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Professor Robert Wolcott: Are businesses asking the right questions to survive in an ever-changing market?

May 23, 2018

Robert C. Wolcott addresses crowds at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference

“If a customer is telling you they want something, guess who else they are telling?” professor Robert Wolcott asked the audience at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE18). “Your competition. So, how do you find out what the customer wants before they want it?”

The clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University told the attendees of ONE18 the secret to surviving long-term in a disruptive industry.

“We must ask better questions,” he said.


A business survival guide

“We cannot predict the future in detail,” said Wolcott. “But we can provide foresight.”

Part of the foresight that accompanies great ideas entails reflecting on the history of what many considered to be the “best” companies over the past few decades. IBM, Xerox and Kodak were just a few of many other corporations that had two things in common:

1)     Near death experiences. Each company was on the verge of extinction before reinventing and adapting to its surroundings.

2)     They were all “the very best company on the planet for decades,” explained Wolcott. However, history shows that any company is vulnerable to possible extinction.

Luckily, Wolcott shared his two tips for how companies can evolve and thrive in ever-changing markets:

1)     Fortification: Extend and defend the core business.

2)     Exploration: Create growth through exploring future opportunities.

A business’ product will not remain the most revolutionary idea to consumers forever. There are other companies that are trying to do things bigger, better and faster. Competition is tough, and top businesses can quickly transition from predators in the industry to prey.

“We must rise to the occasion, whether we succeed or not,” encouraged Wolcott. “It is in the attempt that we grow as human beings and as organizations.”


Technological trend-setters

Wolcott continued his talk by referencing many new technologies and business practices that are shaking up the industry:

1)     Electric cars were considered a hassle by consumers for many years. An exaggerated fear of running out of battery in the middle of a busy highway plagued minds of worried potential buyers. However, Wolcott informed the audience that there are electric cars that can travel 1,000 miles before running out of battery. Millions of dollars are being invested in charging stations for easy, convenient plug-ins nationally.

Listening to customer needs — and anticipating that there would be resistance to a new technology — resulted in the foresight to create an automobile that doesn’t cause more questions, but instead provides answers.

“If we always look in the same places, we will only find the same answers,” said Wolcott.

However, is it too late for electric cars? Are self-driving cars the way of the future?

2)     For three years, said Wolcott, Amazon has been anticipating the orders of users and stocking them in a nearby warehouse, ready for shipping. Wolcott informed the audience that if a user clicks, or even hovers, over the same product in the online store more than once, Amazon will anticipate that the user is just a few more clicks away from making a purchase. When the customer finally decides to pull the trigger and buy the item they have been eyeing for weeks, Amazon will already have it nearby.

“Human beings want what they want, where they want it, when they want it,” said Wolcott.

Amazon’s method, called “anticipatory shipping,” is foresight personified.

3)     “Today, we have a global supply chain. The larger the plant, the lower your costs,” explained Wolcott. “Over the next 30 years, this model will be destroyed.”

He reassured the audience that global supply chain won’t disappear completely, as some will still be vital, but soon, 3D printing will take over. Why would extra tools, resources and employees be necessary to build something over the span of days, weeks or months, when 3D printing could provide it in minutes?

“In our lifetimes, we might be able to have a 3D printing machine on our counters,” said Wolcott.


So, what are the right questions?

According to Wolcott, we are on the right track. The question we are used to asking, Wolcott says, is, “How can this technology help us be better at what we already do?”

“This is a great question,” said Wolcott. “Keep asking it. But that’s not enough.”

Instead, he challenged everyone with new questions:

1)     “What can this technology help us do that we have never done before?”

Is it innovative like electric cars? Expedient like anticipatory shopping? Convenient like 3D printing?

Wolcott explains that often the right questions come from people investigating their own future.

2)     “In a world of increasing technology,” explains Wolcott, “we can do anything. What can we do and why?”

What purpose does this new technology serve? Is it making lives easier? Can it grow with time?

3)     “Where might the future go?”

Is the idea sustainable? Does it keep up with the trends that are found through foresight?

But, overall, the foresight needed to survive in an ever-changing industry and to create the next big idea is in search of a very noble cause.

“To make the world a better place,” explained Wolcott. “That is what motivates people more than anything else.”

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