Future-proofing your business

  • Riding out chaos is possible with forward-thinking strategies
  • Use data to create sustainabilty


Future-proofing your business


DESIGN thinking has long been a buzzword within the startup ecosystem, but a panel at global summit GECommunity 2016 organised by the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), which kicked off today, put forth that entrepreneurs now need to go beyond design thinking to be sustainable into the future.

The panel, comprising Todd Robinson of Mazon Data Services; Eri Gentry, Science & Tech Researcher at the Institute for the Future; and Paul Excell of Accelerator Academy, moderated by Jan Bartscht, Co-founder of Leaderpreneur, discussed the topic Futurist Thinking - Designing to Future-Proof Business.

“The biggest danger about the future is being caught off-guard. Nobody wants anything bad or good to happen and not be prepared for it. So you need to have vision as your move forward,” said Gentry.

Be ridiculous

Gentry stated that being ridiculous can be useful when it comes to thinking forward and preparing for the future. She quoted futurist Jim Dator of the University of Hawaii who said ‘Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous’.

The inventors and first users of early packet switching network Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), who were scientists and academics, for example, imagined a future where store catalogues were online and plays and videos were catalogued in libraries and shared online. At the time, these ideas were ridiculous.

Gentry encouraged the audience to have a ridiculous idea and not be afraid to share it with others.

She also used the example of financial modelling for the future to illustrate how using data from the past to predict the future can be dangerous – economic models extrapolate a future that looks similar to the present using past data.

“This doesn’t prepare us for big shocks in the future,” she said. “Economic forecasting carries the risk of not seeing total transformations and disruptions, so the entire industry is caught off-guard and is not resilient to change.”

Connecting this to the concept of ridiculous ideas, Gentry explained how the Institute for the Future uses scenario planning that looks at different visions of the future – stories and imagery of what may come – rather than using models based on extrapolation.

“We look at the future through growth, transformation, disruption and collapse. This is a simple but profound strategy for both large organisations and startups to employ.”

She explained that being able to devise a strategy for future chaos, whether extreme shock or great growth, no matter they are ridiculous, will make companies more credible in the eyes of investors and stakeholders.

“Though thinking about what may happen in 10 years is hard, the future is something we can vividly imagine. So take what comes naturally and gather information from the edges – conferences and people you wouldn’t normally partner – and build an image.”

Don’t guess

Though the future can be imagined, Robinson emphasised that it should not be guessed at; entrepreneurs must use all data available to aid in their predictive analysis. “All entrepreneurs are in the data business. History can teach us lessons when we are analysing our products, ideas, how we build a profitable business and make society better, and who our competitors are and what they are doing.”

Robinson used home movie rental company Blockbuster as an example of a market leader that eventually failed because it did not use available data to predict where the market was going. According to Robinson, it killed itself because it did not know who its competitors were.

In today’s world, there is so much data available and accessible, which raises the question on what do companies do with all the data?

“The first thing is to understand that no matter what the industry, idea or product, data will be an effective part of your strategy. So don’t guess what’s going to happen in the future. You have to know,” said Robinson.

Knowing means asking the right questions and sifting through piles of data that focus on the basic four Ps of marketing – product, pricing, profit and promotion, he continued. Entrepreneurs should think about the power of their idea not just now but ask themselves if they have the right product today and tomorrow, if they know their customers and what drives them, and what customers are willing to pay now and in the future.

“Finally, ask how you are going to utilise technology to reach those customers on a consistent basis.

“Know the data that’s valuable to you and apply it to those four Ps. Justify your value proposition with your data,” he said.

Stay curious

Data can be used to drive exceptional performance, according to Excell. He said that innovation is made up to two thing – an idea, which is something quite easy to get, and execution, which many find difficult to achieve.

“You should be turning data into insight, knowledge and imagination to look at tomorrow,” he said.

Excell said that though people are always looking for what he calls the “rockstar Hollywood technologies”, actually executing the idea that disrupts the market on a very large scale is difficult.

Though the ecosystem still needs this kind of tech, using data to make small adjustments that add up can be just as disruptive.

Excell used an interesting example to illustrate his point – the United Kingdom’s national road race cycling team. The team looked at data to make minute analysis on athlete and equipment performance, and make adjustments. They also realised that the biggest contributing factor to athlete performance was how much rest they got the night before. With seemingly mundane adjustments such as making sure the hotel they stayed was a middle distance between the end of one stage of the race and the start of the next, the UK team was able to win the Tour de France over several years

“By finding the 1% or 2%, they were able to have a disruptive impact on the performance of the team that was sustained,” said Excell. Though the individual breakthroughs were not necessarily new, the whole innovative mindset made for success.

Resilience for the ridiculous

Though looking at the next quarter or the next year is essential, having the long view – looking 10 years into the future – is imperative so that you can create a vision for the business. To do so requires resilience, which Gentry points out can only happen with passion.

“Being part of a good team, having a shared vision and a shared passion will get you through hard times,” she said, adding that when the seas are rough, the captain of the ship must be the one to get the business and the team through it.

Robinson adds that good ideas are always resilient and that looking at what ideas historically are successful and why they were successful is useful. “If you can go beyond the ‘what’ with data and figure out the ‘why’, you will see that resilience is built into the DNA of the idea. If you can get the ‘why’ correct, you will right consistently on what you’re doing.”
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