A few years ago I was talking with a CEO about whether or not he should pull his team together to focus in-depth attention on the future they wanted to create for their company. He said, “beyond setting financial goals, I’m not sure we know enough about the future of our industry to be able to plan for it.” I disagreed with him at length — and we did end up working with his team to define their vision and strategy in a way that turned out to be helpful. But many executives have said some version of this to me over the past couple of years: how can we envision what our businesses will or should be when everything is changing so quickly? Shouldn’t we just be opportunistic: go along the best we can until we see a big shift clearly — and then pivot?
And my answer is: No. I’ve seen way too many companies lately make huge changes – in structure, goals, market target, product or service – in reaction to some perceived industry shift…and then change again a few months or weeks later when the next “big shift” comes along. It’s exhausting for everyone involved, and almost never effective.
So, how does a company move forward well in these wildly changing times? How can you chart a course toward an achievable future when nothing seems certain?
Just last week, my business partner Jeff sent me a wonderful quote from Jeff Bezos:
“I ve frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.” – Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO
I thought — exactly! In the anxiety that can arise from the sense that “everything is changing,” it’s too easy to forget that many things aren’t changing. And if you look at Amazon as a business, you’ll see that Bezos has done a bang-up job of taking his own advice. Amazon was and is built to respond to fundamental human needs that haven’t changed in hundreds of years and most likely won’t change for hundreds more: the fact our drive to get what we want, when we want it, as easily and economically as possible. Bezos has focused all of his creativity on how to meet those core needs; has harnessed technology to give us more choice, faster and less expensively.
When viewed through this lens, nearly all the new businesses that have sprung up and wildly succeeded during the past decade — and all the existing businesses that have stayed successful – have been based on meeting core human needs in the best way possible, mostly by taking advantage of new ways of doing business now available through technological advances. Google? People want to find stuff out. Google is the 21st century version of the 20th century encyclopedia (or the previous centuries’ tribal elders). Facebook? Instagram? People want to stay connected. Facebook and now Instagram are the 21st century version of our ancestors’ town squares, social clubs and sewing bees.
And much as people might rail against Bezos for destroying various segments of the pre-Amazon world economy (bookstore chains, for instance) — that has historically always happened when people find new, better ways to meet fundamental needs. The advent of mass-produced cars put millions of people (and horses) out of jobs over the first three decades of the 20th century; carriage makers, stable owners, horse breeders and sellers, tack shops. An entire industry, very central to our U.S. economy, was displaced. And in the never-ending quest to fulfill this basic human need — to get from place to place as safely, cheaply and quickly as possible — the next evolution, that of driverless cars, will once more put millions of people out of business.
An example: long-haul trucking. The combination of established routes and appealing economics makes it an obvious first place to focus in making self-driving vehicles the norm. In the U.S., there are currently around 3.5 million professional truck drivers. And think of the related industries that would no longer be needed, without those human drivers: over 7,000 truck stops in the U.S. alone; driver information services; companies that fit out truck cabs as living spaces…the list goes on and on. It’s probably fair to assume that upwards of 4 million jobs will eventually be made redundant through the advent of driverless trucks.
And fortunately or unfortunately, there is no turning back. For example, all the anger, hope and nostalgia about the coal industry is not going to magically increase our reliance on coal. The basic human desires involved — wanting to make and build things and keep them working, as cheaply and efficiently as possible — has taken us from fire to steam to coal to coal-powered electricity and now to natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear energy. It’s as unlikely that coal will re-find its heyday as an energy source as that we’ll give up our cars and go back to the horse and buggy.
Assume that what I’m saying is true — that successful businesses are those that continue to find ways to best fulfill core needs. That means that, as an executive looking to the future of your business, you need to continually ask yourself two questions: Does our business fulfill one or more core human needs? Are we meeting that need in the most effective and efficient way possible, given changes in technology and people’s expectations?
This is how it’s possible to plan for the future in these ever-changing times: envision a future where your business is answering both those questions with a resounding yes, and then build a path to achieving that future. Good luck, and I’ll see you there…
By Erika Andersen