Are You Future-Ready?

Three questions for business leaders

I tend to think several years ahead.

It’s a curse.

When I was five, I talked to my parents about attending law school. When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a
computer program on a Commodore 64 to help my aunt do scheduling for her job. When I was in college ... well, when I was in college, I watched a lot of “Friends” and gained weight.

But when I started Next Gen in ’98, I was able to turn my future-focus—my obsession with tomorrow’s technology and trends—into a business.

Being a futurist is like knowing a language that others can understand but don’t speak.

And yet, if there was ever a time to have a point of view about the future, now is that time. The “Great Unraveling” is remaking entire businesses, industries and societies. When the new landscape is shaped, how will you—and your company—be positioned?

Today, I notice a growing gap between leaders and companies that are “on trend” and those that are not. And the chasm is getting wider as the pace of change accelerates. So I offer to you—my Madison sojourners—three questions to ask yourselves as you navigate the future:

1. Who’s your customer?
If you do business in America, your customer base is shifting.

Need proof? Look at photos from the McCain-for-president rallies and the Obama-for-president rallies. McCain’s crowds were older white folks; Obama’s crowds were younger and more brown. The graying and the browning of America is the central demographic trend facing America’s future. Census data show that racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 83 percent of America’s population growth the last decade.

So if you’re an older white guy gazing out a corner office thinking about how to attract next-gen customers, here’s a hint: they don’t look like you.

If you do business in Wisconsin, however, old white people are our fastest- growing demographic. The Wisconsin Department of Administration reports that by 2035, there will be a 108 percent increase in 65- to 84- year-olds, and a 133 percent increase in 85-plus.
Centenarians—those who reach their 100th birthday—will grow a whopping 477.5 percent.

P.S. During this same stretch, the number of 25- to 44-year-olds will decline by .7 percent.

2. What’s your relationship to social media?
I recently heard an executive say, “I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what people had for breakfast.” I bet this is what dethroned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was saying a couple of months ago as his nation’s next generation was self-organizing a revolution.

I’m not saying you have to be ON Twitter (although I wish you would ... just try it; it doesn’t hurt), but you must respect the incredible power of the social graph. Don’t fight it; acknowledge it, and find a way to make it work for your clients and your business.

3. Do you have the cojones to stop working on a declining business and redirect resources to a business that does work?
Coca-Cola was invented as a cough syrup. Motorola is a word mash-up for “motoring victrola,” a nod to one of the brand’s first phonographs.

In both of these businesses—and in thousands more—leaders had to continually realign resources away from companies that didn’t work and toward ideas or markets that could.

As the world contracts, I see business leaders getting stuck in “life support thinking.” They cut costs. They offer specials. They rabidly try to get back in touch with the customers they’ve taken for granted. They’re doing everything they can to stay alive.

C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel write in Competing for the Future: “We find few senior management teams that spend as much time on opportunity management as they do on operations management.”

The future belongs to those who can look today’s realities squarely in the face and say, “I can work with that.”

Go, be that leader.

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Next Generation Consulting, a Madison-based firm that helps clients face—and navigate—the future.

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