Here we are already, at the end of January 2023. So much has changed in the past few years, and so many of those changes have become permanent additions to our way of living and doing business. If we think back to January 2020, I can’t imagine very many of us would have anticipated a global pandemic and all the changes that came along with it.
It might make you think that it’s useless to plan for the future when something like that can blow up all of your plans. How can we plan for a future we can’t predict?
Here’s the thing – it’s not about predicting the future – it’s about looking for possibility – and opportunity. Follow me on this time-traveling trip…
Let’s travel back to 2013 – Ten Years Ago
A few reminders of that time – Obama was the President, the Affordable Care act was rolled out, the top new words were “twerk” and “selfie”. We were all watching Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, and Iron Man 3 was the top grossing movie. The Xbox One was introduced, as was ‘micro-video’ app Vine, and people were excited about smart watches and bitcoin.
If I look back ten years, I would say that my consulting business was an afterthought in 2013. I was teaching adjunct at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and still mourning a start-up venture that blew up in my face. I had one kid in middle school and one in high school, and spent an inordinate amount of time following them around (or transporting them) to their various school and extra-curricular activities.
Now take a few moments to think about what was going on in your life ten years ago. What did your family situation look like then? How did you spend your time? Where were you working?
What was different for you ten years ago as compared to now?
What is the same?
Now let’s leap ahead to 2033 – Ten Years From Now
Now consider what ten years in the future might look like. Will we be working in the metaverse? Making purchases with some sort of cryptocurrency? Will we travel our communities via self-driving cars powered by solar energy? Will robots and AI have taken over many jobs previously done by humans? Will there still be micro-plastics in everything we eat?
If I think ahead ten years, I focus on my top business goal – to be more time- and location-independent and yet still making a difference for my clients. And I look at my personal goals (which are intertwined) – to travel more, spend time with family, and be completely debt-free as my husband and I contemplate what retirement looks like for people who own their own businesses.
What would you like to be doing in ten years? How will you be spending your time? And with whom? What would you like your business to look like in ten years? Are you planning to grow it enough to sell and then start some new venture? Or to expand it enough that you are employing 10x more people?
What does your version of business or personal success look like for you in ten years? And how much of it is under your control?
And Back to the Present
Back here in 2023, I wonder if the thought experiment of looking back ten years and then forward ten years makes you feel as if nothing has changed? Or everything has changed? Or somewhere in the middle?
Did you get to where you are today – as compared to 2013 – based on planning for this particular future? Or did you hit a lot of bumps along the way that changed your course direction?
How can we be adequately prepared for the next ten years – both professionally and personally? And is it worth the effort?
My 20-something son often says that he is just “living in the moment” – not worried about what the future looks like and taking things day by day. And maybe that’s okay for someone his age, making decent money at a job he enjoys. Why not live in the moment?
But as we get older, and have people other than ourselves that rely on us (kids, partners, employees, clients), it becomes more important to look at what the future might hold for us and our business. Research backs this up as well. A 2018 study showed that companies with a future-focused mindset outperform those without it by showing 33% more profits and 200% more growth.
More Profits and More Growth – Yes, please!
Note that the study’s conclusion was that firms that prepared for the future were more likely to out-perform their peers – not those that predicted the future.
We don’t need to be fortune tellers to be successful moving forward. What we need to do is consider the many possible futures that could exist. If we can see the possibilities the future might hold, we can find areas of opportunity that could benefit our small business.
Just as we could not predict a pandemic when we were going about our business five years ago, we cannot truly predict what the next five or ten years will hold either. But if we pay attention to the signals of change around us, it can tip us off to a potential future where these changes represent opportunities – or threats.
Let’s take the top news item of the past few weeks – Chat GPT. Right now it is a novelty that can be accessed for free and lots of people have lots of opinions on it. Maybe we will all have access to a helpful AI intern that can create marketing content and graphics for our businesses. Or perhaps AI & robotics will help us deal with the coming demographic shift that will make it harder to find future (human) employees. And maybe my software developer son should be more worried about Chat GPT and its iterations taking over his job in the future?
