You can barely scroll over a screen these days without seeing the word ‘trend’. Everywhere you look, someone wants to tell us about ‘the industry trends we can’t do without’ or ’21 trends for 2021’. There must be something in it, right?

Behind the clickbait, there is a global industry of trend spotters scouring the planet for what’s new and what’s next.

So, just as our obsession with trends got trendy, the question is: how far can trend spotting take us in helping our businesses grow and develop? How can we use them for innovation, and when should we leave the trends to others, and go it alone?

The rise and rise of trends

As inherently social animals, human behaviour is contagious. We observe others and then take on those behaviours ourselves because they speak to us in some way. The rise in veganism, for example, is a trend that has been developing over many years. There are now an estimated 600,000 vegans in the UK, a fourfold increase in the last 15 years due to a confluence of issues such as animal welfare, responsible agriculture, wellbeing and environmental concerns.

But not all trends are that organic; in fact the business world is more frequently rocked by sudden, fast and conflicting trends. And like any burst of energy, these changes provide exciting opportunities – for innovation and creativity, for example – for the leaders who know how to read them and how to ride them.

Even pre-Covid, the trends that were rising indicated that we were in a state of rapid transition. But the impact of the global pandemic on how we work, communicate and stay well will accelerate other profound shifts in every aspect of our lives. Some of these trends will come and go with barely a ripple. Others will shine brightly but for a short time. Others, however, will turn the world on its axis; they will be here to stay, evolving and coalescing with other trends and technologies to create change and innovation we can barely imagine today.

Trends matter because they impact and influence consumer behaviour and in turn the desires and expectations of our clients, customers and employees.

Memes and social contagion

The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a hilarious account of how she became instantly addicted to ‘Get Lucky’, the Daft Punk / Pharrell Williams song that took the world by storm in 2013. “I am absolutely capable of both working and listening to ‘Get Lucky’ without any impairment to my faculties,” wrote Moran in her column in The Times. “This is because, for the last three weeks, I’ve been doing everything while listening to ‘Get Lucky’ – working, parenting, cooking, being drunk. My iTunes informs me I’ve listened to it 113 times. It’s taken over my life”.

And it’s not just songs that so readily pierce our collective consciousness. Almost any content format lends itself to a meme these days – the social media version of a trend.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, first introduced the idea of a ‘meme’ in his classic bestseller, ‘The Selfish Gene’. Long before the word entered our everyday lexicon, Dawkins likened social contagion to biological contagion: the cultural version of the gene reproduces itself though our society, propagating itself from one person to another through imitation – be it in songs, ideas, fashion or technology.

Some trends are embodied in a particular brand – so much so that when we buy the brand, it’s not so much about the thing itself, but what it represents. I vicariously experienced this when we started cycling and my husband ‘caught’ the Rapha cyclewear thing. I was happy buying regular cycling attire online and feeling proud I’d managed 50 miles. But he was to be found in the Rapha flagship store in Soho (which is actually quite a way from the Clyde Valley where we live), supping espresso with unfeasibly handsome hipster men who were all about cycling, ‘iconic design’ and generally being metrosexual. It was all very curious.

I once ventured to the store to return something for him when I was in London. It was like an anthropological field trip to a culture I could never hope to fully understand. And that’s the point. Brands – and trends – exclude as much as they entice and invite.

The implications for business leaders are profound. It makes it very easy to miss what’s coming. If you’re not the Rapha type, or if Daft Punk songs have no addictive effect on you, then you miss not just the point but also the opportunity it has for your business. And because trends exclude as well as embrace, we all (whatever our age or profile) have blind spots as to what may be next.

The lens we see the world through

Many a closed-minded executive team has turned its attention away from the proverbial writing on the wall. Think of Kodak’s inability to grasp the impact that digitalisation would have on its entire business model (which I’ve written about before here). Or consider Blockbuster’s decision to pass on the chance to partner with Netflix in early 2000.

As a leader engaged in developing strategy fit for the future, you may not like the trends that are emerging, but it’s your responsibility to explore them objectively and analytically if you are to truly understand their implications for your business. To do this, and do it well, you also need to know your biases, have people around you who see the world differently, and develop a leadership style open to hearing uncomfortable truths.

