Future Focused Part 2
Change on the Home Front
When my oldest child left for his freshman year in college several years ago, I knew things at home would be different. I felt all the feelings you’d expect – worry, pride, worry, excitement, worry, dread, you know, the usual.
What I didn’t expect was how much I missed chatting with him. When he was in high school, I worked from home and made a point to be available right after school. That way, both my kids could come into the house, drop their 50 lb. backpacks, and share whatever details of their day excited or frustrated them.
When my son went off to college, all I got was an occasional text, usually as a response to mine.
How does one ascertain from those 3 words all that’s going on in his head? So frustrating – and such a big change.
At least when my daughter left for college three years later, I had a better understanding of what to expect. Very little information and perhaps a long delay from my text to her response, leaving me to wonder if she was stuck in a ditch somewhere making it impossible to respond. (Spoiler: She wasn’t.)
My husband and I became empty nesters and the dynamic was different. Not better, not worse, just different. And we adjusted.
Change on the Work Front
On the first week of March of 2020, I held my monthly Women’s CEO Peer Group meeting at our usual meeting spot and we had a lovely conversation about all the things these women business owners were focused on that month – hiring more employees, moving into a new facility, difficult conversations with a manager, etc.
On the first week of April 2020, we had our monthly meeting via Zoom. Once we were all logged on to our (new to many) Brady Bunch Zoom boxes, what I saw were a bunch of stunned faces. Nobody had anything to say.
How many days can you stay in business, paying your employees, with no income at all? How do you run a puppy training class or sell furniture if no one can meet in person? How do you install the wiring for audio-visual equipment when you can’t be in the building? Everyone was beyond worried – this was a big deal and we had never encountered anything like it.
We tried to rationalize. It was probably just for one month, we figured. Shut things down and wait for everything to get better. At that point, our small Midwestern town hadn’t seen any impacts of COVID yet. It probably wouldn’t even get to small towns like ours – it would just be an issue in big cities. The government would re-open things and we’d be back to normal.
I think you know the end of this story.
Some changes you can see coming – like kids leaving the house after high school.
Some changes you can’t – like a global pandemic.
And some changes are more subtle at the start – but could ultimately have a big impact on your business (or your life). If you are paying attention to the signals the change is giving off, you can anticipate the change better and prepare for it.
The concept of “signals of change” is a part of futures thinking – something I believe all small business owners should learn and follow.
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.”
These signals of change typically start somewhat quietly, and you might not notice them or hear about them until they are more universally accepted. By then it might be considered a trend or an innovative new product.
The trick is to be on the lookout for these signals BEFORE the general public.
Why does it matter? Typically a signal of change indicates just that – some kind of change. And depending on what’s changing, it could have a huge impact on your business or your customer. Think about typewriters before the word processor. Or Blockbuster before streaming video.
If you don’t want to be the next Blockbuster or Remington Typewriter Co. or Kodak – then it’s time to pay attention to what’s going on in the world OUTSIDE of your business.
I know – you’re busy and you are making sales and you do have customers. The same thing was true for all of these companies. Until it wasn’t. And I get it – it’s definitely important to spend time bringing in revenue, supporting your customers and looking for more of them.
But… maybe you should be keeping an eye out for the next new thing that could disrupt your business model.
How do you do that when you don’t know what that next new thing will be? You look for signals of change. And you spend some time thinking about them and whether that change could signal an opportunity – or a threat – to your business.
For example, let’s talk about the topic that’s in the news every day now – Chat GPT and other similar AI chatbots. Is there an opportunity for you to use this tool to help your business and save you time or money? Perhaps you can ask Chat GPT for some blog topics relevant to your customer base. Or add a customer service chat bot to your website. If you know more how the tool works, you might be able to come up with all sorts of ways it can help your business.
But also consider – does this new tool create a threat for your business or for your customer’s business? If tools like this seem like they might upend the content creation market and you are in that market or support that market, then it’s even more important to be paying attention.
Signals of Change
When it comes to signals of change, all the news about ChatGPT and AI is not at all a subtle change. It’s more like someone screaming at you – “Are you paying attention to this?”
So how do you find other signals of change that could impact your business in the future? And how do you figure out what matters and what doesn’t when there is SO much news out there and so very little time to ingest it all.
First, you don’t have to read every article or the whole article to get a sense of what’s going on. Subscribe to an aggregated newsfeed, either through a newspaper or magazine. Consider sources like The Wall Street Journal’s The Future of Everything email, or regular emails from trusted sources like Forbes and Fast Company. Keep an eye on trade journals or information from your industry association as well.
Also consider a little online searching. If you are involved in pre-cast concrete, for example, then do a search for “the future of pre-cast concrete” and see what people are saying. What is changing? Any potential new markets? Or new competitors?
Here are a few articles where the title is (to me) indicating a signal of change:
- “How 3D printing is shaping the future of precast concrete” (American Precast Concrete blog)
- “After Testing Four-Day Week, Companies Say They Don’t Want to Stop” (WSJ)
- “This startup can 3D print a battery into any shape you want” (Fast Company)
- “Home Depot says it will spend $1 billion to give hourly workers a raise” (CNBC)
Being Future Focused
I read somewhere (need to track down that source!) that the #1 cause of success or failure for startups is timing. Too soon – people aren’t ready for it yet. Too late – too much competition and now you’re not innovative; you’re a commodity.
Now your business may not be a startup, but the same risk applies here. If there is new technology that could impact your business or your customers, then you don’t want to be the last company to adopt that technology.
If the Gen Z population is expecting their workplace to operate a certain way, then you don’t want to be out there desperately searching for help and yet unwilling to provide any flexibility in your working hours.
If you are the top parts supplier to a giant corporation in your region, then you don’t want to find out that they are replacing you with a 3D printer that will make whatever they need whenever they need it.
The signals of change in the news are only the first step in the process of being future-focused. The second step is the most important and the most specific to your business. What are these signals telling you about your business and your customers? And what are you going to do about it?
Some changes, like kids moving out of the house, we can anticipate and plan for. Some, like the COVID pandemic, show up with practically no warning, unless you’re a professional futurist. And others send out quiet signals that slowly get louder – but only if we’re paying attention AND ready to take action.
Note: Check out Part 1 of this Future-Focused series “Look Back to Look Forward” from last month
No time to look for signals of change yourself? Subscribe to my free Five for Friday weekly videos. 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!