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It’s not disruption if you see it coming

Disruption. Alongside Brexit it’s a word that’s hard to avoid in any discussion about the future of business and the economy. It encompasses both opportunity and threat, with new businesses vying to be the next big disruptor and established players fearful of being disrupted by nimble and innovative new entrants, often while wondering how they can be more disruptive themselves.

As a futurist, my role is to help equip people to understand and influence change. In a nutshell, if you can see it coming and prepare, it’s not going to be disruptive. At the heart of strategic foresight and futures work are tools, techniques and approaches that help organisations avoid being disrupted while highlighting opportunities to disrupt others. Let’s take a closer look at some of them...

Scan the horizon

You won’t be able to see what’s coming unless you look ahead. On the sailing ships of old, a sailor would sit in the crow’s nest at the top of the mast scanning the horizon to warn of what lay ahead. Organisations would benefit from a similar horizon scanning function, whether that’s in the form of a dedicated organisational futurist or a role of project teams.

The horizon scanners would sift through all the information on emerging trends and technologies, and the early indicators of impactful future change, before sharing the outlook appropriately so people can act on it. This should certainly be a key activity in the early stages of any strategic planning or innovation exercise (for innovation, anticipation and design for future customer needs is a critical success factor).

In my experience, the key is to focus scanning on delivering information to support a specific project or question, otherwise the volume of information, or ‘scanning hits’, can become overwhelming. There are also online tools and services available that can help with scanning by aggregating hits from a wide range of sources and using a combination of human curation and machine learning algorithms to create customised reports.

Look over the fence

The classic disruption narrative often sees a young and agile digital upstart entering an established market and rapidly attracting market share from large, incumbent players. Archetypes of this narrative are the taxi firm that owns no taxis (Uber), the hotel company with no hotels (Airbnb), and the world’s biggest retailer with no inventory (Alibaba). Of course, there are myriad other examples of disruption at various scales within practically every market, from financial services and insurance to healthcare and education.

What many of these examples have in common is that the disruptors bring expertise and experience from other markets and use it to create new ones, disrupting the old order in the process. As a result, scanning must always be broad. It must look over the fence, beyond the immediate market and consider what’s going on elsewhere. Are there insights to transfer and apply in different contexts? What business models and technologies from other sectors or geographies could create new opportunities?

Follow the tech

Often, breakthrough technologies are the enablers of disruption. Think of how artificial intelligence helped Amazon sell people more, how blockchain gave rise to cryptocurrencies and how virtual reality is starting to change how people spend their free time. Organisations should be keeping track of such technologies and, wherever possible, experimenting with them. Only then can they understand the technical possibilities and how to use them.

Looking further ahead, organisations can use technology roadmaps to plan for future developments and understand the dependencies within technological systems. Keeping an eye on university R&D (and potentially forming academic partnerships) can also be highly effective, as can regular tracking of new patent filings, which can provide big clues about competitors’ plans and R&D trajectories.

The future is plural

As any good futurist will tell you, there is no future. Instead, there are many alternative futures. By considering and evaluating these in a structured way, we’ll be better equipped to take the actions and make the decisions that will help bring about the future we prefer while reducing the likelihood of futures we wish to avoid.

This is scenario planning, and it’s a fantastic tool for avoiding disruption and anticipating opportunities to disrupt. Organisations should regularly use scenarios as part of business planning and innovation activities.

Whatever you do, keep looking forward

These are just a few of the foresight tools that can help you avoid disruption. What they all have in common is that they look forward, anticipating what’s around the next corner. This forward-thinking philosophy is crucial to ongoing success because change isn’t disruption if you can see it coming.

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