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Weak signals. How to predict the future and save your business.

Those who watched Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” might remember Biff an antagonist character who in the second part of the trilogy steals sports almanac travels back to the past and through betting on already known results becomes one of the wealthiest man in the country thus dramatically transforming his future. Though time travelling remains nothing but a fantasy however few might have wondered what it takes to really be able to look into the future and have the ability to predict the coming events.

How many lives could have been saved and businesses turned around?!

Business world is very far from fantasy stories and we can hardly imagine a successful entrepreneur going to a fortune teller in an attempt to find eligible answers which project is better to pursue and how things and events may play out. However, there are some rational tools and methods at the disposal of the businesses and entrepreneurs that allow to envision and with some accuracy predict the future trends. Through using these tools one can prepare for the coming changes and even possibly become their front runner.

Any prediction about future cannot start without clearly understanding the matters of today. Future doesn’t start tomorrow, future starts now.

Things that we are doing and that are happening around us at the present moment are the foundation of our tomorrow. Through consciously picking up these events, changes and micro trends which in the framework of strategic thinking are called “weak signals” and hypothesizing on the magnitude of their impact one can with a certain degree of probability envision the world of tomorrow.

So what are the “weak signals” of today that can reshape our future?

In the framework of “The Three Box Solution” by Prof. Vijay Govindarajan such signals can be grouped in five categories: customer related, technological, competition, distribution and regulatory or political.

Taking construction industry as an example let’s try to see those weak signals that can be reshaping construction field in the coming decade.

Among customer related changes and trends one cannot but notice the changing world demographics with vivid difference between regions that have baby-booms and those which are seeing constant decline in the birth rates. Changing pattern of income distribution is another important factor to consider in customer behavior as it will have primary impact on the construction budget. Issues related to land resource will influence scale of construction, whether it will tend to be more low rise or high-rise in the coming decade or even possibly more renovation oriented.

In terms of technologies one should consider first of all already developed and widely spread technologies and their current adoption rate in construction field. It is also important to understand whether there are any technologies gaining momentum in other industries that can have application in construction field as well. Things like 3D printing, drones, IoT, AV/VR reality, blockchain, process automation and robotics though not originating from construction field are finding more and more user cases in the industry and have started slow adoption among industry incumbents.

Another set of “weak signals” is related to competition. The last decade has shown us multiple examples when established incumbents were attacked by the new entrants with turn around technologies that managed to challenge established businesses sometimes completely erasing them. In defining “weak signals” that relate to competition it helps to look for neighboring industries and see if any of the incumbents are starting to behave differently to the others and are potentially attacking your market share. Or maybe there any new entrants to the market that generate abnormal activity and interest. For example can we envision that technological advances like 3D printing, provided there will be found a solution to use multiple materials for printing and not just plastic can potentially attack the established market of main contractors and structure specialists?

The last decade has shown us complete disruption in the distribution channels. Development of digital solutions has allowed for the emergence and growth of direct to consumer (D2C) models that allow to eliminate third-parties from the producer-customer relationships. It has been further supported by the development of the blockchain technology that can bring and reinforce transparency in customer producer interactions. Though majority of such efforts have been concentrated around retail sector including fashion, beauty and food products, however, one can easily envision something like this disrupting the established world of construction. Other important changes that have taken place in distribution channels is the increasing power of social networks. Emergence of online stores on Facebook, Instagram and What’s app, for example, is entirely reshaping the way consumers search and buy products and businesses cannot continue to stay adamant to such changes.

The last but not the least important are the changes in governmental policies and changing regulations. Green movement seems to have finally gained the momentum across the globe with governments worldwide accepting the rising concern of the climate change and reinforcing regulations to improve the environmental situation. In the coming years in line with global governments’ commitment to “Plan 2030” that emphasis importance of actions preventing climate change we can expect more tightening regulations connected with energy and waste which can take a heavy toll on many construction businesses.

It may sound overwhelming to try to envision how world will be changing, too many unknows and uncertainties are involved. However, understanding “weak signal” is the first little step you can take today to start preparing yourself and your business for the next decade. Embrace the change or be left behind, the choice is always yours.

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