Being one step in front

There’s an old joke that describes the real purpose for conducting your own continuing personal due diligence. It’s the one about two guys coming across an angry bear in the woods. The first guy’s focused on running faster than the bear. The second guy? He knows he only has to run faster than the first guy.

Seeing the future and what it might bring to your market segment, your employer, and you, is a lot like that. A good futurist would be absolutely delighted to get it “close enough” half of the time.

But all you have to do is see just a little bit farther, a little bit sooner, than the other guy. That you can do on a regular basis.

The technical term for what you want to do is “enhanced anticipatory awareness”. So what is this?

You’re behind the wheel, driving on the freeway. There’s really only two things you need to worry about: are there brake lights coming on immediately in front of you, and where’s my exit sign. No one can pull in from a side street; there are no traffic lights; it’s pretty straightforward.

This is why when you come off the ramp and into city traffic you tend to drive over the speed limit, curse because someone pulls out of a side street (where’d that clown come from!) and don’t even notice the pedestrians. Your mind is in a groove of simple awareness from having been on the freeway.

Now try a town like Drachten in the Netherlands. This was the town that pioneered removing all traffic controls — no signs, no lights. (It’s an experiment that worked so well that hundreds of communities in Europe have followed.)

As you head into Drachten, cars can come from side streets (no stop signs) anytime they like. Pedestrians just cross. What do you do?

First, you slow down — and your brain speeds up. You literally pay attention to more, trying to look out for dangers. As a result, traffic flows through Drachten, accident rates fell to near zero, and no one misses the old signs and lights.

That’s what enhanced anticipatory awareness is. In a business sense, it’s setting aside the “grooves” of what you know: ignoring organizational boundaries, ignoring market boundaries, and trying to find the weak signals that are warning you of potential threats and opportunities.

Music players, for instance, suffered from one problem: managing the music. The storage space on a music player was far smaller than the typical hard drive, so most users had larger collections than would fit on their portable device. Managing what went on the device, and changing the selections (both managing the device itself while using it, and what was loaded to it), was a frustration.

It was a fairly equal frustration until iPod came along. The click wheel made getting at what was on the device a little simpler. Not a whole lot simpler, just a little.

What made iPod the music player of choice, though, was the decision a few months later to supply iTunes (a product bought by Apple). iTunes made managing the loading of the device much simpler. All of a sudden the music player market became the iPod market.

Enhanced anticipatory awareness might well have shown someone at Creative, or Rio, or one of the other music player companies, what to watch for: simpler controls is a danger point; simpler management will create a flood of buyers. Not only would the overall market expand, but it would expand in a single direction. So we ought to work on that problem sooner rather than later!

Awareness takes practice. Fortunately, we’re also all consumers of products — so pick a few around your house and spend time thinking about their markets, their competitors, and their missing features. The practice at expansion this gives will allow you to actually see all the road signs, traffic lights, etc. that you live with in your professional life and just accept as limits without really seeing them.

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