The Importance of Seeing it Coming

In my travels this year, the one comment I’m hearing is “we just didn’t see it coming.”

The grocery industry didn’t see it coming when Amazon suddenly jumped into their industry and 25 billion in market cap got erased overnight.

An insurance company in California didn’t see it coming when the effects of climate change fueled a raging wildfire that took out the entire town of Paradise, California, destroying 22,000 structures and rendering the firm insolvent.

A friend of mine in Boston didn’t see it coming.

He’d worked his way up the corporate ladder in the college textbook industry, to become senior vice president. He’s running a $200 million business unit, with a staff of 20 people – life is good. He’s got two kids in college, a second home on Cape Cod, life is good. But over a three-year period, his unit’s sales begin to plummet. The entire textbook industry was suddenly upside down due to students buying used textbooks and colleges converting to new digital business models.

One afternoon he’s called into his boss’ office and told his services are no longer needed. At 52 years of age, he’s out of a job. He said, “Robert, I felt like somebody punched me in the stomach and I couldn’t breathe.”

It’s stories like these that are why I’m so convinced that we all need to take a look at how we “see it coming.” Call it what you will: strategic foresight, forward thinking, or managing the future. Whatever you call it, it’s nothing less than an essential leadership mindset, skillset and toolset for fast-changing and sometimes challenging times.

They don’t teach you these skills in college.

“As a young person, you’re not allowed to sit out the future,” writes Sara Kessler, in her insightful book, Gigged, about the emerging workforce. “When you see a trend coming down the pike, you know it’s going to hit you.” To say that trends will “hit” us sounds like we’re all at the mercy of developments. I would argue that developing a personal “see it coming” future scan system allows us to dodge bullets, but also to make better decisions and shape emerging trends to our advantage.

If you contrast those companies who “didn’t see it coming” with those who are jet skiing on the blue oceans of tomorrow, the fundamental difference is they aligned with emerging trends. They saw it coming just a little bit ahead of the pack and took action.

To avoid blindsides, I recommend you do three things:

  1. Look ahead of the curve – track the trends and pay greater attention to the external environment. Beef up your information diet and endeavor to “get informed” rather than passively “be informed.”
  2. Think ahead of the curve – take the time to connect the dots, look for patterns of change, and emerging opportunities. Ask: where will this trend, technology or Driving Force of Change be in 10 years and what might I need to do in response?
  3. Act ahead of the curve – Don’t wait for a trend to overwhelm you, take responsive action today. Disrupt yourself. “We must be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to get ahead in this fast-paced digital world,” notes Jeff Thomson, president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants.

Leading ahead of the curve means pouncing on opportunities, taking calculated risks, and turning your understanding of where your industry and profession and business are going into concrete steps that take you from where you are today to where you will need to be tomorrow to profit from change.