Podcast

How to deal with rapid change

    by Emma Pownall
    Marketing Director

In this show, my guest is Tom Cheesewright, a futurist and the author of “High Frequency Change”. Tom spends his time helping businesses deal with a globalized and fast-moving world, where decision-making just can’t seem to come fast enough.

This show was recorded a couple of months before Coronavirus made its mark on the world, but Tom’s advice is more valid now than ever: businesses need to prioritise agility and flexibility if they are going to succeed.

In this show, we discuss:

  • High frequency change – what is it, and how are businesses dealing with it?

  • Can we learn anything from other parts of the world in terms of how they're running their businesses?

  • What does a future proof business look like?

Tom’s book is called high frequency change, but what does that mean? I began by asking him this.

I guess you have to go back to the beginning of me being a futurist, and I put up this website and the phone started going. And it's these enormous companies ringing me up and saying, help, we need a futurist. And so I was trying to understand why. And you know, the first obvious explanation was this thing that lots of people talk about is that change happens faster now and we all share this sense we all feel like change happens faster, and I spent a few years sort of ploughing that furrow, I bought into the arguments of people like Ray Kurtzweil, the chief futurist at Google, that change happens faster now.   And it was all going swimmingly until I had beers with a friend of mine who's a historian who told me it was absolute nonsense - and what he said was look, you look back in history, there's always been these periods in the past where you felt like change is happening faster. There's no great argument that this period is any different to the past, you need to go back to the beginning. And what I came up with is this idea that actually lots of things aren't changing faster. We still bathe in baths, sleep in beds, live in buildings that look very much like they did 100 years ago. But some things really are changing faster. The media industry, actually automotive right now lots of stuff is changing at this accelerated rate, and what I tried to explain in the book was that actually change happens at different speeds and where you've got friction taken out of an industry, particularly by digital technology, then you get this accelerated pace of change, this high frequency change. It maybe doesn't have as big an impact as the big grand changes we look at, but it can absolutely disrupt a single business or a single industry.

I wondered what elements of change businesses are having to deal with today.

Oh, it runs the full gamut, basically. So I mean, one of the big things, I think, is the change in the speed of communication, and actually the friction in communication. You can reach out to partners across the world, connect with people around the world, much much quicker than you could before.  Share rich information, collaborate on design, and that has huge impacts on all sorts of businesses. You know, one of the experiments I do with clients sometimes we’re doing workshops, if I get them in round tables of like six or eight people I say, right, get your phones out. We're going to start a business in 20 minutes, and you've got 20 minutes to touch every single one of the key things you have to do to start a new business. Go and find the place where you can start a bank account from your phone, go and find a place where you can source a supplier from China, for whatever product it is from your phone.  Set up a website from your phone, a marketing campaign, branding, you go find someone to design it all.  And give them sort of 8, 10, 12 things to go and do. And you can do it in 20 minutes.

You know, the most dangerous thing that could happen a few years ago, if you are, you know, halfway through a bottle of wine and sat on your sofa at nine o'clock on a Wednesday evening with your phone in your hand, is you might spend too much money on something on eBay. And we've all done that. Usually cars in my case. Now you could accidentally start a business, half cut on a bottle of Barolo. And that's a huge change, and it brings new disruption, it brings new innovation in and it brings new challenges to lots of people who thought their market position was relatively safe. Suddenly these new challenges are coming up today at an incredibly accelerated rate.

So it sounds really exciting the way that Tom explained it, but I wanted to ask what challenges businesses are facing.

So I think particularly established businesses and I'm a big fan of the established business. You know, there’s been a lot of veneration of startup culture the last few years and it does have some good parts. But actually, if you look at a lot of established businesses, medium and large businesses, they tend to be really good to their employees more often than not, they tend to have good benefits packages, good training packages, lots of goodwill in the marketplace, a strong brand.  And it's those companies with lots of good things that are being challenged and disrupted. And what they have to do is learn to be what I call more athletic. You've got to learn to compete with those startups, compete with that changing world and changing environment, and particularly changing customer demands.  What your customers want from you is changing faster in lots of cases. And sometimes what you did last year, even last week, is no longer desirable a week or two weeks later. And so the big challenge is learning to make the whole organisation more agile so you can keep adapting to those demands.

