“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
So said the Red Queen to Alice when describing the nature of Looking Glass Land and it should be heeded by us, here, in Glass Tower Land.
The “Red Queen Hypothesis”, coined by an evolutionary scientist, describes the phenomenon “that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment.”
In other words, in the natural world, it’s not enough to compete with your direct competition (for romantic privileges over your own species), you must also compete with an ever-changing number of organisms that are linked to your ability to survive and thrive: prey, predators, habitat and so on.
This phenomenon is driven by co-evolution: the simultaneous evolution of multiple interdependent species which in turn continually change the environment in which they live. Which feels a lot like the business world we operate in today.
The Internet Age has already racked up an impressive pile of disintermediated titans but, as was brilliantly covered by the Economist’s Shumpeter column this weekend, things are just getting warmed up as The Internet of Things is going main stream: The number of devices connected to the internet will grow from roughly 5 billion today to 21 billion by 2020.
Driven by the cyclonic growth of cloud computing and the declining cost of hardware, manufacturers can afford to stuff previously “dumb” objects (spoons, slippers, banks) with all manner of sensors and silicon which means there are new opportunities for entrepreneurs to rethink almost every aspect of our daily lives such as…snacks that order themselves when they run out. (Done.) Or a tennis racquet that helps you improve your serve. (Done.) Even a heart rate monitor that tells you who in your social group annoys you most. (Done.)
As these new Internet Enabled Devices emerge, new ecosystems can spring up around them…the connected food could keep a health insurer up to date with your salt and fat intake; the racquet could link to a drone to record film and monitor your footwork around the court as a virtual coach; the heart-rate monitor could block email and calls from your annoying (ex)friends.
This is co-evolution and is going to drive a level of business environmental change that is hard to grasp at a personal level, let alone at a board-level (which explains the glacial drag of institutional inertia in the 90% of companies that need to change).
The only thing we can predict with a strong I’m-betting-my-career-on-it probability is that everything will become increasingly complex and unpredictable.
Fortunately for us, complexity and unpredictability is something we humans are rather good at dealing with but, alas, because we’ve spent the last hundred years largely perfecting systems that turn people into automatons, it’s going to require some fundamental reimagining of business processes and structure.
It will be the ability of companies to deal with these new realities that separates the Kodac-asaurs from the Instragr-apes.
Five things to mull over:
Culture owns strategy: In order for a business to absorb the complexity of an unpredictable business environment, you’ll need scale your ability to do complex things…luckily people are really good at this. Get everyone engaged in the plan, clear on their role and support them with processes and platforms that allow them to solve problems and attack opportunities.
Your strategy will be driven by the day-to-day insight, successes and failures reported back by your people: keep them happy.
Be Antifragile: An adaptive business isn’t one that’s robust, it’s Antifragile! That means, “to benefit from shocks; to thrive and grow from uncertainly and in addition…have the last word”. As in, the rougher it gets, the tougher you get.
You’re not in Kansas anymore: Imagine your business environment has nothing to do with your category. See the world through the eyes of your customer and understand your importance to them relative to everything else in their world.
Make a map: Look at your company’s value chain and map the value of the individual elements against what’s available in the wider world. E.g. If you can see that the core value-drivers of your business are being given away by other businesses – it’s time to act.
Go looking for Inertia: It’s there as it always is. It might even be in you. When markets change at an exponential rate, six months of delay could make the difference between you having a competitive edge in an entirely new category or being dead.
And finally, remember that your brand will be more important than ever in a fluid business environment.
In the long-view, the brand is an embodiment of the company you want to be. In the day-to-day, it’s the embodiment of the organising principles that will guide the decision making of a more fluid and autonomous workforce.
Stretch and test your brand, spend time imagining what your brand would stand for in different categories – you may well end up there sooner than you think.
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