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The "next big thing" may not be a thing
Part of a business journalist's job is covering conferences and trade shows. At these events, we're often asked questions that go something like this: "So, what are you seeing in the market? What do you think will be the next big thing?"
At a recent conference, a marketing professional in the logistics technology space who was working on a new strategy posed the latter question to me. He had already drawn up a list of "disruptive technologies": autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3-D printing.
"All very appropriate," I said, "and certainly all have the potential to change the logistics game. But they're not new; those have all been hailed as 'the next big thing' at some point. I think you're looking for something new and fresh." Unfortunately, I didn't have a suggestion at that moment. We shook hands, traded business cards, and moved on to the next conference session.
Later, it occurred to me that the next big thing might not actually be a "thing" in the usual sense. The next big thing, I realized, will be change itself—and the attendant need for adaptability and velocity.
Companies that once competed on the basis of quality or price now look to gain an edge by being faster than their competitors. Think about it for a moment. You need something. You've shopped for it at one brick-and-mortar store and two online stores. They all carry the same product and offer it at exactly the same price. But the brick-and-mortar store is out of stock. The first e-tailer can get you the item, but it will take five days. The second has it in stock and can get it to you the next day. You can guess which one gets the sale. Same product. Same price. The difference is the velocity.
That trend will only accelerate thanks to technology. And it will happen at a faster pace than we can imagine. In his essay "The Law of Accelerating Returns," the inventor Ray Kurzweil noted that "Technological change is exponential ... So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)." I don't know, of course, whether Kurzweil's astonishing prediction is accurate. But I can say that if you think it's tough to keep up with the pace of change today, you'd best start thinking about your strategy for the future. Keeping up will be a challenge in and of itself.
We all were taught that the path to business success was: "Plan your work, and work your plan." That no longer holds. Today, it's more like: "Plan your work, and then get ready to adapt it to a changing environment at every step along the way."
That adaptability to change may not only be the difference between success and failure, it may also be the next big thing.
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