I wanted to know more about how this level of change affects strategy and planning for businesses.

So most companies and this is a painful fact for me to admit are pretty bad at planning, and actually don't do it very often.  You get this sort of split between the really short term, the immediate term, which is very much about business as usual, you know, how do we do next year better what we did this year, and you know every company does that every company does a budget and typically a plan as well. And what we really fail to acknowledge is that most companies do it really badly.  Something like two thirds of CFOs say that their budget and their strategy do not align. Or if they do align, they do only at the highest level. So every year we're putting out these budgets and these plans, and quite frequently, there's no money going behind what the plan says we're going to do. So even at that most short term that every company does, and does every year, we do it pretty badly.

As soon as you start to step a bit further out from that into the sort of two to five year range, there's very little planning at all, actually.  What I tend to find is it only happens when there's some external impetus, something horrible happens, sometimes something good but mostly something horrible happens. And everybody goes, right, we need to rethink strategy. Let's all get together, have this sort of council of war and come up with what's next. But again, it tends to be driven a lot by fear. There’s not a lot of optimism and hope and possibility in that, it’s about survival. When you get into the really long term, the what does our company look like? What does our industry look like? What does the world look like in 20 or 25 years? And typically I found only the biggest companies do that. And the reason that only the biggest companies do that is because it's incredibly expensive and time consuming.   

Trying to go into a boardroom and convince everyone to take, you know, 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 30 days out of their working year, when they're incredibly busy, to think about what might be in 20 years is really, really hard. And so what I've tried to do the last few years is say, well, okay, the methodologies we have don't work very well. How do we give people a tool so they can look at the next two to five? And I think that's really the critical window, that two to five years where that sort of near horizon where absolute disruption can appear and turn your business upside down.  How do we give people a better way to look at that horizon? And I created a tool about five years ago that I've been refining ever since that says, the next two to five years the big changes are going to be predicated on things we can already see, on pain we're already feeling, pressure points already in our organization or in our industry, and where those pressure points map into the big macro trends that are sweeping through all of our lives, and all of our businesses. And when you find the intersection between those two things, then we can start to look at change we ought to make. And my aim was always to get it down to, can people spend 1% of their time doing foresight, which is roughly one day every six months, and I think leaders ought to be able to budget one day every six months to look at the future.

I suppose that's about stopping and planning that time in, like Tom says. I asked Tom how he would advise business leaders to move themselves to this sort of mindset.

It's really impossible to disconnect the sort of operational time sync, the things you do day in day out from that strategic time. And there's two really big steps. And one of the things that really, future ready organisations are doing is getting much better at delegation, they’re pushing power to the edges of their organisation, and letting relatively junior people take relatively senior decisions inside a clear set of bounds with appropriate systems, with appropriate training, letting those people take on those decisions. So you take a lot of the friction and the day to day junk of the workplace out, all those messages moving up and down to get approval. And people are doing that in lots of interesting ways. One of my favorite examples was a giant manufacturing company, who only really sold to other giant manufacturing companies. And they got burned sometime in the 1980s by one of their customers going bust. So they dropped the credit limit for all their customers right down low. And everything above that tiny limit, which is about the fraction of their normal order size, had to get like two levels of approval. And so one young woman in their finance team was tasked with speeding this process up, how do we get these approvals out quicke? And she looked at all of the systems and processes, how do we do this. And then she just said, raise the credit limit, put the credit limit back to a sensible level so we're only doing a fraction as many authorisations, the chances of getting burned are really, really small, and we overreacted to that risk.

But the other one is about automation. It's about systems.  It's about automating so many things that can be automated. And finance is a great example of this, you know, so many things in the finance function, which I think gets undervalued in modern business, it's treated as just sort of a hygiene factor, we have to have it. You know since it lost control of the IT department it has arguably been under invested in. You can automate so many functions in the finance team that releases the time of these brilliant data savvy, data capable people to not just be looking at the past but spend their time looking at the future. And start to do scenario planning, you can do scenario planning in the finance team based on real numbers and real figures, you can start to do that cross-business analysis. And that's really, really valuable in informing better decision making.

