At an inflection point
“We are at an inflection point in history.”
– JOEL GARREAU
I doubt that you have missed the urgency of the Sustainability Revolution, or the paradigm shift that the world of business is in.
To put this in a business lingo that we as business leaders may be more comfortable with: your business and industry may already be at an inflection point, as described by renowned business strategist Rita Gunther McGrath in her book Seeing Around Corners (2019).
An inflection point can be defined as a moment in time where a certain change in your business environment will mean dramatic change to your business. Over a company lifetime, several inflection points can occur as the business environment evolves. To use the language of the book so far, it could also be explained as the S-curve of a business reaching a point where an intentional strategic transformation will be necessary for the long-term health and survival of the company.
As such, an inflection point represents both opportunities and threats. Even though it feels like this change is sudden, it has most probably been gestating for some time. It normally develops gradually — out of scope for many — and then suddenly seems evident. Hence, for those who scan the horizon and can pre-emptively make sense of what is happening, it can be spotted early and in time to react.
Used strategically, this turning point can poise your business for bigger things and has the power to bring about exponential change and growth. It can create new spaces — blue oceans — and destroy outdated technologies and business models. Inflection points may, however, also mean that you need to change the very assumptions on which your company was founded in the first place.
/ Without strategic renewal, a company is destined for decline, as it fails to remain relevant and value adding to its stakeholders /
In this light, strategic renewal is vital for any business to survive inflection points long-term. Without strategic renewal, a company is destined for decline, as it fails to remain relevant and value adding to its stakeholders. The most important question that you need to answer right now is whether you are at an inflection point or not. And if so, what are you going to do about it?
Some companies have seen the sustainability revolution coming faster than others and can be considered leaders in this race, and consumers and investors are now rewarding them for it. Sustainability disruption is now spreading more quickly than most probably expected. With one hand on your heart, could you have envisioned ten years ago that the electric car would disrupt the automotive industry at the pace that it has, that Oatly (oat-based milk and foods) would be a serious challenger to the dairy industry, or even that the plant-based Impossible Burger would be sold alongside Burger King’s iconic Whopper?
There are also many signs across industries of increased focus on solutions to solve environmental and social challenges, from ‘sustainability as a service’; to circular solutions and business models with a focus on repair, reuse and zero-waste; to apps tracking everything from CO2-impact to health indicators. Open innovation and open-source solutions to collaborate to solve society’s biggest problems have also appeared over the past decade in parallel to green tech solutions for alternative energy sources, carbon capturing and much more. Green tech and circular business models are mentioned in several trend reports as key elements in the trend landscape.
As the first wave of innovators in this field seemed to be mainly activist-driven (e.g., Patagonia, The Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s), there now seems to be a second wave of innovators to be found at the intersection of tech startups and finding solutions to wicked problems. Norrsken Foundation has, for instance, identified its own top 100 list of impact startups. These early-stage companies are hardly focused on ESG compliance, but rather driven by entrepreneurial spirit, personal values and conviction, purpose, cool technical solutions, innovation, impact business models, scaling to solve relevant wicked problems, and doing well by doing good in the process. Many impact startups are backed and supported by corporate new venture arms and impact investors. A few of these will eventually scale and become future unicorns and, as such, will hopefully contribute to a transformation towards a more sustainable and equitable society. The substantial inflow of entrepreneurial activity and capital will most likely also increase the speed of change within the field and the level of what is considered common practices versus strategically differentiating practices. This is a process that will, in many cases, very likely start with low-end disruption in market segments underserved by the incumbents and a series of acquisitions — as was the case in the preceding digital transformation.
No matter what, history has proven that sooner or later some new actor will disrupt your current business model and eventually make it irrelevant through new business models, new technology, or clever solutions that are perceived as good enough to your customers. Or as Michael Tushman, professor at Harvard Business School, puts it, “Disruption often strikes when a firm is at its weakest, when all resources are diverted to sustain core operations. That is what makes today’s market uncertainty so dangerous. And while postponing investment in the future or funding a more comfortable present would be the easier path, you need to both fund the present and the future.”
/ History has proven that sooner or later some new actor will disrupt your current business model and eventually make it irrelevant /
In this context, disrupting your own business while you still can — while you still have a positive cashflow and good profitability — most probably means that you proactively move on to the next level of technology and business models (before you must) in order to safeguard your relevance and attractiveness and to continue bringing value to your ecosystem.
This post is a revised extract from the book Better Business Better Future, by Elisabet Lagerstedt (2022). It was also published on Medium.com.
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