Monday, January 02, 2017

Riding the whirlwind

One of my favorite apocalyptic texts is the saying that if you sow the wind you'll reap the whirlwind.  This is from the Old Testament, where the prophet Hosea is telling the people that they need to change their ways.  Obviously the passage has a rather negative connotation.  I think, however, we are the brink of some seismic changes and those firms that are ready will be able to ride the coming whirlwind, surf the tsunami, or benefit from the size and magnitude of the coming change.

Change is coming

Dylan said you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  Right now, the wind is at our backs, propelling us forward.  That wind is the increasing pace and nature of change - technological, societal, governmental, economic, ecological, you name it.  There are only a few times in history when so many different forces were converging, and so much change was accelerating at the same time.  This consistent breeze at our backs which nudges us along will soon freshen into a real gale, pushing many firms into competitive spaces they didn't intend to pursue, creating situations they didn't anticipate.

Change is coming in the form of new entrants, new business models, new competitors.  And all of this change is arriving just as customers are growing restive, consumers aren't quite sure of the future, our economies and even governments are reacting to powerful movements against the status quo and the perceived failure of economic integration.  Look no further than Brexit and Monti's failure to reform the Italian government.  The EU, once seen as the great unifying force is now seen as a millstone on the neck of Europe.  Many countries will want to renegotiate their relationship with others in Europe.  The Euro and the European Union economy is stagnant, virtually lifeless.  Voters have noticed and are changing their governments.

Change is coming in every region. The Middle East is in turmoil and will take years to shake out.  Old leaders like Syria and Egypt have lost clout.  New leaders like the UAE and Iran are rising and will have different priorities and relationships with the West.  China will claim the sea lanes between itself, the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia as its own, asserting and expanding control over a wide area and as a naval power.  None of these countries individually, and perhaps not even together, can stand in China's way.

Change is coming in transportation, communication, business structure and models.  We'll finally get the car that drives us to work, the smart assistant that has all the answers.  We'll automate more and more of the jobs that blue collar workers used to do.  All of this knowledge and automation will increase uncertainty for people with less than a college education, while creating more profits and opportunity for people with IT and finance skills.  Increasingly no one makes things, and no one will own things. 

Change is coming in business creation.  A firm started by three guys seeking to rent out a spare bedroom has a larger market value than a hotel chain with over 75 years of experience. Companies claim outsized market valuations with no real assets or infrastructure, while those with significant investments, tooling, and cash on hand fall in value.

Something is going to give

For students of history, we can look back and see that these conditions have existed in prior generations.  For example, just before WW I the world was as integrated and traded as aggressively and extensively as we do today.  Movements seeking to overthrow the status quo were oppressed but eventually won (in Russia especially with socialism).  People were leaving the rural areas to move to the cities in one of the first major population movements.  Economies were integrating. Yet through a series of misunderstandings and linked alliances, a few critical acts threw the entire world into war.

We aren't suggesting that the world is a few steps short of war now, but many of the same conditions exist as they did then, and at other critical points in time.  History has a way of repeating itself, and we have a habit of building the same infrastructure and expectations as in the past, expecting that the conditions and rule we set will sustain, and that disruption is difficult if not impossible.  Yet our rigid but fragile relationships, structures, financial models are coexistent and interdependent.  Pull the wrong Jinga block and everything collapses - remember the housing debacle from 2008?  Think we've fully recovered from that?

Just the opposite.  We face even more change and uncertainty than in that time frame, we've just done a better job papering over the issues.  Greece is still Greece and dependent on the EU while thousands of migrants move in.  Northern Europe pushes away from Southern Europe as the UK pushes away from both.  Russia moves in to fill the void and take advantage of the chaos of both Europe and the Middle East. The US has pulled back, moving toward greater isolationism.  There is no concordance of action or responsibility.  No global policeman.  In fact increasingly it's every country or region for itself, at least economically speaking.

Are you ready for the change?

If this sounds dire or ominous, it's not.  Fear is allowing uncertainty and the unknown to cause panic or doubt.  Confidence is predicting the future and taking advantage of the opportunities.  When everyone else is selling, will you be buying?

Understanding the vital forces at play in your markets and in our economies and world is important.  Significant change is going to be unleashed. Those that are nimble and agile, those that have the insight to see what's happening and those prepared to act will benefit, tremendously.  Those that can innovate to create not only new products but new markets, new experiences and new business models will win outsized rewards while those that "stick to their knitting" will be viewed in the same way we talk about Blockbuster or Tower Records today.  It's just that there will be more of them to use as case studies.

Right now you should be gathering the trends and assessing the scenarios, predicting what you think will unfold in 2017.  It will be more dramatic than you think.  Donald Trump and his like don't get elected to sustain the status quo.  There will be change.  Understanding that, preparing for it and anticipating it, and building the skills to surf when the wave breaks will be the difference between the firms that are lampooned in the coming case studies and those that grow and expand in the coming gale forces.

Sure, we can't tell you when the gales will break or exactly where, or which Jinga block will collapse the structure.  Each industry or geography will have a different assessment.  Understanding that it can happen and it is likely to happen, and playing out the scenarios to respond effectively as it happens, and having the innovation and agility to morph as it happens is what matters. 

We aren't sowing the wind as much as we are simply neglecting or ignoring the tensions that are building.  Coming markets will experience a whirlwind, and you have the opportunity to reap that whirlwind or to ride it to new places.  The choice is yours, the skills and knowledge are evident, the investment decisions must be made.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:30 AM


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