I am going to try and explain a very important point using the example of the automobile. A car is a wheeled motor vehicle used for transportation. They run primarily on roads, seat between one and eight people, and mainly transport people rather than goods. That is what they were when Karl Benz patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886 and that’s what they are today almost 150 years later.
They have controls for driving, parking, passenger comfort and safety, and controlling a variety of lights. Over 150 years, we’ve added additional features and controls like rear reversing cameras, air conditioning, satellite navigation and in-car entertainment. We’ve figured out new powertrains for them and new kinds of fuels, but they essentially remain the same as when they were first invented – vastly more complicated and sophisticated but more or less the same. They have evolved but, other than successfully removing the horse from the carriage, there is no revolution here.
That’s because a car is not a single product that was just made ready one day and shipped around the world as a complete surprise to all and sundry. It’s a system – a collection of inventions applied in a novel way and evolved over time. That is true of a lot of what is hyped as a technological revolution and that has a very important implication for all of us who are in business, which is this…
If you spend all your time looking for the next big thing of the future you will miss all the little evolutions that are creating it right now.
Karl Benz doesn’t have a car to patent without Etienne Lenoir’s combustion engine from 1859, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s steam powered tricycle from 1769, Roman roads, gears from the ancient Greeks, or the wheel which first appeared around 3500BCE. All of these things (and a lot more) are part of the evolution of the car and all of them were inventions that were applied in a novel way.
Around your business are hundreds, if not thousands, of small inventions that will be applied in a novel way at some point in the future. When that revolution comes, those that have already been using those inventions in one way or another will be infinitely better prepared. No major car manufacturer, for example, is really threatened by electric drive chains or the self-driving car. Why? Because most of the technological inventions that work together in a system to create those things are already part of existing motor vehicles. Batteries have long been a part of any car. Changing the purpose of them running the engine is not that bigger stretch if you were already using them to start the engine. Autonomous technology is already in your car and has been for decades – lane departure warnings, ABS, cruise control, self-parking and so on. Bit by bit, the self-driving car has been appearing in lots of little ways for many years and one day it will just be the way it is, and no one will be able to remember it being any other way. Don’t forget, cars were originally referred to as ‘horseless carriages’. No one calls them that now and no one will call them ‘self-driving cars’ or ‘electric cars’ in the future either. It will just be a car – improved maybe, but still just a car.
I’ll say it again. If you spend all your time looking for the next big thing of the future you will miss all the little evolutions that are creating it right now.
Add online tracking and payments to a taxi and you get Uber. The taxi industry could have done that first and they could have done it 20 years ago, but they didn’t evolve.
Add the concept of a test drive to an appliance retailer and you get Pirch – a showroom that lets you use everything in it, including the ovens to bake cookies or you can even don a swimsuit and take a shower. Again, anyone in retail could have done this but they didn’t evolve.
There are literally thousands of examples like those. Everything you need to gain a competitive advantage is sitting right in front of you, right now. All it requires is a logistics mindset that recognises you don’t have a product or service. You have a system – a collection of inventions applied in a novel way and evolved over time. If you continue that evolution and, more importantly, if you embrace it then instead of worrying about the next revolution in your industry you may very well become it.