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Recently I advised a large telecommunications company on its long-term strategy for wireless communications. The company was understandably concerned about its future. A half-dozen new streaming TV services were in the process of being launched, and bandwidth-hungry online gaming platforms were quickly attracting scores of new players. Possible regulatory actions seemed to be lurking around the corner, too.
Changes like these meant disruptions to the company’s existing business models, which hadn’t materially evolved since the dawn of the internet age. As a result, the company worried that it might be facing an existential crisis. To get in front of the risk, its senior leaders wanted to dispatch a cross-functional team to produce a three-year outlook analyzing which disruptive forces would affect the company and to what degree. It was no simple effort. First, the leaders had to galvanize internal support. At this company, any change to standard operations required lots of meetings, presentation decks, and explanations of concrete deliverables. Once they had buy-in and the cross-functional team was in place, they spent months researching the company’s competitive set, building financial models, and diving deeper into consumer electronics trends.
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Finally, the team delivered on its mandate. A detailed, comprehensive three-year plan projected that new streaming platforms and online gaming would cause a drastic increase in bandwidth consumption, while newer connected gadgets — smartphones, watches, home exercise equipment, security cameras — would see greater market penetration. It was a narrow vision that would take the company down a singular path focused only on streaming and consumer gadgets without considering other disruptive forces on the horizon.
The findings were hardly revelatory. Streaming platforms, gaming, and gadgets were a given. But what about all the other adjacent areas of innovation? In my experience, companies often focus on the familiar threats because they have systems in place to monitor and measure known risks. This adds very little value to long-term planning, and, worse, it can lead to organizations having to make quick decisions under duress. It’s rarer for companies to investigate unfamiliar disruptive forces in advance and to incorporate that research into strategy.
I was curious to know how the company had initially framed its project. The objective was to investigate all of the disruptive forces that could affect telecommunications in the future, yet it had really focused only on the usual known threats.
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