learn how to anticipate disruptive change

Surprise Doesn’t Come from Where You Think it Does

How to anticipate disruptive change

People often point to emerging technology as a likely source of how to anticipate disruptive change. The concerns we see at Prescient reflect this; from an IT security company concerned that artificial intelligence solutions will render the firm useless, to a biotechnology firm realizing that technological leaps may make their treatments obsolete.

And yet, technology is far from the only source of disruptive change. In fact, technology by itself, without the enabling factors of regulation, a market, or a cultural acceptance, is usually not the sole reason for change. So, in order to anticipate disruptive change, we have to look elsewhere.

It is useful to think holistically about how change happens

Competition and success can seem like a car race. Strategists are like race car drivers in competition. They have a simple question: Will they get to the finish line before a better technology overtakes them and wins the race?

In the real world of the uncertain future, however, the race-car-driver approach is limiting. Competition doesn’t take place on a single track, but in the undefined open field of human life.

For strategists seeking to see who will succeed or win, it is critical to look beyond the single track to the roadway and the field beyond. In other words, it is good to be holistic when trying to anticipate disruptive surprises.

Additional factors can make all the difference in shaping the future. Looking at the field of potential events through a wide lens can help you anticipate disruptive change.

  • Accidents and Black Swan events that affect public opinion can alter expected trajectories. At one time, many people thought the energy of the future would come from nuclear power. But this became unthinkable in the wake of nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl reactor. The public would no longer accept a form of energy perceived as dangerous. Accidents like these can also affect the legislative environment, as policy makers seek to respond to their constituencies.
  • Cultural shifts matter. Hospitals introduced hand washing for surgeons in the 19th century following the discovery of germs. Doctors were resistant at first, despite the clear science behind germ theory. Only when cultural attitudes changed did hand washing become an unquestioned habit.
  • The story we tell ourselves about the future shapes what happens. Our interpretation of what is happening can have a strong effect on what unfolds. If enough people come to believe that a recession is on the horizon–whether or not the economic data supports this belief–it will affect financial decision-making and ultimately spending habits. This ‘narrative feedback loop’ will end up shaping, or even causing, the event itself.

A Practical Checklist of Sources to Anticipate Disruptive Change

Most of us are aware that technology doesn’t drive large scale change just by existing–it needs to be mobilized or resisted by users in order to change the world. But we often short circuit that knowledge by talking as if technology alone were an agent of change (in headlines like, “Artificial intelligence will change the world”).

If you are trying to uncover how your existing operations could be disrupted, it may be useful to use this list to remind yourself that there are always multiple drivers of disruptive change. Considering different drivers of change in the same frame will sharpen your ability to anticipate what could happen in the future.

  • Regulatory environment
  • Legal environment
  • The past behaviors of institutions that will adopt the technology, such as governments, factories, universities, schools, hospitals and others
  • Political issues, or the surrounding political system
  • Direct competitors
  • Indirect competitors [is there anyone outside of your domain seeking to solve the same problem you are in a very different way?]
  • Marketing possibilities [what is the likelihood of marketing failure or success]
  • Accidents and unintended events that may have an impact
  • Ethics and values [does your technology raise ethical issues that society and government will have to grapple with?]
  • Cultural and societal perceptions [how will people greet the news of this technology or invention, what do they want?]

As you consider all the ways that you could be upended, you may also discover opportunities and possibilities for expanding your domain. Maybe you are ‘the disrupter,’ and not ‘the disrupted.’

Change is a constant in the current environment. If you are ready to discuss sharpening your ability to anticipate change, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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