How can we be more future-focused?
Is Chat GPT just another example of a rapid change we could not have predicted? It might be hugely popular now, but if you were paying attention, it’s nothing new. That’s the idea behind being future focused.
How do you go about changing your mindset to focus on a future you can’t control? Look for signals of change that are indicators of the future but in the news today. What is a signal of change? According to the Institute for the Future, a signal of change is:
“…typically a small or local innovation or disruption that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution. A signal can be a new product, a new practice, a new market strategy, a new policy, or new technology. It can be an event, a local trend, or an organization. It can also be a recently revealed problem or state of affairs. In short, it is something that catches our attention at one scale and in one locale and points to larger implications for other locales or even globally.”
If you are looking for a competitive advantage, then make sure you are spending some amount of time looking for these signals of change in the news. Then consider what they might mean for your business – and for your customers’ businesses.
A Small Business Future with Chat GPT
What is a potential future for a small B2B manufacturing business that embraces Artificial Intelligence and the services of a tool like Chat GPT?
Even if this manufacturing business still relies on old-fashioned humans to design and assemble products, these new artificial intelligence tools can step in to address many different processes for this company. This could include:
- Providing customized training programs for new hires that can learn from and discuss the job with an AI tool
- Creating safety and quality assurance checklists for the production line to make sure processes are safe for employees and produce high quality high yield products
- Developing blog posts and social media content (to be vetted by the owner of course) that can be used to generate more awareness of the company by future customers
- Offering a chatbot on the website to address common customer service and new customer questions before passing them along to a human
- Documenting processes to create a Policies & Procedures manual and to assist in the process of seeking ISO certification
- Brainstorming potential new markets that have good potential for sales
- Helping write up job descriptions for new staff as your business grows
These examples are just off the top of my head. I am sure that someone who actually runs a small manufacturing business could see even more potential here.
What does your future look like?
Now it’s your turn. Spend some time thinking about what has changed in your industry over the last ten years – and what you think might continue to change.
Start with our new before/after timeline –
- What has changed for your business from before covid times (aka mid 2020) to current less-covid times (early 2023)?
- What will never go back to the way it was?
- What changes were accelerated by covid?
- Where did you find opportunity to keep your doors open during covid?
During covid, I worked with businesses that sold exclusively in person (furniture sales, dog training), businesses that sold exclusively to markets that were shut down (manufacturer of movie theater screens) and businesses that saw exponential growth (oxygen generation for hospitals). They were all dramatically impacted by the pandemic in one way or another.
And they all found ways to pivot and expand or alter their offerings to protect themselves from going out of business (or being too overwhelmed). And now the dog trainer continues to offer virtual training along with live classes – and a very popular podcast! The furniture business is having a stellar year now that supply chain issues have eased. And the screen manufacturer has expanded its services well beyond traditional movie theaters.
What are your signals of change?
If you were able to pivot and persevere during the pandemic, then you are already well on your way to being future focused. How do you keep it going? Pay attention to the signals of change around you. When you hear a news story about something in your industry or your customer’s industry, ask yourself some questions.
- Does this indicate a possible disruption for my market? Or an innovation?
- Could this provide an opportunity for me to find a competitive advantage?
- What might this change mean for my customers?
- Will this new change become more common over time or do I think it’s an outlier?
Consider using the PESTLE Analysis tool as a great way to look at the world outside your business for signals of change. Changes that could impact your business can fall under each of these external factor categories: Politics, Economy, Social/Demographics, Technology, Legal, Environmental.
Or let me do some of the heavy lifting for you. Sign up for my free Five for Friday Videos and spend five minutes a week learning about five topics that stood out to me in the news as potential signals of change for small business owners.
Either way, if you want your business to be around in ten years, then it’s imperative to focus on the future and be open to all the possible versions of it.
Looking for some accountability to keep you future-focused? Learn more about the 15-150 Challenge and commit to spending 15 minutes a week and a total of 150 minutes a month looking forward!