We often see that level of automation allowing people to do the things that people can do best that computers can't do, which is thinking, planning, and coming up with the answers to some of these big questions. I wanted to know who Tom thinks is doing this well, and ask him if he has any examples.

It's rare, honestly. I don't see that many people doing it really well yet.  But I've seen a few companies who have started to recognize the value of those people. And in some ways, actually, quite often the impetus has been about recruitment. They've looked at their finance team, they've looked at the age profile of their finance team and said look, we need to get some younger people in here. But the skill sets we're looking for suddenly are, you know, this financial literacy, data literacy, and actually communication as well. We want people who can take these numbers and take them out across the business, and they just can't make the job as it is sexy enough to attract those people.

So then they're looking at automation and going right how do we take some of the grunt work off these people so that we can make this a really appealing job for the future? And I think the ones who've done the best job so far, have looked at it perhaps not with an efficiency mindset, but with a really human mindset of how do we get the best people into this function? And the way we do that is by changing the shape of the job, taking it away from just grinding through spreadsheets, and making it about communication and strategy and analysis.

It’s really interesting that the most probable answer is technology helping this, but the question starts with the people element. It's quite a different view from businesses that start with the technology, and then expect that to answer all the questions for them. I asked Tom for his thoughts on this.

It comes back to this starting point. And one of the really big shifts I've seen amongst a lot of the C-level execs that I deal with, is where their eyes are on the horizon. Historically I think business has been very much about optimisation. Certainly the last sort of 50, even 100 years perhaps of business theory have been about optimisation. How do we do better tomorrow what we did yesterday? And increasingly, you're seeing leaders say, that's not enough anymore. We know that if we carry on doing what we do, even if we do it better and better and better, it may not be enough for our business to survive, and certainly not to thrive. So they're lifting their eyes to the further horizon saying, how do we build sustainable success? How do we build a business that's going to be successful, not in two years, or in five years when my term as CEO has probably come to an end, but in 10 years, 15 years and 25 years. And when you lift your eyes to that further horizon, it changes all your decision making.  It changes all of the basis for so many of your decisions and one of those changes is you start to think differently about your people. You start to think not about who can deliver what I need today who can do what we do today better, cheaper, faster, you think, who's going to give me the insight, the intelligence, the creativity, to take the business beyond where it is today?

And that really changes the investment profile. And you know, a really good example of this, so I can name this one – BMW – where in the past BMW’s success and brilliance in many ways has come from this constant optimisation.  We will just keep getting better and better and better at what we do, continuous process improvement.  Whereas now they're saying we need ambidextrous leadership. We need all our people yet we can't stop doing better tomorrow what we did yesterday, but we've got to have one eye on the future constantly and be thinking creatively and entrepreneurially about what's next.

I think it really makes the C-suite in that context move to more of a stewardship role rather than that short term thinking, and that short term decision making brings a lot of potential change for people. I asked Tom how businesses might manage that.

Change is a really interesting one. So you know, we have this idea that most people don't like change. And actually, I don't think that's true. I think our natural instincts as human beings is to be neophiles - we like the new the exciting, it's why gadgets get so much press coverage, its why news is news because we're interested in change. The problem is in the working environment,  actually so frequently change has been negative. Change has been imposed on us. It's been quite often restructuring and all these things that makes our job harder or piles more work on us or we lose some people we like or sometimes we lose our own jobs. And the really successful CEOs I think are recognising two things. One is that change is inevitable. And actually, they're going to have to change more in the future than in the past. So if that's the case, how do you structure the organisation today, so that change is easier in the future. And a really interesting trend for the way they're doing that is breaking organisations down from the big monoliths that they used to be into lots of little individual components.

