If you want to survive the cycle of innovation--that continuous process of discovery, incubation, acceleration, and scaling--there's something you need to know: If you remain a romantic, and attached to a legacy technology or trend, you are going to lose. One reason I've been so successful in my career is because I follow consumer attention. I don't hold onto what got me here. Yesterday, it was '91 cabernet sauvignon; today, it's rosé. Yesterday, it was the six-second-video app Vine; now, it's Instagram.
The fact is, the cycle of innovation is nothing more than a bundle of fancy words. The term means nothing. It's a general expression for the 10- to 20-year market trend in which what's old becomes new again. If you are planning to survive the cycle of innovation, you need to understand something about people.
Which is this: The way humans express themselves has been the same forever. The fundamental drive to communicate, to interact, and to tell stories will always remain. It's the media that change. Instead of a drive-time radio spot, now you record a podcast. Instead of writing a book, now you publish a blog on Medium. Instead of appearing on reality TV, now you vlog on YouTube. Instead of movie stars and celebrities, now you need Instagram influencers. It's just the truth.
As a businessman and entrepreneur, I actually don't care what the medium is. I always use innovative technology to do what I do best--communicating and executing on the fundamental principles that hold true. You're always going to have customer service. You're always going to have new technology. You're always going to have competition. You're always going to need sales. You're always going to need to build your brand.
The innovations aren't what matter. It's how you react and use these new tools. Your customers are always going to need support. Before, they called a 1-800 number, and now they tweet. Before, you sent an email, and now you interact on Facebook. Before, you made a big-budget commercial, and now you advertise on social. Your strategy hasn't changed. The media have.
For 98 percent of you, I think your business case is actually right. It's simply that your execution lags. There are two billion monthly users on Facebook today. There are 700 million monthly users on Instagram today. There are 1.5 billion monthly users on YouTube today. These are the media you need to engage. These are the innovations. These are the tools.
There are always individuals who are too early or too late. The key to winning a new opportunity is timing. When something interesting arises, experiment. Try new things; test. Look at your consumers today. How do they behave? Are they spending 25 hours a week consuming cable television? I doubt it. Are they shifting their attention and consuming Netflix? Maybe. Are they going home at 6 o'clock and hooking into VR? Definitely not.
The most difficult thing a manager has to address is when to jump into an innovation. Thankfully, the answer is simple. Study consumer attention. If no one you know is spending weeknights in VR, then the technology is not ready. You're trying to decide: Is it here today? Will it be here next year? Will it be here in five years? So many people jump in too early and get burned.
The greatest thing you can do as an Inc. reader is understand that nothing is actually new. You need to become a much better practitioner of consumer psychology and user history than is possible by reading headlines that try to predict the future. Focus on consumer attention today and not on the romance of yesterday. It's the only key to surviving the cycle of innovation.