On Being a Trend Watcher

Poets can be wrong. Some 250 years ago Thomas Gray wrote “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise”.  I’m not buying it. These days ignorance is not bliss. Given the current pace of change, being ignorant is more likely to be a risky business.

By way of example, I recently had a conversation with a senior administrator in a small Ontario municipality who had been invited to take a leadership role in facilitating the involvement of residents in a community-wide strategic plan. The employee instead chose to opt-out, as he wasn’t comfortable in the role. Whereas he seemed to believe staying below the radar was a safe choice, had he been paying attention to trends related to citizen engagement, he would have jumped on the opportunity. His lack of understanding of an important trend reflects a lack of motivation to learn more as well as a lack of understanding of the potential promise of the new role.

Today, everyone needs to be a trend watcher as success and innovation in almost every business, government or non-profit organization requires identifying trends before they fully emerge.  For some it is a no-brainer as their curiosity is part of their genetic makeup.  However for others it may require some specific strategies.

So, how does one become a trend watcher?

It is important to first understand that a trend is a pattern or general direction that one sees from past events and their frequency. Once a trend has been identified, it is also essential to analyze its potential impact and assess its influence on your business, organization, or community.  If you can identify a trend three to five years in advance the dividends could be significant.

Begin by becoming comfortable with macro trends or those occurring on a larger scale. Pay attention to demographic information, changes in the economy, differences in the political landscape, new technologies, and mainstream media and culture. 

Technology has made it much simpler to watch and scan for trends.  Subscribe to relevant newsletters or listervs or explore websites that track trends on a regular basis. I use Statistics Canada, Trendhunter.com, FastCompany.com, and trendwatching.com.  I also follow a number of trend watchers on Twitter.  Google Alert is also a valuable tool that brings you search results from the web based on your choice of query or topic. Read or at least scan the daily newspaper. When driving I also typically listen to CBC to learn more about what’s making news across Canada. I also pay close attention to best-selling books related to trends.  Most significantly, I make a point of hanging out with smart people who are ahead of the curve. 

While having a handle on the bigger picture is critical, it is also important to be clear about what you are collecting trends about and then to go deeper within that area. As a business owner my husband looks for information about consumer trends, whereas I track trends related to leadership and community development.  It is essential that you know your interest or industry and follow its unique trends via journals, newsletters and listservs.

It is also important to read about sectors or industries other than your own. When I taught at Niagara College I used to periodically visit the bookstore and scan the textbooks and resources from programs other than my own.

Good trend watchers also pay attention to the “word on the street”. I’ve often found the most relevant information comes from the grassroots of communities.  For instance I’m sure it was close to 15 years ago that a local sports store owner told me that we needed to start considering skateboard parks as being as foundational to a community as tennis courts, arenas, and baseball diamonds. He definitely got that right. 

You don’t have to like every trend and you also need to be careful that you don’t dismiss anything too quickly. Instead of dismissing, ask questions and learn more.
Once you are aware of the trends, ask yourself how each of these trends could affect and change your sphere of influence.  For instance, we know the birthrate in Canada is slowing except in immigrant and aboriginal families. What could that mean in terms of potential for your business, community or organization? Think about how it could potentially impact or influence your company, organization, or community’s vision and direction. Could it lead to a new concept, product, service, program or initiative, or could it mean changes are needed in those that already exist? 

Of course while it is impossible to predict the future, it is possible to use a combination of analysis, intuition and logic to better understand what’s happening today in order to exploit trends as possibilities. As business guru Peter Drucker once said, “I never predict. I just look out the window and see what is visible but not yet seen.”

Posted on 01-10-10


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