And the best analogy for this is the Lego brick. You know, imagine you give a kid a die cast toy Ferrari, and they love Ferraris and it's brilliant and they celebrate and they play with it all of Christmas Day and all of Boxing Day. But the day after that, they're starting to get a little bit bored of it because all it can really do is shoot across the kitchen floor and get under your feet. Right. You give them the same car made of Lego now it doesn't look exactly like a Ferrari. It's got nobbly bobbly bits all over it. It's not as efficient as the die cast toy. But on day three, when they're starting to get a bit bored of that Lego Ferrari, they can rip it to pieces and reassemble it into a dinosaur or a unicorn or a robot or whatever they want it to be. And this is the way that I increasingly see leaders thinking about businesses, their business is going to have to change so why not build it to be ready for change now, rather than building it to be optimal for what they do today.  And you look at someone like Amazon, you know, Amazon's organisation is entirely built out of these little Lego bricks, each one of which is quite entrepreneurial, you know, it has a relatively small number of people that can build a community, they can work with each other, they can change relatively quickly, as long as they maintain the consistent interfaces to all the other bits of the business. And as long as you keep those interfaces consistent, you can chop and change inside these little bits as much as you like. You bring that down to the individual level, what it means is individuals in the organisation get to be more entrepreneurial, they get to have more control of their function. And so you look at a big manufacturing business, maybe you've got one division that does aluminum milling. Right now all it does is its stage in the supply chain for what that company produces, but actually go you know what we've got 10 of the best aluminum milling experts in the country, why aren't we doing this for lots of other people as well? We can go out and be entrepreneurial in this little function, rather than just playing our role in part of this giant monolith. And that gets really interesting because every individual has more control. And actually, the organisation as a whole can be a lot more adaptable.

I asked Tom what practical steps he thinks business leaders can take, who may be thinking that this sounds like the right way to move their businesses forward.

It's challenging because it is quite often a big mindset change and actually it requires a level of bravery as well.  Ideally, you need the support of your board and your shareholders. And in some ways, most importantly, the tier of management below you.  Who's going to support you on this journey, are they going to come with you? And so it starts with that communications piece and bringing people with you. This is what I'm thinking as a consultative level of leadership. This is what we're thinking, this is where we believe the world is going, I want your support on this. And then you start to get into that, you know, what does it look like for us to share this entrepreneurialism? And what practical steps do we have to take to free people's time to think like this? And what sort of training and skill steps do we have to take in order to equip people to think like this? So you then get into this right, well, how do we teach everybody to think like this and change the culture in this way? And actually, how do we free people’s time to do this? So it's not cheap, necessarily, you know, it does require some investment in things like automation, things like process improvement, things like training. But all of those things are incredibly cheap relative to the prospects of business failure.

I wondered what the impetus is for business leaders looking at this as a topic for the future.

Yeah, one of the things that I love to say is that business leaders are driven by altruism, you know that they want to do things because it's the right thing to do. Basically, this idea of sustainable success, you know.  I'm going to do this because it’s the right thing.  And don’t get me wrong, there's an element of that, every business leader is a human being, they've got kids, they've got family, they want the world to be a better place in the future. But actually, what's really driving them I find is a recognition that the way they used to do things isn't going to work anymore. I mean, look at the typical CEO, they spend five years in post. And if you go in there for five years, you might go well, I can get through five years just doing what we used to do and just trying to make us better, I can strip some costs out, I can maybe launch a marketing campaign and get us a bit more successful a bit more profitable. My five years as a CEO will be seen as a success.

And now CEOs are coming to post and going, I don't think I can get through five years, I genuinely don't think that within the next five years, there will not be a big shock that disrupts my business. So given that, am I best sitting here going, let's try and power through, or am I going to sit and go, I recognise that fact, I'm going to start preparing for that shock. In fact, I'm going to set out to leave the business on a better footing for the future than when I arrived. That's my objective, not absolute profit maximisation for the next five years. And it's that is that shift in mindset that’s driving the shift in behavior.  Don't be wrong there's some altruism there. They want the world to be a better place. None of these people - I've never met an evil, you know, a Dr. Evil CEO. But there's also this recognition that purely from in sort of slightly selfish terms if they want to deliver the best out of their time as a leader, they can't do it by doing what they used to do. 

