I recently read something that made such an impression with me that I have to share it. I’ve been repeating it to those around me over the past week so I’m sure they’re sick of hearing it.
It is this post by blogger Seth Godin, titled “Gradually, and then suddenly”. Like most of Seth’s posts, it’s short.
The simple point is this: today we feel awash in “sudden” changes to markets, to companies, to people. However, we often miss the signs leading up to these “sudden” changes since they’re gradual and therefore pass by unrecognized. He sums it up perfectly with this: “This is the way it works, but we too often make the mistake of focusing on the ‘suddenly’ part. The media writes about suddenly, we notice suddenly, we talk about suddenly.”
Here’s a statistic that I ran across in the SAP Future of Business slideshare: Over 40% of companies that were at the top of the Fortune 500 in 2000 were no longer there in 2010.
While some of those may have been happily acquired, I suspect most were not. I’ll also bet their relative decline seemed sudden to many of them.
What’s the point for the rest of us? Here’s how I see it.
Anticipation is an active task. We tend to believe that the ability to anticipate is a gift, and it’s either something you have or something you don’t. I think this is the wrong way to look at it. Like love, anticipation is not something that you “feel”, or “have”. It’s something that you “do”.
This means we should set aside time to ask ourselves some specific questions, such as “how will my industry be different in three years”, and “if that change takes place as I predict, where will the opportunities and threats lie”. What should you be doing now to prepare?
It doesn’t stop there. Asking ourselves questions can be too theoretical if we don’t follow the discipline of writing our answers down and refining them over time. In an era where people are increasingly using commitment devices to drive better lifestyle habits, perhaps sharing your written answers with three people whose insight you trust would make your anticipatory thinking more actionable.
The good news here is that if anticipating sudden change is more about gradual awareness than it is about being a guru on a mountaintop, then mere mortals like you and I aren’t prevented from practicing it to our benefit. Asking questions. Reading insights from others in our industry. Setting aside time to write down our answers to our own future-related questions. Refining those answers and acting upon them.
These may be just a few ways to experience less of the sudden and influence more of the gradual.
Of course, if you do this well, some people might mistakenly think you’re a guru. Although you’ll know it isn’t true, I say grow a long white beard and just go with it.