ChangeLabs CEO Peter Sheahan advises region to take off blinders



Peter Sheahan’s words of business counsel, flavored with his Australian accent, urged West Michigan to open its eyes to the future.

Sheahan, a self-described “futurist” and founder and CEO of ChangeLabs, spoke on “The Future of Our Economy” at this week’s Economic Club of Grand Rapids luncheon at the Amway Grand Plaza.

Economic volatility, political dysfunction and a technological shift are fundamentally changing the world’s business, he said. As an inflection point nears, more strategic planning is required, he said, much as the city of London did in 1901 when creating its first strategic plan.

Citing many historical examples, Sheahan explained how industry game changers are usually already in existence but are often written off as unimportant or not expected to rapidly change.

He told the story of how in the late 1980s, telecommunications firms hit the inflection point from wired to wireless cell phones. He said an early AT&T feasibility study on the global marketability of cell phones claimed if 100 cell phones could be sold in 100 percent of the world markets, 900,000 units could be sold.

“This room will probably use 900,000 units,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience. “Were there cell phones in the early 1990s? Yeah, and they were the size of the podium . . . but the evidence for where the market was going was right there.

“When you look at industry, businesses and entire societies going from an inflection point, and you look back on them with the beautiful 20/20 of historical lenses . . . it was never technology, it was never a competitive threat, it was never a trend that no one saw coming that changes an industry. It is always something that they’ve been talking about for 10 years prior, but the leadership . . . made very poor assumptions about what was changing. . . . Your job as a leader is to question the assumptions you’re making on the periphery of the market.”

The conversation has to start with recognizing assumptions made in the business world, Sheahan said. An “unconscious bias,” limits views, because “you judge yourself by your intention, and you judge everyone else by their outcome,” he said.

Often times, he said, the stalemate is born from the egos of the disproportionally powered few that make the assumptions.

“We often allow the current attributes of the marketplace to define future opportunities,” Sheahan said. “We allow that to determine our strategy. We miss the white space or the uncontested market. Don’t let the market define the need state. . . . You’re not in the business of what you do. You’re in business of what your outcome creates.”

Sheahan warned against the “gravity of success,” which keeps the mind from seeking new opportunities because it becomes too trusting in the familiar success path. This trend is easy to fall into, because “change is really slow until it isn’t,” he said, explaining that when a market comes together, the tipping point hits a perfect storm, and a new product becomes a hit.

If Grand Rapids does not stay on the “lone edge of change,” as Sheahan called it, the city could be in danger of missing the wave.

“The single greatest risk Grand Rapids likely faces in the next 10 to 15 years as an ecosystem is the fact that you’ve been phenomenally successful for in the last 10 to 15 years," he said. "You’re the good news story in the state, right? That is exactly the dangerous place to be.”

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