In the global world that we're in, I wanted to know if there is anything we can learn from other parts of the world in terms of how they're running their businesses.

Oh always I mean, always, you only have to look at the radically different culture of business in somewhere like China, where you’re seeing this incredible speed of innovation driven in part by massive scale government investment I have to say. You know, and this might be a lesson for us there. But we have to acknowledge now that actually competition doesn't come from next door. Competition doesn't come from the companies we know about the competitors we've been watching for years, the ones who pop up in our industry press and our trade magazines, it can come from the other side of the world. And it can come very, very quickly. You know, a few years back, I did a talk at the organisation that sort of looks after kitchen designers.  There’s a room full of kitchen designers, represented in there most of the big names that you'd know. And this is a few years back to be fair to them. And I was halfway through my presentation and I said you know these days, you just go on Alibaba, and someone put their hand up and said ‘what's Alibaba?’ I said, right, let's just stop the presentation there. And I opened up a web browser and typed in kitchen units into Alibaba and you know, four and a half thousand suppliers pop up selling direct to the UK. And I said to everyone in the room I said, look, any one of your designers, any one of the people in your business tomorrow could source from China, set up a website, turn up at people's houses with an iPad and just start selling direct and they're undercutting you by 50, 60, 70% every time and still making a big profit - and just everyone in the rooms face went white.

You don't get that anymore. You know people see this stuff they're very aware of it, I don't think people understand quite the scale of the change that's happened there and the speed of adaptation. But also what's really interesting is actually even with all that even with our sort of the way we look at China and the speed of change there now, they're still getting caught out by this.  One of the stories I tell in high frequency change is about the hoverboard. The hoverboard was this massive fad in 2015. Appeared in about April that year under the feet of the likes of Justin Bieber, everybody under the age of 25 went mad for them. And I was reviewing gadgets at the time for the BBC so I started getting this flood of press releases from people offering to send me hoverboards to try out and we got one in the office and played around with it.  But if you wanted one in April 2015, it's about £2000 -  you just can't have one if you're 25. But fast forward three months and the Chinese manufacturers have ramped up, British entrepreneurs have caught on and suddenly you've got container loads of these things coming into the UK, not at £2000, but at £200. And what's happened is, everyone thinks of like these sort of massive factories that make iPhones in China, where actually the majority of the manufacturers are quite often clusters of small family owned firms.  And so they'd seen this trend for these hoverboards, they’d switched over their manufacturing to make them, they’d made a few tweaks to bring the costs down and ramped up the volumes. And sure enough by summer 2015, you can buy one on a market stall in Warrington for 250 Quid. Fast forward another three months though, and a couple of things happen. You know, first of all, the British government says actually, you can't ride them on the pavement, on the roads, in a park even unless you are, you know, Landed Gentry, there's basically no point in having one. And then two of them in the US blew up and burned someone's house down. And the market collapsed at unbelievable speed. And all of these small, family owned factories in China, not all but many, who had tooled up for this big upswing in sales of hoverboards were caught out. This was the first time they couldn't retool fast enough to beat the trend and they actually got caught out and lost enormous sums of money, many of them going bust. So yeah, I think there are definitely things we can learn about the adoption of technology, how fast you can change things when you put your mind to it. But actually, we have to be aware that these global trends are also catching people out all around the world, not just us.

Moving on, if business leaders are looking to empower their people to make change, I wanted to know if we need to think about changing the management structures we have.

