Did you get the fax about the Internet?
It was generally agreed that the Earth was flat until Pythagoras shook things up when he first proposed that it was round sometime around 500 B.C. This rumor took some time to stick because communication was rather slow. There was no email.
In the 1980s Tim Berners Lee, while looking for an effective way for scientists at CERN where he worked, to share information, invented the World Wide Web. It took a bit of perseverance as Tim’s boss at the time said that he thought the idea was “vague but exciting”.
The World Wide Web is indeed exciting. It’s more than that. It has changed the world. We can cheaply and easily communicate with thousands of people at once, access a wealth of information at our fingertips and buy products and services at the click of a button. We are constantly connected.
At one point in time it was ludicrous to imagine that the Earth was anything but flat. Can you remember life before the World Wide Web? It wasn’t that long ago that the ‘norm’ was to look up information in paper encyclopedias, rather than ‘Googling’ something, and faxing or sending memos and letters in the post because email wasn’t invented.
Two years ago if you had said that you thought the biggest fundraising trend that would raise over £100 million for a range of different causes over the space of one summer was people filming themselves throwing buckets of ice water over their heads, many, at the very least would have raised a gentle eyebrow of scepticism.
Whatever sector or industry you work in, it’s really difficult to predict what the next big thing will be. We simply don’t know what will happen. We might have a hunch about the next few weeks, months or even a year, but much beyond that it is impossible to predict.
It’s impossible to predict the future because so many forces are at play in a continuous flux in time and space. Local and global economics, politics with both a small and a large ‘p’, developments in technology, new product inventions that change consumer behaviour, weather patterns, celebrity fads, a one-off breakthrough; the next equivalent of the World Wide Web which serves as a giant curveball thrown into the constantly changing mix. The world has never changed so fast and nor is it likely to change so slowly again.
So many entrepreneurs and businesses are searching for the next big thing. But the next big thing isn’t just there waiting to be unearthed – the next big thing is a point in time when a combination of conditions line up.
This means that the best we can do is to first focus on what we want to achieve. Then we must be alert to our changing environments, respond to opportunities as they present themselves and think laterally about what those opportunities might mean for our customers, our employees, our supporters, our business, and us.
Some organisations like CRUK and Macmillan have teams doing just that, scouting for new trends and then being able to take quick action like CRUK did to maximise income from #nomakeupselfie. A few months later Macmillan was quick to respond to #icebucketchallenge because they learned from being to slow to capitalise on #nomakeupselfie.
There is not a blueprint to predicting the next big thing, but below are some tips on how to be in the running to sniff out the next opportunity when the conditions are right.
- Remember that no idea operates in a vacuum. Get into the habit of spotting what is happening by keeping up with social, economic and environmental trends. All things are connected so what is happening today will inform future trends.
- Look for the trends that haven’t affected your business yet. For example what would the impact be if you knew that mobile was going to be the only method of payment in the future? What would that mean for how you develop your products and services?
- What the data says. What can you learn from your data, what patterns, trends and associations can you make from analysing the data you have already?
- Make it a habit. If you want to get good at anticipating and responding to trends, like anything, you have to practice. Find a way to make the above points a habit. Make regular time to think about the next big thing.
There is a chapter in my new book The Innovation Workout that gives some practical advice on understanding your marketplace and predicting trends of tomorrow.