Don’t Wait for the Future, Invent It

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Get a Sneak Peak From Rebecca Ryan Before Her Appearance at WASTECON

“But,” you say, “we just work in the industry, we don’t lead the industry.”

“Ahh grasshopper,” I say, “that’s just the story you’re telling yourself.”

Ever since SWANA’s been putting WASTECON videos on YouTube, you’ve talked with each other about the problems (contamination!) and your hopes for the future (C’mon, EPA framework!) My colleague Yasemin Arikan reviewed all of SWANA’s YouTube videos and reported:

“The loudest (most frequently mentioned) topics seem to be:

  • Shifting to a "circular economy”
  • Climate change
  • International policy changes that force the industry to find more domestic markets for their products
  • Automation, AI, self-driving vehicles, blockchain
  • Contamination as a significant problem in the residential recycling stream”

What do all of these issues have in common?

They are things that are happening to you. By outside forces.

But that’s only half of the story.

The future doesn’t just happen to you. You can also take action to shape the future. But if we spend all of our time together hand-wringing or talking about what may happen to us, we deny ourselves agency in the process of creating the future. You don’t want to put the future into others’ hands. As my colleague David Brown, CEO of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce often says, “I prefer to create the change, rather than being on the receiving end of the change.”

Let me pose a plausible situation that might help you imagine how to take action for the future:

Imagine that tomorrow, a SWANA headline hit your inbox with the subject line: AMAZON ANNOUNCES LAUNCH OF WASTE HAULING BUSINESS

The email continues:

Today, Amazon announced that it would enter the waste hauling business, noting that it could eliminate inefficiencies across the system, connect suppliers to demand, and leverage its intense warehousing, automation, and mobile infrastructure to do more safely and effectively what waste haulers cannot. Amazon will begin to rollout its services by year’s end, starting in markets where it has already developed infrastructure.

Think about this.

If a major competitor entered your industry hell bent on eliminating you, what would it do first? And then what? And then what?

The moral of this plausible scenario is that your industry - and many industries that are older and infrastructure-laden - are ripe for disruption. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Here are three questions to ask, to get your organization ready for the future.

  1. Where are we going?
    When most organizations do their strategic planning, they face the past. They look at what they’ve always done and ask, “How can we do this better, more safely, and more economically?” Planning for the future based on what you’ve always done is like driving across country looking only through your rearview mirror.
    What if you asked this question instead, “What’s coming, that we have to be ready for?” And “What investments do we have to make in people, technology, and infrastructure to be future-ready?”
    When you design a strategy with foresight (rather than hindsight), you’re able to shape your future and anticipate what’s coming. This is a true competitive advantage. It makes you a leader, not a follower.
  2. How will we get there?
    “Everyone wants innovation, but no one wants to change.” Ain’t that the truth? The reason so many innovation efforts fail is that they don’t have a strong “Why?” Innovation requires will and human effort. And those things only show up to work when the “Why?” is clear.
    Innovation comes in two varieties: incremental and “leapfrog.” Incremental innovation is exactly what it sounds like, a small tweak that makes you a bit better. If we can help our waste haulers get a little more safe and decrease accidents and fatalities, that’s a win. 
    Leapfrog innovation is when you make a significant improvement. It’s like going from a flip phone to the iPhone X. It’s orders of magnitude better. These innovations are far more rare, but when they happen, everyone faints in wonder.
    Regardless of whether you’re trying to do incremental or leapfrog innovation, if you don’t know where you’re going, it will be a real challenge to make the case.
  3. What’s my role?
    No matter how you slice it, your organization is made of human beings, and humans want to be a part of something bigger. What’s more, when people feel that they have a stake and a say in your organization’s future, they’re more inclined to stay (hello, increased retention!) and give their discretionary effort (hello, engagement). But people have to see how they “fit” and what they can do to be part of the future. You can do this by:
  • Engaging them in the future-facing conversations and processes
  • Hosting Q&As about the innovations and how they can be a part of making a better organization
  • Asking them to design solutions. We’ve found great resonance by using Strategic Doing.

The future is coming, whether you’re ready or not. But there are many things you can do to create the future you want, and increase employee engagement and retention in the process.

Here’s to your future,
Rebecca Ryan, APF


RR headshot_1.8MBRebecca Ryan, Resident Futurist, Alliance for Innovation

Rebecca Ryan is a futurist and economist who works to help the public sector understand and imagine the future. She’s served as the resident futurist at the Alliance for Innovation and the Association of Governmental Risk Pools. She’s one of the world’s top futurists, and one of only several hundred to earn the top credential from the Association of Professional Futurists. Described as a “human spark plug,” Rebecca will be a keynote speaker at WASTECON 2019 in Phoenix.



Make sure you catch Rebecca Ryan's presentation, as well as many other industry leaders, at WASTECON! Register before August 31 for our Advanced Pricing discount!