Absolutely. You know, I think at the moment we quite often have these very sort of high friction management structures if you like, lots of layers of approval, lots of long chains of information, and it just bogs business down. And so part of the way to adjust that is to look at how information flows through your business. I quite often do an experiment with consultancy clients, how long does it take information to flow from a customer, to a decision maker and back again. And all too often you find that the decision maker is ridiculously high up in the business. And one client it took 12 weeks for the information to get the customer to the decision maker and back again. You know, and it's these terrifying time and motion studies. And so you can address that by accelerating information flow by breaking these big monoliths down into smaller organisations. But actually, the biggest change you make is around skills. It's about how do we give people the skills to and the confidence to actually respond to some of this for themselves. And you've obviously got to put in place the management structures and the training and the processes but you've got to empower people at the edges of the organisation to take these decisions. Particularly when you're asking them to be entrepreneurial. We don't have a strong entrepreneurial culture in the UK anymore. I think perhaps we used to, but it doesn't feel like we have quite the entrepreneurial culture we used to. So you need to teach it to people. And one of things you’ve got to teach people is creativity. And again, I think a lot of us come out of school with this idea that if we couldn't paint or draw, we weren't creative. When actually creativity is a muscle. It's a skill that can be trained, it's about recombination, it's about repetition a lot of the time, try it fail, try it fail, try it fail, until you find something that really works. And you got to teach people that and give them the confidence they can be creative.

But you know, I do see some really interesting investments in management structures that do that. One of my favorites actually is a housing association in Bromford based in the Midlands, and they have a sort of innovation team where they devote a fixed percentage of their revenue every year to innovation. And they have the team split into two parts where one team collects ideas from across the business and they come from all bits of the business, people who work in, you know, servicing houses, people working in customer service, these ideas come in. And one team validates the idea and puts together a proposal around it and passes it the other team who goes, who evaluates it. So you get this independent evaluation. If it passes that first stage of evaluation, it goes back to the first team who prototype it, let's test it with the person who came with the idea involved. This was your idea, let's build this idea. It goes back to the second team again to validate it again, and if it's proven to be revenue positive or successful or deliver the right sort of outcomes, then it gets put into production it becomes part of the business. And I love examples like that of that really taking that empowerment of people around creativity and entrepreneurship and actually building something formal around it and giving budget to it as well.

One thing that comes with innovation is failure, so I asked Tom for his opinion on how we get business leaders to be okay with the element of failure that comes with innovation.

I think it’s really hard, we had it almost sort of beaten out to us, you know, that you've got to succeed and succeed every time. And it's one of the biggest barriers to reinvention and creation. It’s weird because in startup culture, failure has almost been venerated too much. Like, you know, no one gets you any respect in the US unless you failed at least three times and blown 20 million in venture capital. Whereas you can't do that most of the time, particularly as an entrepreneur. What you've got to do is, is have a culture that says, we understand experimentation. Experiments are tests and they can have one of two results, they can have a positive or negative result. And we don't care about the negative results as long as you learn from them. If you're going to do the same thing over and over again and keep failing, you are fired, you are out. But if you want to go and experiment and you do three different things and get three failures, but we all learn a lot from it, then that's really valuable. We patent venerated failure too much in startup culture, but inside big and established organisations, we need to - I wouldn't say venerate it more - but understand it more. And say failure is just one possible outcome of an experiment and experiments should be constant.  Experiments are cheaper now than they ever have been. And we can collect richer data around those experiments much more quickly than we ever have done. A really practical example: My last startup was an analytics business, web analytics business. And when the European cookie directive came out, we wanted to experiment with a product that allowed people to manage their cookie preferences on websites, but we didn't want to build it unless we knew that people were going to actually buy it. So we took a leaf straight out of the Lean Startup book and put up a web page with a credit card form on it that said, if you want this, put in your credit card details and buy it. And then we deliberately broke the form. So that all we captured was their phone number, their email address, and then rang them up and said, look, actually, it's not ready yet, but if you are interested in this, we can have it ready in two weeks. And we made enough sales off the back of that broken form to justify actually going and building the product. And so, you know, big companies perhaps can't behave quite that irresponsibly. But you can do that in startup land. But there are versions of that Lean Startup thinking that you can absolutely bring to bring to an established business if you've got that right culture of experimentation.

If we look at the way the stock market listed business’s work, there's a lot of pressure on making short term gains. I asked Tom for his thoughts on how we operate in that world with what we're talking about here.

