How should we assess trends? Which ones will be long lasting and which will be little more than passing fads? Which ones will be major and change how we live our lives and which ones will be little more than fashion trends that change the style but not the substance? How do we look beyond the herd mentality? Read on.
Are there indicators of short term vs. long term trends? Yes! When trends appear clear cut they are often either short term in nature or more minor than most believe. The truly life changing trends only appear clear and obvious in hindsight. A good example is the internet. Do you think business on the internet was a slam dunk? You need to look at Business Week talking about the failure of retail on the internet. That was 1994. Right after that Buycomp.com came into being and internet retail was off and running. Why did they get it so wrong? Their comments from 1992 through 1996 followed a familiar pattern. There is first optimistic speculation about how everything will be transformed. Then there are the early failures followed by disillusionment. Finally there is the seemingly immediate success. Kurzweil pointed this pattern out in his discussions on The Law of Accelerating Returns.
When the path looks clear the trend is often minor. Why? We can’t see the future clearly and everyone has a different view. When we all agree it rarely means it is a clear major trend. Rather, it means it is a near term trend of lesser importance. Major trends are marked by a lack of clarity. This manifests itself through the myriad number of approaches taken. Many variations of a fuzzy vision compete for dominance.
Another characteristic of major trends is a jagged road to dominance. The path is not straight. Here is a property that is of critical importance from a business standpoint. Your idea might be right in the end but it is of little consolation if your business first goes bankrupt. Consider the Apple Newton. The idea of a tablet was correct but too early. What was needed was a first step to the PDA, i.e. Palm Pilot, then the only moderately successful smart phone, then the iPhone and finally the iPad. It is great to see the future but basing a business on a long range vision can lead to expensive failures if you don’t step back and ask how the masses will be lead in the near term.