A decision-making team that all looks the same and has the same lived experience is more likely to be blinkered in its thinking about the implications of trends – whether that’s in the executive suite or among wider strategists. This is yet another reason why strong diversity in senior leadership is so helpful.

Trend-spotting is the front end of strategy foresight. It pays an important but relatively modest part in developing genuine strategic foresight – which comes from understanding the implications for your business and the ways you may have to pivot in order to be ready for it. These are institutional considerations.

What trend-spotting misses

We often have an ineffective reliance on obvious market trends and industry-centric data source. But they rarely provide an innovation competitive advantage. Once a trend is written about by the World Economic Forum, or you see it in the Financial Times, it’s already mainstream. It’s been embraced already by the innovators and the early adopters, and proven well enough to be picked up by the late adopters and laggards. You and everyone else knows it’s coming.

If your strategy is to capitalise on what’s already well established – and there are many businesses who do very well with such an approach – then trend-spotting can be a helpful addition to the front-end of your strategy-making process. Some choose, very consciously, to follow innovation, catching up when others have poured time and money into testing the market. But for others, ‘first mover’ advantage really matters.

Both Coke and Pepsi were the earliest adopters of diet drinks as far back as the 1960s – and retain that market dominance. And in the 2000s, Heineken and Budweiser capitalised on the alcohol-free beer market, staking their claim in what is now the fastest-growing market segment in the drinks industry. And then there’s Starbucks. We were all drinking coffee before it appeared on our high streets, but it was their insight into the metro lifestyle and  that we were looking for a place to go between home and office – that made it a global brand.

They key to success for you as a leader is to execute your market position strategically – but first you must identify the right foresight strategy for your business.

Tipping points

In strategic foresight, there are plausible future events that have a low probability of happening, but a high impact if they do. These are known as ‘wild cards’and they don’t always happen along a linear progression, as Malcolm Gladwell explained in his best-selling book, ‘Tipping Point’. Gladwell uses the example of the little-known resurgence in wearing Hush Puppies by a small but highly influential group in the bars and clubs in downtown Manhattan, changing the fortunes of a brand about to be phased out and instead creating a resurgent global phenomenon. In both trends and wild cards, they come about when important tipping points occur that lead rapidly to massive disruption.

So, yes, exploring trends is helpful, but invariably it won’t provide you with exclusive insight that sets you apart. You need a different approach to strategy and to innovation that goes beyond what’s obviously already on the horizon. You need a framework for anticipating and preparing for future change and disruption; ways to help you make sense of the patterns in a sea of chaos.

Strategic foresight

With so much disruption, uncertainty and complexity in our business landscape, many leaders have adopted an attitude of ‘it’s all just too difficult’. This is understandable. When in the maelstrom of disruption, particularly the kind that’s been wrought on business by Covid-19, you may ask how you really could have prepared for what has happened this past year.

If the purpose of strategy is to position yourself distinctively and in a way that meets your customer’s current and future needs, and if both those timescales are inherently turbulent and uncertain, it stands to reason that your strategic approach needs to match the turbulence and uncertainty in your environment. If your approach to both your customer and your strategy assumes a steady, predictable linear progression, it is almost certain your strategy and positioning will not meet the needs of your clients, today or tomorrow.

In the field of cybernetics, there’s an interesting idea called the Law of Requisite Variety. It states that when the variety or complexity in the environment exceeds the capacity of the system, the system will be destroyed. The same holds true in organisations. When organisations (and their strategy) are designed for simplicity and linear rationality but the environment is highly complex, the organisation is unable to cope. It helps explain McKinsey’s estimation that 75% of quoted companies won’t exist by 2027.

Strategic agency is possible in times of great disruption and uncertainty. Just not in the places you may have expected and in the ways you may have hoped. That is why you will create organisational value if you have the disciplined ability to spot wild cards, emerging market changes and other forces before they’ve turned into bona fide trends.  And most importantly, determine the ways these forces interact and create circumstances that may have a profound impact on your business.

This is true strategic foresight: when foresight becomes insight, and can be turned into strategic advantage.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they lead in the face of uncertainty and complexity. She works in the related areas of Strategic Foresight, Complex Change and Adaptive Leadership. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.

About Jacqueline Conway