"The best way to predict the future is to invent it"
In the chaotic times in which we seem to be destined to live out our days, predicting the future, never a high percentage game, is a no win proposition. If this is so, just how do we as business leaders decide on our forward course, with the future landscape blurring into a fog of uncertainty just a quarter or two into the future?
Attempting to harness future unknowns through scenario planning is fraught, given the non-linear nature of our complex and deeply interconnected world — the branching of future trajectories creates a thicket of possibilities often too dense to model into a useful road map of practical actions.
I believe that the answer lies, at least in large measure, in creating your own local reality through innovation.
You're unlikely to be able to influence the vast majority of global forces shaping the macro-economic environment in which your industry operates, but you can render them less of a factor in your business by displacing them with forces that enjoy the leverage of proximity and focus.
What do I mean?
The levels of GDP growth, employment, consumer spending, inflation / deflation — and the less tangible but more powerful "animal spirits" they influence — will always have an influence on your prospects, to be sure. They either buoy or depress your customers' willingness to reach for their wallets. Disruptive changes in technology or competitive landscape? They'll remain powerful winds blowing across your bow and churning up the sea ahead, no doubt.
Can you stop these forces? Absolutely not. But you can overpower them with ones that you set in motion… if you have the courage to do so.
Your customers and prospects, appropriately chosen, are subject to influence by you in measure outsized to your economic footprint. Why? Precisely because your actions can be clearly and tightly focused on them — their needs, fears, dreams and desires.
If you amplify that focus with an inventiveness that presents them with a set of compelling future alternatives they did not earlier see as even possible, you can pull them into a local world of your imagining, built around your vision. Invent a new category of product or solution, and YOUR ideas shape the perceptions as to how that category works: what's important, what's not…
Global factors? Still there, but with muted influence. Suddenly they need that red iPod. Not want it. Not weigh the investment in it vs. a week's groceries. NEED IT! This is how Apple, born in one recession, has been able to thrive though this one.
This idea is not just about impressionable consumers and B2C marketing. If anything, it's still more powerful in B2B settings.
Your enterprise customers are just as uncertain about their futures as you are. Be their lighthouse. If you demonstrate insight into their world, and a clearly articulated vision of how you can make it better through your innovations, you'll get their attention. If you deliver on that vision, they'll buy. Do so more consistently than your competitors, and you'll assume thought leader and trusted advisor status, and secure a disproportionate share of their business.
Restrict yourself to only incremental moves (in product development, business model, process…) you'll get stuck in a reactive, poorly differentiated world of low margins and reverse auctions. Your "local" influence is too weak to overcome macro forces, and you'll be just one of the crowd of competitors.
Have the courage to break out of the crowd, accept the risks of innovation and leadership, and hold up a genuinely creative, high impact alternative to the current order, over time you'll be able to mold markets around your vision — in effect defining a playing field where you've written the majority of the rules. And shame on you if you can't win a game where you've done that.