When so many companies and institutions around the globe are collapsing like the proverbial house of cards, it is impressive that others, such as the University of Vermont, Coca-Cola and Volvo, which have been around for 226, 125 and 90 years respectively, continue to thrive.
So what are they doing that most companies are missing? My research has concluded that they are doing three important things, all of which involve movement into the future:
- They look ahead (trend watching)
- They think ahead (trend contemplating and researching)
- They get ahead (trend adopting)
This is perhaps the main reason that the following five companies have a combined lifespan of 575 years in business:
- Philip Morris International (established in 1987),
- Apple (est. 1976),
- Volvo (est. 1927),
- Coca Cola (est. 1892), and the
- University of Vermont (est. 1791)
From Volvo to Vermont
Last month, Volvo Car Group announced that, from 2019, all its new models will be fully electric or hybrids, thus predicting the eventual end of nearly a century of Volvos powered solely by the internal combustion engine. Both the UK and French governments have said that all petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned from the roads by 2040, so we can reasonably expect every car manufacturer to focus on electric in the near future.
The temptation to stick with things is great, especially when they are successful, but there are many examples of major companies that are not afraid to discontinue a best-selling product when they feel that it has reached its peak. Take Apple, for example, which launched the very first iPod in 2001 and went on to sell millions of digital music players. In 2005, the iPod Nano joined the list of products but last month, the company announced that it would no longer be manufactured. Why? Because Apple has seen that people now prefer to incorporate their music collection into a device that does other things, like the iPhone or the iPad.
Philip Morris International (PMI), the cigarette and tobacco company, is active in over 180 countries, with 1st quarter (2017) net revenues of $16.6 billion (Cyprus’ GDP last year amounted to $19.8 billion!). So you may be surprised to read the first two sentences on the home page of the PMI website: “Designing a Smoke-Free Future: How long will the world’s leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?”
Here is a company that, having created some of the world’s most popular and iconic cigarette brands (Marlboro, Virginia Slims, etc.), has taken a good look at today’s global trends, one of which is to stop traditional cigarette smoking due to health concerns and to switch to e-cigarettes and smoke-free products. It leads the world with its traditional products but it has a vision of replacing them with its new ones. This is quite remarkable.
There are few brands as recognizable and as well-established as Coca Cola, so the temptation to keep selling the multi-million euro profit-making original product is one that few companies would resist easily. And yet, in response to a new emphasis on fitness in the 1980s, Diet Coke was introduced. Recently, in a similarly inspired reaction to health trends, a new Coke sweetened with Stevia was launched, first in Greece and, undoubtedly, with global acceptance to follow.
Farsightedness and vision are not exclusive to multinational companies. They extend to the world of academia too. As a trainer and speaker for 16 years and a visiting lecturer at various universities for the last five of them, I have seen plenty of lecturers put audiences to sleep much better than a sleep specialist ever could! According to Charles G. Prober, Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education at Stanford University, students retain no more than 10% (!!!) of what they have heard in a lecture. If correct, this is a major problem and it is one that the University of Vermont’s medical school intends to address when it opens in summer 2019. The Washington Post recently reported that Larner College of Medicine will be the first US medical school to eliminate lectures from its curriculum in an attempt to change the way the next generation of physicians learn their profession. As the article indicates, taking notes from “a sage on stage” isn’t as effective as other ways to absorb information.
- Recognize and adapt to market changes. This should be your first priority as an entrepreneur or an institution. Failing to do so means falling behind.
- Stay current by speaking to industry experts and reading books and articles written by insightful people. They can be the source of great inspiration and ideas. One writer I surely recommend is Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly columnist on the New York Times. You can find an inspiring and fascinating interview with him about jobs, learning and the future of work.
- Listen to your customers. Philip Morris International (PMI) is making millions from sales of its traditional products but it is working on a smoke-free future, not only because it understands that millions of smokers are looking for a less harmful alternative but also because, by giving its customers this option, it is actually guaranteeing its own continued success. Similarly, Volvo has seen that people want to travel in a cleaner, more environmentally friendly manner and has taken a bold step by deciding to put an end to its production of traditional petrol-driven cars.
- Look ahead. The world is changing and it’s changing fast. In the interview mentioned above, Tom Friedman expresses his belief that “The future of companies is to be hiring people and constantly training people to be prepared for a job that has not been invented yet… If you’re training people for a job that’s already been invented, or if you’re going to school in preparation for a job that’s already been invented, I would suggest that you’re going to have problems somewhere down the road.”
Does this mean that we all have to develop ‘magic powers’ to see the future? Of course not, but it does mean that we need to keep our eyes and minds open to how the world is changing and how customers’ demands and expectations are also changing. If you want to get ahead, look ahead!