This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
A recent survey shows the majority of global CEOs expect their industries to be so transformed by digital technology as to be almost unrecognizable within just five years. This begs the question: as an entrepreneur, how do you plan for the unplannable in the digital age? Or do you plan at all?
Here are some keys I've learned on the frontlines, running a half-dozen online eyewear companies with thousands of employees.
Know the difference between vision and strategy
Yes, many academics, like Michael Porter, cling to the merits of a strategic plan, complete with value props and exhaustive analysis. But, to many contemporary business leaders, what's more important than a set plan is a shared goal or vision that runs through every facet of the organization. Take Google. The organization that seems to be at the cutting edge of everything – from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence – sets its sights not on any one agenda item but on "organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful." It's a directional strategy more than a traditional business-school strategy – and it's kept Google well ahead of the curve.
Simplicity can be the best future-proofing
This dovetails into the need to keep things simple. Overly complex, multi-faceted, geographically-challenging strategies are hard to execute and hard to explain to your team or shareholders. Virgin founder Richard Branson, who controls more than 400 companies, doesn't rely on formal business plans. Instead he simply asks: how can we change business for good? Amazon is another great example. Founder Jeff Bezos, has a concise blueprint: "Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient." And he has maintained this dead-simple approach from Day 1, creating customer loyalty by continually slashing prices and ensuring fast delivery.
Stay laser-focused on customer needs
A critical piece of Bezos' plan is attention to ever-shifting customer demands. Harvard's Roger Martin preaches that an entrepreneur's main job is "finding ways to acquire and keep customers." Successful businesses today – especially in the online and ecommerce spaces – thrive by continuously testing and responding to customer needs, rather than creating and executing a plan in isolation. This idea of tweak-test-repeat is at the heart of lean startup methodology – the ethos behind some of the biggest digital successes of our time, from Facebook to Airbnb.
You're only as good as your platform
Crucial to gathering this customer feedback is having the right technology. When I took over as CEO at Clearly, our marketing team had minimal visibility into what eyeglasses and contact lenses customers were clicking on and taking in and out of their carts. We overhauled our e-commerce platform to include a deeper analytics component that allowed staff to see where users were going on the site, what was drawing their eye and when they were leaving. Historically, this kind of analysis took hours or days; now it can be done in minutes. For online businesses, this kind of real-time feedback loop is essential: without it, you're always a few steps behind your customers.
Build a company of futurists
Not every company has the resources to employ a dedicated futurist like Ford, or a futures team like with Shell; however, small and medium businesses can still adopt a future-centred mentality. This starts with hiring an intellectually curious, technologically plugged-in workforce. Recruiting dreamers and thinkers, whether they're destined for your customer support team or for the c-suite, builds innovation into your company's DNA. Close to home, our team noticed how digital device usage was rocketing among Millennials and the impact of all that screen time on vision health. We now have a protective coating on our glasses for digital screens in part because they were thinking like futurists.
Complex industries and blue-chip companies require long-term strategy in the classic sense. For the rest of us, however, a culture of quick iteration may well be the best approach in the face of all this change. Interestingly, the most powerful future-proofing comes from recognizing one constant that never changes: a successful business keep customers satisfied and coming back, time and time again.