So there is a lot of pressure for every quarter to be great. But actually, there's also a lot of pressure in the other direction. You look at what's in your pension funds, and some of the big institutional investors actually, even a lot of hedge funds are after from an investment. It's quite often not quarter by quarter performance. They're perhaps a quieter voice than some perhaps the activist shareholders who are trying to extract maximum value in the short term, but they're potentially a much more powerful voice. And what they're looking for what they're driving for is long term consistent gains, or in other words, what I would say sustainable success. You don't get that unless you are building the platform today for a healthy supply chain in the future for a customer base that both loves you and trust you in the future. You know, all of those things. And so yeah, I'm starting to see more pressure.

And again, I was at a charities aid foundation panel the other day, where I was with people from CAF and from the Cabinet Office. There were institutional investors in the audience who were quite clear that, you know, we’re not just looking for short term returns. We are driving for this sustainable success as well and we have a very powerful voice. So I think the brave chief executive can seek out those investors who share their vision for sustainable success. And you look at someone like Paul Polman at Unilever who very much had that long term sustainable success objective throughout his tenure there. And it absolutely can be done with the support of the shareholders, the support of the board and the right shareholders on board. But absolutely, you know, the loudest voice in most CEOs is the shareholders. And quite often within that group, it's not always the biggest, it's the most activist. And that is very, very challenging, particularly when you wrap around that the media attention to quarterly results.  The speed of the impact that that has and the reach and the bearish attitude to anything that doesn't quite keep the markets happy. But I think the long term investors are there to hold and so you can square that circle.

I wondered what Tom’s advice would be to a listed business or a leader of a listed business in navigating this path.

You start the conversation. You start the conversation with everyone around you, first of all carve out the time to have that conversation and do that thinking, do the analysis. Say look, this is what we think the future holds. We're now doing this one day every six months, we're going to give you shareholders you know the ones we can buy. It's difficult with shareholders because you’ve got to be very careful about guidance. But you know, we're doing this analysis and we believe this is the things we have to do to build sustainable success. But start the conversation and start on different terms from ‘I'm here to deliver maximum results every quarter every year’ to ‘I'm here to deliver sustainable success and the business is going to be rewarding you in 10, 20, 30 years time’.

So it comes back to culture and communication again.

Very much so very much so. But carving out the space and time to have those conversations about culture and communication and so much you know, anybody who's been in the business, run a business knows, you lose so much of your day to just the operational firefighting and keeping things ticking over. I actually spoke to the CEO of a property business, who said, actually, I don't do that much anymore. You know, I've got a team of people around me to whom I've delegated effectively. And now my job is exception management. And that's so refreshing to hear, that actually that person has empowered the people around them and that empowerment has gone down through the chain of the business so the people around him aren't feeling like they have to, you know, they've got all the pressure on their shoulders, they've delegated appropriately as well. And those businesses are few and far between now and I think we need to see more of it.

I think this is fantastic for his employees, if they feel empowered to make the decisions. They feel like they're part of what's happening, and they feel part of the success when it happens.

And unsurprisingly, it's a very successful business.

Just to summarise what we've been talking about, I asked Tom what he feels a future proof business looks like.

So I talk a lot about athletic businesses now how do you make your business more athletic or how do you give a business the characteristics of a great athlete. And I think there's really three things that athletes have that the mere mortals among us don't. Your first is great senses. They're really good at sensing their immediate environment and what's going on. But they also have that strategic sense for what's coming next, it’s like the brilliant midfielder who can make that blind 40 yard pass and drop it on the foot of the winger without looking up. You know, it's that knowledge of the ability to read the game. And so, you know, Future Proof businesses, first of all have to be really, really good at sensing their immediate environments and speaking to their customers in the market.

And the second thing that great athletes have is this decision making ability. They process information very, very quickly. They move faster than the rest of us. And so you’ve got to be able to pull that information in, understand its value and its meaning, and translate that into action really quickly. So strip all the friction out of the business, accelerate decision making, empower people to make decisions, but get really good at dealing with data as well.  Get really good at extracting value from all the vast arrays of data available to us now.

