Startup disruption to accelerate in 2015, says expert

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Scott Steinberg is a storied tech industry consultant and one of America’s leading futurists. He’s penned books and advised Fortune 500 leaders. Red Herring asks him what to look forward to in 2015.

RH: We’re just about to arrive in 2015: what’s your biggest tech trend for the new year?

SS: It’s the increasing realization that uncertainty is the only certainty. Disruption continues to happen at an accelerated pace. The technology industry tends to lead in the introduction of tools, new platforms, interactions and cultural shifts. It’s increasingly clear that the future is not headed in one but many different directions.

The challenge for businesses trying to operate today is that there are so many choices, and there’s no single right decision. And if you do make the right decision it can turn on a dime. What’s fascinating is seeing how many innovators out there are beginning to explore new solutions.

You see Amazon extending into voice-controlled speakers and so on, and you begin to realize that more and more companies are looking at playing in different spaces. We can no longer be comfortable being a single player. We don’t know what the future holds.

RH: Are companies becoming myopic as a result of that change?

It used to be all about three-year plans. If you were to bring that up in a meeting today you’d be chuckled at. Now it’s almost at the three-month-plan stage. Whether you’re in academics, healthcare, manufacturing or whatever, people are looking at the technology field and asking what it is forcing them to constantly evolve, and what methods can we learn from them. Even Campbell’s Soups have hosted a hackathon.

Continuous change is the new normal for businesses. The only thing that’s predictable is that things will be unpredictable and uncertain. This research, from IBM, came out about five years ago. So now you could argue that the new normal is more normal than that! Companies are continually having to move several steps ahead, continually float new ideas and solutions, and continually be open-minded with ways to improvise.

What happened before was that a company would find a niche, exploit that niche, and have a fixed game plan that it could rely on for at least a quarter. Now it’s moving so fast, and the barriers to entry are so low, that ideas can come out of the woodwork from anywhere. And small companies can beat large companies with far more resources. So leaders are having to think a little more dynamically. They need ‘strong weakly-held opinions’, where you’re going to make a decision and move forward, but as more changes shape that opinion you’re going to have to rethink and make little adjustments to move forward. And that’s really what it’s all about.

RH: Are there any players that have particularly caught your eye this year?

SS: (US financial services software firm) Intuit have really been doing some amazing things. Leaders have actually said that their only role now is to remove the speed bumps to their next development stage. They try to make it easy to experiment with new ideas and prove them at market as quickly as possible.

They’ve created online collaboration tools where anyone in the organization can say, ‘I have a good idea,’ and the company can pool resources to help them bring that idea to life. Online they connect the dots and very quickly roll out prototypes, and deliver them to customers to test them. They’ve created dozens of revenue-generating products this way.

RH: So companies are making innovation more democratic?

SS: From before, when product innovation strategy was driven from the top down, now it’s being driven from the front line, where those closest to customers are best placed to spot a rising opportunity and act on it. It’s okay for employees to make mistakes.

Companies increasingly look at failure, small f, as a learning experience. They are increasingly working with one another, and not being afraid to try new things and create cultures of sustainable innovation. They know change is coming, so instead of taking one or two bets they will encourage employees to make lots of small bets, knowing that some will pay off. It’s the same way you might play a financial portfolio. Luck is hard work, goes the old adage.

RH: Big Data has played an ever-increasing role in 2014, from a business strategy and security perspective. Does its domination look set to continue?

SS: Big Data is only going to become a growing point of importance in 2015. What’s happening now is that as customer tastes are changing, more businesses are not simply trying to keep up with them but actually to anticipate buyers’ needs.

For example we work with clients in the video games space. Once upon a time this was a space where someone would come up with a creative idea, and that was sold almost like a product. Well, now you have a lot of these freemium games, Facebook games, and what’s happening is that firms will design them, put them live, and they will begin to look at the data: what are gamers clicking on? What add-ons are they buying? Based on this data they are designing games to be more enjoyable by updating them, in many cases, on a daily basis.

Obviously, though, online privacy and security are going to become increasing concerns. The challenge is that more and more data is moving into the cloud, being tracked. For marketers that’s the holy grail: to have everything and anything available so they can custom target advertisements. The trouble is that you can have the most secure system in the world, and hackers will always find a way through. Companies have to be realistic about that.

RH: So 2015: a year of democratization and diversification?

SS: While companies are making sustaining activities, they are looking at growth activities too. The tech field has almost been a petrie dish, the canary in the coal mine, for what has and will happen across industries that have become so damn Darwinian at this point, that what you see is multi-billion-dollar global giants rolling out $20,000 apps almost weekly, or companies constantly offering new hardware offerings in different spaces.

You see just what happens when you enter a world that’s connected, globalized and full of competition. It becomes very hard to set yourself apart.