The dictionary definition of a trend is ‘a general direction in which something is developing or changing’. Most managers feel they ought to be on continual alert to predict and recognise trends.
The early recognition of trends is often seen as the essential underpinning of a successful company, enhancing long-term security of marketing intelligence and influencing attitudes to product planning, investment plans, mergers and acquisitions, recruitment and R&D.
It is a common belief among managers that unexpected external trends can rear up, like cobras, to bite your business. Not all supposed new trends fulfil their promise though and a great deal of intelligent editing is needed to work out which ones are vital and which you can ignore. Spotting the right trend is one thing. It is then more difficult to identify the trend that is going to impact your business or customers.
Look at how 3D television turned out. It was hailed as an exciting new form of home entertainment and received huge investment from the big manufacturers in both technology and the media, but companies misread the signs. The technology trends looked good but consumer enthusiasm was lacking. This was a technology that wasn’t going to get traction.
The problem is that we look for trends in our operating business environment with the wrong mind-set. We have brains that like habit and logical linear progression. Spotting trends that might be an opportunity or a threat to our business can be like looking for patterns in a handful of M&Ms. If there is a pattern, it’s more likely a random occurrence rather than evidence of a tell-tale trend.
We can’t help but see patterns, often where there are none. Our brains are sense-making organs and we hate randomness and unpredictability. We are surrounded by man-made processes that tend to be predictable and we use that same mental template when looking for trend clues in the external world. The reality is that a real trend is often the result of a series of seemingly unlinked events that reach a tipping point (read Malcolm Gladwell for more on this) and transform into an observable, measurable, important and relevant trend.
The art world is a business highly tuned to trends. It can directly affect your profit as certain art styles or artists can suddenly become popular and in demand, often with no obvious reason. If you can see it happening early enough, when the trend is embryonic, you can profit by getting in before the masses and finding and selling art that reflects the changing appetite of buyers.
A lot of the features of a trend are based on the need for people to maintain social status. Fashion trends are the way people maintain membership and status in certain social and work cliques. The phrase being ‘on trend’ applies not just to fashion but to business sectors such as car manufacturing and media producers. For retailers, understanding trends can make the difference between red and black ink and ending up with piles of unsold stock or running to keep up with demand.
A deep-seated problem with trends is that what you are seeing is an exercise into looking at the past rather than the future. That’s not to say that looking at the collected data around certain business and marketing processes won’t give dividends; a lot of useful business analysis is based on looking at predictable outcomes and that helps a business negotiate an uncertain future.
The real challenge is unpredictable events either on a large scale, such as the financial crash of 2008, or something much smaller, like the rise of digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana. The new digital assistants do use traditional search engines but only when necessary to find information. A savvy, forward-looking business will have made sure that their business information is easily accessible to these assistants, rather than just trying to funnel people to a business website.
There is an infinite amount of big data available, and this is used to develop so-called insights into consumer spending or market behaviour. The key is how you use this to find something that might be genuinely unexpected, but likely; something that could be a problem or an opportunity.
Don’t look for the rational or expected and try not to use past information to predict the future. Use people in your own company to watch and observe for signs of developing trends. If you have 1,000 employees they are all potential trend-detectors, but you will need to set-up a system that enables you to listen to them and then take action on the raw business intelligence they will hopefully supply.
The fast-changing world in which your business operates and works is a mass of unpredictable complexity. Once you begin to see the business environment through a more holistic mind-set, sensitive to the unusual and idiosyncratic, it should become a little easier to notice the patterns and shapes that could represent a genuine trend. It might dissuade you from doing something exciting but short-lived – like investing heavily in 3D TV manufacturing!