Why the future belongs to those businesses that create it

Talking to Craig Wing about disruption, leadership and why businesses need to think ten steps ahead


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Craig Wing is a futurist. This means it's his business to see around corners – and more importantly to help businesses to do the same, especially if they are to survive in the current – often disruptive – business climate. 

Wing is also a business strategist at FutureWorld, a global network of business practitioners and futurists who work to help businesses with their innovation efforts, strategy execution, and ultimately their bottom line. 

As a speaker and author Wing focuses on issues of leadership, strategy, exponential organizations and corporate culture, some of which are explored in his book Expert Mavericks.

Wing has worked with the likes of Discovery, Standard Bank, Hauwei, Old Mutual, Alexander Forbes and Google SA - where he had a hand in helping the company to create 50,000 websites in one year. He is also a World Economic Forum global shaper and TEDx Speaker on disruptive innovation.

"Disruption has no place unless it fundamentally solves a problem"

Craig Wing.

In an interview with SME South Africa Wing talks about why startups are better at disruption, and why every business should be working to solve a customer’s problem. 

Q: How do you define a disruption? 
Disruption is for me, fundamentally, about doing something differently from the norm. And what that means is thinking about a process, a product, a service and then trying to find a better way of doing it - it could be cheaper, it could be faster, it could be simpler, but all of it needs to be rooted within the ambit of solving a problem.

 So disruption has no place unless it fundamentally solves a problem, whether it is a societal problem, a business problem or a personal problem. 

Q: Why are startups better at disruption than large companies? 
The organizations that have been around for hundreds of years - their problem is that within those organizations, the culture doesn’t allow you to move quickly. This is because they come from a position of: I will make you something - if you like it, then buy it. It is the whole misnomer of build it and they will come. 

The world is changing because people now have so much choice that the smaller guys (or startups) are saying : it’s not about making it and them buying it - it’s about understanding the problem that the customer wants to solve and saying: I will go and create the product or service for you.

The big guys just aren’t geared for that. They can’t move quickly enough, they have processes, they’ve old ways of thinking. They don’t want to unlearn, or be challenged, they don’t want to disrupt themselves. Whereas startups have no history that they need to service, they need to do what’s right for the customer. 

Q: Is it possible for big businesses to disrupt themselves? 
The truth is not only can they, but they should. 

 A prime example of that is actually Microsoft who went through a huge transition. This was at a time when Microsoft felt very good about being the operating system (OS) of choice for personal computers, but they started to pivot, they started to change. 

They started to make a lot of their software and processes open, they started to listen to their customers and you can see by the stock price and their reputation - both which increased by a lot. This is because they are a company that said: we need to change, and if the leadership doesn’t believe in change and push for change, we will be extinct. 

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn"

Q: How do you think entrepreneurship in SA has evolved over the past 5 years?
Typically entrepreneurs are the kind of people that try to push a solution into the market place. It’s the same kind of people who say, here is a problem, let me go build a product or service, and it would take time -  whether it’s months or years -  launch in the market place, hear that things aren’t right and then have the arrogance to think it’s because the customer doesn’t know what they want. 

What we are seeing it that there is a shift away from that kind of thinking. The shift is not only for businesses to be lean – so that whole lean movement. It is towards design thinking. I think the focus of entrepreneurship has shifted significantly over the past 5 years to be customer-first. I also think there has been more propensity to take risk. We are, however, not there yet. 

Q: What kind of leadership is needed to drive this disruptive environment? 
One of my favourite quotes is from a futurist called Alvin Toffler. He says the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn. 

So the leadership that is needed is one that is transparent, one that is says, I am not the smartest guy in the room, collectively all of us are smarter than one of us. And then follow that with, can I surround myself with the smartest people? 

The second is to encourage debate and to encourage people to challenge your thinking. 

The third for me is really the ability to see ten steps ahead into the future. As a futurist the question for me is - can you be a leader that sees beyond the traditional, beyond the next three or five years, beyond the next quarter or financial cycle. To be able to say, this is where the world is fundamentally moving, here are trends – can I understand where the world is going and as a opposed to waiting for that to happen, can I create the future? 

Q: How do companies ensure that they stay ahead? 
Part of it is about the culture of an organization, the culture that binds us together and one that says we will win this together. 
Businesses should be asking themselves -  how do we find the best kind of people that we can, and how do we create the kind of culture that supports our strategy.

There is this fallacy that culture and strategy don’t go hand in hand, in fact culture eats strategy for breakfast. I don’t think that either is more important than the other, it’s a question of how does your culture reinforce your strategy – how do you ensure that all your values, mission and value statement align to your operational, business and financial strategies.

"There is this fallacy that culture and strategy don’t go hand in hand, in fact culture eats strategy for breakfast"

Q: How do you do you do this on a practical level?
The first thing I would say is to start with 'why'. There is an incredible quote by Simon Sinek and he says the exact thing. He says start with the why.

In this video he says people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you are doing it. It’s not to make money, it’s not making a profit.

The question is why do you do the certain things that you do. And normally it’s something that is bigger than you. It’s more than making cash it’s bigger than just your employees. 

That will then give you a compass, your North Star so you know where you need to go. Your business strategy, your tactics, your outputs, your hiring process, everything has to be aligned with that North Star. 

The challenge is that with established businesses, putting [those values] in later is sometimes very difficult, because you can’t just disrupt your own business flow. 

So why it that small guys can accomplish this more easily than the big guys? Because the big guys have legacy issues. [They have] processes and old mindsets  and leadership, but you really fundamentally have to do it and it’s all about alignment and it’s all about finding your why. 

Q: What industries do you think will be disrupted next?
The industries that are most prime for disruption are those ones that have the most processes because they have so much stuff in the way, so the small guys are able to move around. 

So the first industries I see being disrupted is one that is highly regulated – that is insurance. From a futurist point of view people are living longer and the current insurance industry is predicated around an average life expectancy of  80 to 85, but we are now living to 90, 95 and in a couple of years – over 100 years old.

The other industry that I think is ripe for disruption is air travel – that is a very difficult one though.

And strangely enough one that a lot of people won’t mention is government. Government is so prime for disruption because it’s old school. What government is trying to do is to add a technology layer over old processes and old bureaucracy. However, there is no fundamental understanding that they should care more about the citizens than they care about themselves. 

Q: How should businesses be preparing themselves for future?
We need to be open to testing our assumptions. We also need to be able to challenge ourselves. We inherently all have biases. 

As an entrepreneur you really have to read everything, all the way from Tattoo Weekly to Farmers Digest because true innovation doesn’t happen outside the box – it’s not about thinking outside the box, it's thinking within several boxes. It’s about understanding how something works in one domain and applying to another domain. That is how innovation works and that is the challenge, for an entrepreneur - to say how do I think in several boxes, how to I solve and fall in love with a problem and how do I unlearn several things which I think are true, but may change? 

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