And the third thing is you’ve got to be able to move fast so you’ve got that fit body that live body, agile, adaptable, supple. And that means structuring the business for a much more flexible future, where you’ve got to keep changing to those changing demands of the market. But I think it all starts with the leader in some ways, I'd love it to start from the ground up. But quite often, this starts with the leader. And I quite often give leaders this one piece of advice, which is go and get a new hobby. Because going and getting a new hobby teaches you something really important. It teaches you to be humble. It reminds you that you don't know everything. It gets you to think beyond the boundaries of your own business. And we only have to spend six months inside an organisation to kind of think that that's how things must be and how things have always been and always will be.  Go and start a new hobby.  I learned to roller-skate about three years ago which is an unlikely hobby for a 40 something man, but my kids wanted to do it so I did. And suddenly, you're surrounded by eight year olds who know 10 times as much as you do. And you spend the next - in my case - three years listening, learning, watching. You learn to learn again, you stop thinking you know everything, you become humble, but you learn to listen and pick things up. And those sort of muscles of learning are perhaps the most important thing in this whole process, is going back to learning and doing so from humble beginnings. So, focus on that athletic business, think about your foresight, think about your senses for the environment around you, think about the speed of your decision making and think about your structure. But start from that humble position of knowing that despite how much you know about your industry and your business, there's loads of stuff coming from outside that you just don't know and can't see.

I can't spend time with a futurist without asking for a prediction of the future…

So I'll give you two actually, two for the price of one. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the automotive industry recently, and there’s lots of talk about autonomous vehicles. I think they're further out than lots of people think. I think it's going to be at least 20 years until we start to get truly autonomous vehicles on the road, if not more.  They'll do lots of things between now and then they'll get better and better at parking and driving on motorways, but one that can drive itself completely from end to end of the country - at least 20 years away.

The second one is about how we access the digital world. And there's this growing consensus now in the tech industry that we're going to move at some point from phones to glasses or lenses. And lots of people say ahh Google Glass failed, and it’s like no, Google Glass was a successful experiment. It showed us that the technology wasn't ready. And it showed us that actually, we weren't comfortable with having cameras everywhere just yet. A lot’s changed since then. And so I think in 10 years time, most of us will spend 10 hours a day in mixed reality. So overlaying everything we see in the physical world, with a virtual world on top, so virtual information all around us. And it will be augmented by a personal AI who does lots of stuff for us. So just like at work, we talked about automation, I think it will automate lots of our home lives, no more shopping for the best energy deal, the best car insurance, the best rates on your bank account. Or even things like you know making sure you don't run out of tins of tomatoes to keep the kids fed with pasta. In 10 years time, mixed reality and you'll be able to automate a lot of that stuff.

My guest was Tom Cheesewright, futurist, business consultant and author of “High Frequency Change – why we feel like change happens faster now and what to do about it.”

See you next time on Business Futures.

This podcast was produced by ModComms, a full-service marketing agency offering innovative approaches to client challenges. www.modcommslimited.com

 

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My guest:

Tom Cheesewright, Applied Futurist

Tom’s work focuses on helping people and organisations around the world to see the future more clearly, share their vision, and respond with innovation. Using a unique set of tools that he developed, Tom finds the critical intersections between today’s macro trends and the existing stresses in each client’s organisation and sector, as these are the points at which the greatest change will take place.

Tom is a frequent presence in the media from weekly appearances on TV and radio including BBC Breakfast, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, 5live, Radio 4, and TalkRadio, to Newspaper features including The Guardian, The Times, and The Evening Standard.

Tom’s first book, High Frequency Change, has been shortlisted for the Business Book Awards 2020 in the ‘Leadership for the Future’ category.

Tom’s second book, Future-Proof Your Business, is out now for Kindle as part of the Penguin Business Experts series - the print edition will be in stores Summer 2020.

Business Futures host:

Emma Pownall, Marketing Director at Datel

My team and I provide our customers with a range of events, guides and tools that bridge the gap between business leaders and technology.  From large conferences connecting customers with each other and the software world, to sharing customer stories that explain what is possible with the right business solutions, I'm focused on sharing how people and technology can support business success.