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Becoming a Business Chameleon: Adapting to Change Before It Happens

image courtesy Predator, 20th Century Fox

We all remember in science class as kids the theory of Darwinian Evolution: survival of the fittest, or more simply, adapt or die.  Unfortunately, the fear of impending death is usually the case for action for adapting in modern business as well.  That’s what makes it so tough to reinvent business—when the pressure is on with the figurative gun to the head of the chief executive.  But what if you could adapt to change or anticipate the need for it before the hammer was cocked, before the competition?  You’d become a business chameleon, protected for self-preservation and dangerous to competitors, hitting them before they see you.  Heck, you’d be the business Predator.

Business Reinvention Ain’t Easy

You’ve probably read articles if not books on business reinvention as a strategy to keep evolving.  Easier said than done.  Actor Robert Downey, Jr. reinvented his career, but had to go through extensive rehab after hitting rock bottom to do it.

In Forbes, Bill Fischer talks about the poor success rate that businesses have in The Reinvention Epidemic, and for every IBM that successfully navigated the change proactively, there are dozens of Kodak’s that got run over by the change truck without so much as getting the license number.  The message is simple: reinvention is a terrific and necessary defense against business failure, but few know how to do it well and thrive in the process.

Recognizing Change in Your Market

In a recent article I wrote on Committing Nicheocide, I highlighted three ways to discover when it was time to ditch your niche, as my friend Jean Serio likes to put it.  Stagnation, negative association, and obsolescence–if two of these three happen, it’s time to bail.  Asking the right questions starts to lift the veil of mystery that enshrouds many businesses and helps to spot threats that, if not acted upon, can kill a business unit and even and entire company.  The challenge here is that this data is monitoring things that are happening to you, so at best you’re on the middle of the curve.  How do you get ahead of it?

How to Anticipate the Need to Change Business Direction

So in order to become the Predator in your industry, to adapt and strike on the leading edge of the trend line, there are certain practices to hone the skill of anticipation so you can act first.

Use Business Intelligence tools

If your business is heavily data driven, with high transactional volume, customer count, and number of moving parts like suppliers, it’s a good idea to use modern technology to crunch through your data and spot trends that you may not be able to otherwise see.  Business Intelligence (BI) tools jockey for position in the big data marketplace, and analyze your performance data and present information graphically to help CEOs see the company reality in real time and act to fix things, blow them up, and launch new lines of business to capitalize.

Understand that Reinvention need not be Revolutionary

Sometimes little improvements to your product or service can make a big difference.  We don’t have to go from walking to flying when sometimes a better way to walk can have a huge impact, and the good part is, we know there is a market for walking.  This kind of thinking allowed Paul Brown to come up with a $13 million idea of a better way to get ketchup out of a bottle.  Simple works.

Tap Collective Thought

Classic brainstorming leverages the gray matter of others in your company or peer group to ratchet up anticipatory power, if only you have the will to ask.  Often selecting who in your company is in on the think tank is the hardest challenge.  Look for people, not necessarily executives, who have demonstrated a desire to recommend change and a skill at creative problem solving.  Cross-functional representation is never a bad idea either.  Keeping the size of the group at ten or less will be a tough task, but beyond that and group think starts to become unproductive and time consuming.  The collective output of a well-formed strategy group will far exceed the sum of its parts.

Ask Future Thinking questions

Questions provide focus, and in order to anticipate change, you need to train yourself to step back from your current business world and ask future thinking questions that define both opportunities and threats to survival.  Futurists like Alvin Toffler and Faith Popcorn make terrific money predicting what’s going to happen next.  You don’t have to be famous or make a career out of future thinking, though, to be useful to your business.

Fast Company Magazine lays out an extended process for the basics of future thinking.  For your business, try asking versions of these questions:

1.       What are the major dynamics happening in the world right now?

Think of things like Russia possibly consolidating power again, aging baby boomers and the states of Social Security and Medicare, and the rapid move toward cloud-based SAAS services in business.

2.       What possibilities could any of these present for business? 

Entire companies have been formed on tracking the baby boom generation and their needs.  Recently I had a potential client with Ukrainian capital backing go south because of the uncertainty in the region, just one day after the occupation of Crimea.

3.       What are customers really complaining about?

Listen to what customers of yours and in your industry are saying, and read between the lines as to what they aren’t saying.  Often the initial complaint is a surface symptom of the real issue.  This is a bit like determining what business you’re really in.  I’m sure world history has had millions of gripes similar to, “How do we make these damn horses and carriages go faster?”

4.       What possible outcome would change everything in my business were it to happen?

In the Fast Company piece, author and futurist Jamais Cascio speaks to the importance of understanding that there is more than one possible outcome to any event.  So this question goes backward, picking one or more of those possible outcomes based upon how it would impact your business.  If you’re a banker, what would happen if the US dollar collapsed?  Get the picture?

These questions are simply a few to get started.  If you’re not asking them, you can bet that someone in your industry is.

This entire process starts you down the road of anticipating change, usually outside of your control, that may impact your business in the years ahead.  By getting out of the day to day and going through this process, you start to arm yourself with the chameleon like weapons to not only defend your position, but seize opportunity to be a market leader.

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