Trend Tracking: Six Essential Steps for Spotting Your Next Opportunity

Robert Tucker

Robert Tucker

Driving Growth Through Innovation

I once asked Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, what led him to start the company back in 1971. He explained that, at the time, he was running a company at the Little Rock, Arkansas, airport, refurbishing executive aircraft. It was there he began to notice that with increasing frequency, business people were showing up at his company to see if they could charter one of his planes to get some “time sensitive” shipment someplace in a hurry. “The existing freight forwarders hadn’t noticed this unmet need,” he told me. “To us it seemed like an huge opportunity.”

Smith found a need and filled it. And he acted. The Opportunity Mindset he embodies is becoming a touchstone of success in the Digital Age. When you look for it, you see it everywhere. “It was our reading of trends that led us to make this move,” Filippo Passarini, the chief information officer at Procter & Gamble told me when I interviewed him for the book Innovation is Everybody’s Business. “One of our pillars is thinking out in the future, anticipating what’s coming, and then making our move.” By thinking ahead of the curve, Passarini was able to reorganize Procter’s back office operations, and eliminate over a billion dollars in costs.

Here is a 6-step trend tracking process we use with clients to spot opportunities in change, and avoid being blindsided by disruption:

1. Observe trends in your daily life. Innovators are noticers above all. They are interested in everything. They take in more information. They read voraciously. They ask questions. They question assumptions. So step one is to start noticing more wherever you are, wherever you go. Track consumer trends, technology trends, social trends, global trends, economic trends and political trends.

2. Project out ahead. Ask yourself: where will this trend will be three, five and ten years out? For example, take the artificial intelligence industry. Today, A.I. is said to be at the same stage of development as the Internet in the mid-1990’s. Yet, more and more products and services have A.I. capability built into them all the time. The industry is expected to balloon from $8 billion in revenue today to $47 billion in 2020. Huge  opportunities will accrue to those who are willing to project out ahead, then make their move.

3. Consider the larger impacts of the trend, technology or disruption. In other words, who’s going to be affected? Who will benefit from this development and who might lose out? Take driverless cars: five years ago where were they? Now early versions are available for purchase at your local dealership. Now consider the impacts yet to come. For example, if you’ve got young children; will they even need a driver license? Will the younger generation choose not to own a car? Perhaps they’ll simply order a ride with their phone when they need one. And how about auto insurance companies? With fewer and fewer car owners, and fewer accidents, what happens to them? And what will our roads and transportation systems need to do differently? By considering the societal impacts of a trend or technology, it gives you a big picture perspective.

4. Do a SWOT Analysis. Now think about the trend from the perspective of your career, your family and your organization. Big question: how fast will disruption happen to those who don’t handle this trend right? Take, for example, the 3D Printing trend. If you’re a manufacturer, you may be sensing this new capability is a potential game changer for your firm. So you’ll want to perform an initial SWOT analysis with an emphasis on the speed of change. Examine your company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats that 3D Printing might pose. Look at how this new way of making things might or could impact your business and your industry. How fast will all this happen? For a given business, here’s how fast it can happen: The U.S. hearing aid industry converted to 100 percent additive manufacturing in less than 500 days, according to the Harvard Business Review, and not one company that stuck to traditional manufacturing methods survived. Concludes HBR: “Managers will need to determine whether it’s wise to wait for this fast-evolving technology to mature before making certain investments or whether the risk of waiting is too great.”

5. Research early responses to the trend. As part of your SWOT analysis, do a Google search. In today’s connected world, by the time you identify a trend or development as noteworthy, somebody somewhere is probably already acting on it.– They may be around the world, or right in your community. But your response to the trend can benefit from their experience.

6. Embrace the Opportunity Mindset. Come back to the “O” in the SWOT acronym. After you review your firm’s strengths and weaknesses, and after you’ve sized up the threats inherent in the technology or the trend, lay your findings on the table, and then let your creative juices flow. Challenge yourself and your colleagues with a series of questions. How might we capitalize on this trend? How can we add value to the customer vis. a vis. this trend? If it’s a disruption bearing down on you, the question might be: how can we take these lemons and make lemonade?

In today world, it’s all too easy to miss the trends. Just ask Blockbuster, Blackberry, Nokia, Kodak, Circuit City and a host of others. By incorporating this 6-step process into your routine, you can leapfrog your competition and avoid getting blindsided by change.

Seven Strategies for Generating Ideas
How do organizations come up with new ideas? And how do they use those ideas to create successful new products, services, businesses, and solutions? To answer these questions, a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York spent time observing radical innovation projects such as IBM's silicon-germanium devices, GE...
Read More
The Four Modes of Thinking and How They Impact Performance
Hi there, this is your brain speaking. Just wondering what thinking mode you are operating in today? Seems simple, but it's important to know what's going on up there. Success in today's hyper-competitive world depends on what's happening upstairs in that frontal lobe of your brain where problem-solving, creativity and other cognitive fu...
Read More
Seven Fundamental Leadership and Innovation Skills
You don't need a crystal ball to see that the world of work is changing. According to astudy from McKinsey Global Institute, almost half the jobs people currently perform have the potential to be automated by currently existing technology. It sort of makes you wonder: what kind of work will be left for humans to do? The answer:practice us...
Read More
How Crowdsourcing Can Enhance Innovation Performance
Article first published asHow Crowdsourcing Can Enhance Innovation Performanceon Forbes.com. Disruption and digitization are changing the game for more and more industries, and more and more companies. As a result, traditional ways of approaching innovation are coming up short. What I'm beginning to see is that there's a new way of prac...
Read More
Are You Indispensable at Work? Seven Workplace Skills to Master
How to make innovative thinking and strategic workplace skills your ticket to success In a time of economic disruption, unprecedented downsizings, budgetary cutbacks and the constant pressure to outsource more and more routine functions (and the employees who perform them), advice on professional survival always seems to convey the same tired...
Read More
How To Build Your Personal Innovation Strategy
Article first published asHow To Build Your Personal Innovation Strategyon Forbes. Most of the discussion about disruption these days revolves around companies, less about the impact on people's lives. In a time of exponential change and dislocation, it's more important than ever to design a personal development road-map to keep you on ...
Read More
Winning on Shark Tank: Nine Strategies for Selling Your Bright Ideas
Later this week at a resort hotel in Huntington Beach, California, a group of managers froma $2 billion program and construction management company will host aShark Tankcontest to conclude their two day conference. The winning team will receive funding to move forward with their concept, plaques, and heaps of praise from peers andthe company's C...
Read More
Six Innovation Leadership Skills Everybody Needs To Master
You don't need a crystal ball to see that the world of work is changing. According to an importantnew study from McKinsey Global Institute, almost half the jobs people currently perform have the potential to be automated by currently existing technology. It sort of makes you wonder: what kind of work will be left for humans to do? The answer:...
Read More
Seven Fundamentals of a Winning Innovation Team
Sooner or later, you're going to be asked to lead an innovation team. This will be your time to shine, if you're up to the challenge. The distinguishing aspect of leading a special purpose team is that you're not in control, you can only influence behavior. You're tasked with figuring out how to do something new, so you and your mates are going ...
Read More
Trend Tracking: Six Essential Steps for Spotting Your Next Opportunity
I once asked Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, what led him to start the company back in 1971. He explained that, at the time, he was running a company at the Little Rock, Arkansas, airport, refurbishing executive aircraft. It was there he began to notice that with increasing frequency, business people were showing up at his company to see if th...
Read More