How to Build Businesses: Don’t Innovate, Transform

“We've lost all sense of what true transformation is,” author Daniel Burrus said. “We've spent so much time mired in our crises that we don't recognize just how rosy our future. What's more, we're already equipped with the tools we need to secure it.”

Sound like the message of a prophet or a psychotherapist? Business and technology strategist and forecaster Burrus is both, in his own way. As a speaker and consultant, he has for years, guided Fortune 500 executives with his straightforward business principles. Lately, he's doing the same for the rest of us with his New York Times best-seller “Flash Foresight” (HarperBusiness, 2011), published earlier this year.

Burrus maintains that what he calls our age's ongoing technological transformation can spur significant job creation. He told BusinessNewsDaily how he thinks that can happen and what businesses and job-seekers alike should expect in the future.

BusinessNewsDaily: You differentiate between transformation and mere change. Can you explain the difference between them and give me an example of what you mean?

Daniel Burrus: A number of years ago, Barnes & Noble made a major change, but not a transformation, when it decided to open superstore book stores with pianos, coffee shops and sofas. That was an innovative change that yielded a competitive advantage, and the company did quite well with it. But it wasn't a transformation. A transformation would be what Amazon.com did: eliminating stores entirely.

We're about to transform how we educate, how we market, how we communicate, how we innovate. And we're about to do so with technology. There are two primary uses for technology by business and government. The first is to accomplish more with less―to be more efficient and productive. That's how most people use technology, and it's a good use of it. But the second major use of technology―and it's not that common―is to use it to create new products, services, markets and careers.

BND: Certainly, with the advent of any industry and the need for infrastructure, a lot of jobs are created―but is that job growth sustainable?

D.B.: Absolutely. Because half the jobs we'll have in five years aren't even invented yet. Because this is transformation, not change. Ten years ago, we didn't have smart phone developers or anything like that. Technology can create jobs very easily, because it creates opportunity. And because it creates opportunity, it creates jobs across the board. There's also another element here: Yes, automation and the use of technology, which makes things more effective, eliminates lower-level jobs. But as humans we have the ability to retrain.

BND: You mention in your book that too few business owners spot, let alone react properly to, certain business trends and that, as a result, many of them are beaten to the punch by competitors. What kinds of trends do you mean? What trend of recent years do you think businesses underused?

D.B.: First of all, it's important to differentiate between hard trends, by which I mean things that will happen, and soft trends, by which I mean things that might happen. One hard trend is that 78 million Baby Boomers will get older. That is not a cycle that can be broken. A lot of Baby Boomers love to fish; a lot love to go boating; a lot like to water ski. But as you get older, it gets hard to get into a boat. So why not create a business to create an easy-launch trailer? And why not start an elevator company that produces elevators that ascend only one floor and retrofit onto the outside of a house?

Most of us are underutilizing trends because we don't understand the difference between a hard trend and a soft trend. Instead of getting stuck in all the things we don't know for certain, we need to focus on what we do know―like the fact that Baby Boomers are getting older.

BND: How else are businesses getting it wrong with regard to job creation? How are they getting it right?

D.B.: Solutions are definitely there in times of transformation, but we have to take the time to access them instead of putting out fires, which is what we're doing right now. Right now, we're in crisis mode, and we don't think of any possibility of moving forward. We can't solve our problems by being crisis managers. There are unbelievable opportunities; let's not get stuck on all these problems.

Look at manufacturing. If, as a manufacturing company, I try to go up against China's companies, I'll lose by trying to beat them at their own game. I have to focus on what China can't do―like custom runs on short deadlines.

BND: What you said about too many businesses being stuck in crisis mode and failing to look ahead reminds me of one piece of advice from your book: To skip your biggest perceived problem. What do you mean by that?

D.B.: Technology-driven change is coming so fast that companies have little time to react.

In addition, thanks to the recession of the past few years, employees at all levels are doing the work of more than one person, causing them to be very busy and have no time for thinking ahead in a strategic way. Also, customers and consumers are changing and learning faster than the companies that are trying to serve them.

The problem is that everyone is too busy―and next year, everyone will be even busier. Everyone needs to skip the problem of being busy and see that the real problem is that they are not being anticipatory. They need to recognize that they are not using the power of certainty to see both new opportunities and solutions to problems they could not solve.

BND: How can technology be used to keep human jobs here in America? What has to be done?

D.B.: In my book, I talk about not competing. That is the key to keeping jobs here. For example, as I mentioned, a U.S. manufacturer can beat a Chinese manufacturer if it focuses on doing what the Chinese manufacturer can't do well―such as short-run, highly customized products that are delivered quickly.

BND: Can government implement your ideas, too, to preserve stable public sector jobs with good benefits? Or are those a necessary casualty, in your view?

D.B.: Government can do a lot if it stops focusing on fixing the blame and on its disagreements and instead focuses on what it can agree on as well as on solutions. I have many examples of governments and even school systems that have done what seemed impossible by using the seven principles in my book.

BND: How do you see your ideas playing out in various troubled American industries―like newspaper publishing and auto manufacturing?

D.B.: One of the seven principles in “Flash Foresight” is “redefine and reinvent.” Using the certainty of technology-driven transformation, older established industries can reinvent themselves. Newspapers are not about paper; they are about news. With iPads, tablets and e-book readers transforming what we read on, newspapers can excel if they embrace the shift toward multimedia news.

BND: In terms of job markets, what's your prognosis for the next few years?

D.B.: Wall Street has been recovering nicely. However, job creation for Main Street, the lower end of the economic ladder, will continue to be slow.

BND: What would you say to a company looking to pare down its employment rolls?

D.B.: Focus on retaining the people who remain to keep the company at the top of its game.

BND: How about to a job-seeker or somebody looking to change careers? How will she need to adapt?

D.B.: In general, the best thing to do in times of transformation is to learn new skills and to invest in yourself. Ask yourself: About what are you certain? What are the hard trends into which your personal core competency plays?