at this sort of thing, with or without the benefit of having a natural talent for it, requires deliberate investigation, long periods of observation, layer upon layer of context and interpretation. Perhaps most important of all, it requires exposure to the environment where the events leading to the trend will take place.
Understanding what comes next by putting all the pieces together isn’t something that can be done via a thirty minute conference call with an industry analyst who also spends most of his or her day sitting in an office, compiling reports.
If you seek to understand a thing, go observe it. Go touch it. Go live as close to it as you can for as long as you can. You aren’t going to ever understand lions by reading statistics and reports about lions. You’re going to have to go out to where the lions are and study them yourself, in their natural habitat. The same is true of consumers, of markets, of people. You can’t anticipate their needs and wants, their shifts in preference and taste from inside a corporate cocoon. You have to go out there. You have to talk to them, listen to them, hang out with them. In other words, you need people inside your organization whose focus is not a computer monitor and a set of spreadsheets, who don’t spend every minute of their day being pulled into pointless meetings or replying to email threads or entering data into a system.
In the best of worlds, you would create a business ecosystem that would allow most employees to become trend-spotters too – managers and staffers alike. Ideas and insights can come from anywhere, and so it makes sense to increase your potential for good ideas in this way. That is one of the promises of social business, by the way.
But the reality of most organizations is that people are simply too busy with a mountain of daily tasks to be able to effectively serve this function. (At least for now. Today.) They can participate in it, they can occasionally make game-changing contributions to it, but they just can’t be counted on to manage that function on a daily basis.
And yet, someone has to.
Let me say it again: Someone has to. Without this function, your organization is pretty-much flying blind. For all the bravado of many a self-important manager who “just knows” he is right about something he will gladly admit he knows very little about, for all the wishful thinking in the world, rare is the company that hits all the right notes quarter after quarter that doesn’t have a function like this in place, staffed by the right kind of people. Whether you are Gucci, Ford, the Obama campaign, Edelman Digital or Apple, this function is deliberately fed, fostered, and put to obvious good use. Most organizations, unfortunately, are not so forward-thinking in the way they operate.
The alternative is this: To be strategically, tactically, operationally disconnected from a changing world – an ever-evolving world – that doesn’t give a damn that you have been in business for 20 years, or 50, or 100, a world that only cares about two things: Do you provide the most value for my money or attention today? Will you provide the most value for my money or attention tomorrow? You can go with wishful thinking and the hope that “things will turn around” all on their own and see where that takes you.
Some quick and simple advice:
Don’t focus too much on Pinterest. Like every digital/social platform, it will have its rise and its fall. Right now, Pinterest is hot. Chances are that it will remain so for some time (long enough to be worth making a few plays with). But as we have seen time and time again, whether Pinterest sticks or fades into fad country, new platforms will come to compete against it for our collective attention the same way new technologies will disrupt the way we shop and do business, and new fashions will disrupt the way we dress. The question is this: What are you doing about it?
Before I go back to my croissants, I want to leave you with three simple points:
1. Assess your ability to spot trends: If you didn’t see Pinterest coming, your organization doesn’t have an adequate trend-spotting function in place. Either you don’t have one at all, or you thought you did but it failed pretty miserably. Whichever one it is doesn’t matter; the result is the same. Let that be your litmus test for this quarter. Unless you are growing at a double-digit rate and whooping your competitors, I would make that an item of immediate concern. Fix it. Learn from the winners. They get there first for a reason.
2. Think short-term and long-term: Some technologies and trends are slow to mature. I remember being shown technologies and devices 6 years ago that are only now entering the mainstream and will take another half decade to really change the way businesses operate. That’s okay as long as you understand the timetable. It’s as important to know what is coming 5, 10, 15 years from now as it is to know what will be hot in 6 months. Why? So you can start thinking about your company’s path beyond next quarter or next year. Being able to see the changes on the distant horizon is probably the most important factor in any organization’s ability to effectively adapt to BIG change, if not lead that change outright.
Short term focus is also pretty important. Some products just come out of nowhere and take markets by storm. Their development might be stealthy, or just completely out of the way until a journalist at Gizmodo, Mashable or Elle discovers it and turns it into a massive success. Look for those short tickets too. If a horse you have never heard of looks really good two weeks going into a race, pay attention. You don’t always have to score massive wins to roll on ahead. A series of well paced small wins can have the same effect and create excellent growth momentum.
Keep an eye out for anything that will help your long game and your short game.
And remember: The sooner you spot an opportunity, the more time you have to leverage the hell out of it.
3. Be operationally nimble: When a platform like Pinterest pops up on your radar, be ready to seize upon the opportunities it has to offer. If you are a chocolate maker, a flower shop or a jeweler and you only just found out about something like Pinterest a month before Valentine’s Day, don’t put yourself in a position where your company can’t bridge the gap between potential and experiment in that month-long window. You can’t afford to wait until next year to give it a shot. Everyone else will be using Pinterest next year and your first-mover advantage will be gone. Make sure your organization is nimble enough to change course (or test a new channel, product or technology) quickly. If you suddenly realize that the hot new fashion accessory in Tokyo is fingerless gloves but you just received an order for 10,000 pairs of full-fingered gloves, be ready to invest in a bunch of Kai scissors and retool a bit as needed. Today. Not two months from now when you have to sell your entire stock at 70% off.
The faster you can move on an opportunity, the more likely it is that you will score a win (or avoid a catastrophe). Works every time. Spot. Scout. Keep your eyes open.
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