By Scott Steinberg, futurist and trend consultant
Trendspotting is the practice of identifying, tracking and monitoring emerging trends — with an eye towards staying one step ahead of them. If you’re a small business owner who wants to stay relevant and competitive in today’s fast-changing business world, trendspotting can be an invaluable tool.
Trendspotting can help you meet customer needs and adapt to emerging developments before new trends grow in scale and/or reach mainstream popularity.
Mind you, as a small business owner, it’s hard enough to find time for everyday tasks in your busy schedule, let alone researching and plotting for which way the future is trending.
But it bears reminding that the more time you spend exclusively focused on addressing today’s needs, the less time you’ll have to prepare yourself to adapt to tomorrow’s market demands and challenges.
Given the pace of change, we’d argue that’s a risky gamble, even more so with industry researchers Gartner noting that the currently blistering rate of market advancement is now one of today’s top business risks.
Bearing this in mind, as we point out in Think Like a Futurist: The Next Normal, every small business owner should be engaging in trendspotting at regular intervals.
Thankfully, learning to become a trendspotter doesn’t have to be as difficult, time-consuming or expensive, as you might anticipate.
Here’s a simple blueprint that can help you find time in your schedule to help your company stay on the cutting-edge — and learn to think more effectively like a trendspotter or futurist would.
How to See What’s Coming Next
It’s no secret that, like individuals, businesses tend to favor predictableness and familiarity. That makes organizations and those who lead them prone to falling into comfortable grooves. However, a comfy groove can quickly become an all-too-familiar rut.
As it turns out, routine change is good for a company that’s hoping to keep up in a fast-changing business world. This means that it pays to make a habit of purposefully hunting for new opportunities to explore and strategic directions to head in at every turn.
Moreover, the future isn’t that hard to find if you make a point to actively look for it. Most often, it’s not that we can’t see it taking shape. Rather, we tend to ignore the market signs and indicators around us that point to changes happening around us until they reach critical mass and suddenly seem to arrive overnight. (See the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which has been kicking around for decades before recently taking the world by storm.)
Paying attention to trendspotting signals
Noting this, it’s vital to keep up with what’s happening in your industry, and in marketplace. That’s why paying attention to signals, which are little developments happening on the margins of your field — things that may even look weird or strange to you at the moment — is becoming increasingly important.
You can think of a signal as a small or local innovation or disruption such as a new product, market strategy or technology that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution.
For example: We know that the rise of biometrics — body- and face-tracking touchless technology — hasn’t completely upended the business world just yet. At the same time, we’re also aware that it’s rapidly being deployed at offices, industrial sites and manufacturing centers worldwide, and will cause a seismic impact in coming years. Trendspotters get in the habit of looking for signals like these constantly.
To do so, you’ll want to keep an eye and ear out for recurring discussion topics and conversational themes that keep popping up in news reports, conferences, client meetings, etc. — all of which should cause your business antennae to perk up.
A few simple ways that you can stay on top of shifts happening in your space, or the business world at large, include:
- Reading up on the latest news
- Attending conferences and tradeshows
- Speaking with your customers, employees, and partners
- Consulting with industry thought leaders
- Staying attuned to academic research
- Chatting with your peers, social networks, and contacts
- Tapping the wisdom of mentors and strategic advisors
- Keeping abreast of startup and investment activity
Tapping into Smart Technology’s Potential
Your company can now be learning from every customer exchange and gathering useful insights at every client touchpoint. As a result, it pays — both as a business leader and business — to become more data literate.
Thankfully for small business owners, a growing number of affordable online artificial intelligence (AI), data management and predictive analytics tools and services can also help you learn to spot and adapt to new trends.
Better yet, most are user-friendly and accessible (even to non-techies) and available in pay-as-you-go format, not to mention are able to readily integrate with or play alongside your existing IT systems.
Partnering with a Diverse Array of Advisors
No matter how good you are at trendspotting, you won’t be able to anticipate or catch every new breaking development yourself, and no one can predict the future accurately 100% of the time.
However, you can certainly improve your odds of spotting promising new movements in the marketplace on the rise and accuracy at anticipating future events just by making the process of trendspotting a more collaborative and communal affair.
As small business owners, we can not only become more effective at staying attuned to emerging trends and shifts in the market by cultivating more diversity of thought and perspective amongst our teams. (After all, it’s hard to think differently when everyone is thinking the same.)
We can also enhance our abilities by seeking out myriad opinions on pressing issues where possible and involving experts from many different domains when making decisions. In effect, the larger the network of trendspotting assistants we can tap into, and more resources that we can bring to bear, the more successful at spotting emerging developments and opportunities that we become.
Running More Hypothetical Exercises
Ironically, as we point out in new professional development and training game The Future is Yours, anyone can also learn to spot emerging happenings and shifts the same way that futurists do, even without formal education or training.
This can be done simply by making a point to routinely pause and consider what’s coming next for your business or industry — and crafting sample scenarios that you can simulate working through to solve potential hiccups and challenges before they ever emerge. Sample exercises that we often use at training classes and executive retreats to help business owners do so include:
Exercise 1: Brainstorming
Brainstorming 10 unforeseen events and happenings that might impact your small business in the future and discussing with peers how you might address them. For example, this might include asking yourself what if:
- Economic pullbacks or uncertainties cause customer demand to shrink, shoppers to look elsewhere for products/services, or audiences to shift their focus to entirely new competitors or solutions?
- Geopolitical upheaval causes temporary or long-term hiccups to your domestic or international supply chain and/or ability to get your hands on key parts, pieces or ingredients?
- New government regulations or legal rulings take effect that inhibit your ability to do business?
- Rising cost pressures and interest rates cause profit margins to rapidly shrink or current operating models to become unsustainable?
Exercise 2: New trends
Thinking up 10 new trends or innovations that promise to reshape your field, and exploring which should be top of mind going forward by asking yourself pointed questions like:
- Which areas of your business are likeliest to be impacted by these new advancements, when, how, and to what extent?
- How are you preparing to greet these changes going forward. Where can you turn for help if needed while doing so?
- What simple shifts in business or operating strategy could you make to address impending changes in the market or pivot to new audiences or spaces as needed?
- Who in your organization is best equipped to help you navigate through these shifts? How can you surface their insights and recommendations faster?
- Engaging in these exercises — essentially constantly playing a game of asking yourself “what if?” questions — can help you get a better handle on which way the future is trending, and the best plan of action to adopt going forward.
Better yet, the more that you make a point to role-play through possible scenarios like these, and exercise your problem-solving skills, not only the better at trendspotting that you’ll become.
How to See Farther, Faster
As it turns out, becoming a more effective trendspotter isn’t necessarily about having to get better about predicting the future so much as it is getting better about asking more pointed and informed questions.
The more you stay attuned to market signals, work to spot emerging patterns that point to where things are trending, and strive to align groups of people towards identifying new opportunities or challenges of note, the more successful you’ll ultimately be.
You don’t have to be exceptionally smart or creative to anticipate which way a given industry or market is leaning. Rather, just more practical in the questions you ask, more open-minded about your approach to solving problems, and more proactive about looking to added sources of insight as you work to find the answers you seek.