Innovation expert and author Jeremy Gutsche understands the importance of spotting the next big trend.
Jeremy Gutsche is the founder of Trend Hunter, an online trend-spotting network sourced by 100,000 contributors around the world. The Trend Hunter website, which attracts 40 million monthly views, is a go-to resource for those looking for a daily dose of micro-trends, viral news, and pop culture. The company, which is based in Toronto, also provides information on the latest trends to leading corporations.
But trends have little if any inherent value. What matters is how you react to them. That’s one of the underlying themes of Gutsche’s entertaining and insightful first book, Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change, which was named one of Inc. Magazine’s “Best Books for Business Owners.”
Recently, GO editors spoke with Gutsche, a former management consultant and director in a financial services organization, about his entrepreneurial evolution, innovation, and the importance of spotting trends.
GO: What motivated you to leave your corporate career and become an entrepreneur?
GUTSCHE: I always wanted to be at the helm of something new, and was earnestly searching for an inspirational idea, but having no luck. I started Trend Hunter as an entertaining vehicle for information exchange; a place where people from around the world could share business ideas. In a relatively short time, we had 100,000-plus trend spotters combing the globe for new ideas. The upshot was the world's largest database of ideas and trends.
We realized that there was a lot of data we could gather from the resounding response to our website: we now quantify and score ideas algorithmically, identifying the ideas with greatest resonance for particular audiences. This capability allows us to build platforms for big-brand clients so they can monitor not only their own, but also related markets.
GO: From your perspective as an innovation expert, why do you believe so many organizations struggle with innovation?
GUTSCHE: I like to say, “complacency will be the architecture of your downfall.” When you’re good at something, you don't have to try as hard, and companies put policies and procedures in place to preserve the status quo and not mess with the wealth. In trying times, creativity gets bogged down in the process.
GO: What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about innovation?
GUTSCHE: People often define it in terms of revolutionary ideas and products—the big breakthroughs—but it's actually a mindset for looking at all the little things, in all areas of your company. Within even the smallest decisions, there is a winning line, and it's really the alignment of all the little decisions—working for a common goal—that adds up to the big wins.
We help people with medium-level trends; the big trends are already in front of us. Having a Facebook or Twitter account may be a big, in-your-face trend, but actually pushing the limits of the media, that’s another story. If you don’t have a million fans at least on your Facebook page then I’m talking about you. There ought to be a self-generated sense of urgency; if not, the shock’s on you.
GO: In your book, Exploiting Chaos, you discuss what separates innovative organizations from those that struggle.
GUTSCHE: I break it down into four main areas. The first is having a perspective, a focused mission view of what it is you’re trying to do. The next is a tolerance for experimental failure; the organization will be at risk if individuals aren’t allowed to take risks. The third is intentional destruction. When you’re good at something and profitable as a result, you become adverse to experimentation. Sometimes you have to cannibalize your sales and try something new. And the fourth and most important: customer obsession. This means having people, from the CEO on down, relentlessly working to understand what the customer is all about.
The emerging recognition of the criticality of innovation—adapting and trying new things—can be seen in the transformation of HR. Thirty years ago, a personnel manager’s role was centered on recruitment and management of HR roles. Since then, we’ve learned that culture is one of the most important variables in innovation, and HR is responsible for setting the appropriate tone. Over the next decade, I think you'll see that the most successful organizations will be the best adapters —as a result of the elevated role of HR, as cultivators of innovation.
GO: What would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind when thinking about the people side of innovation?
GUTSCHE: Well, on an individual level, it’s hard to take on risk, especially when one is successful. While complacency is part of the corporate malaise, it is even more powerful on the employee level. People need to pay their mortgages, put their kids through school, buy a new car, etc. Their timeframes are limited; too short-term to be experimenting and adding new skills, especially when the status-quo is reward-worthy. No one will tell you that they want to be complacent, but it is human nature to stop trying when you are already good at something. I think on a people level, creating an innovation-driven culture is very difficult and requires many steps, but it is definitely possible.
GO: Can you innovate if you’re not a trend spotter?
GUTSCHE: No. The word “trend” is used in many ways, but it's fundamentally about adapting to market changes. We're experiencing history's highest rate of change: China, social media, global competition, economic collapse, Web 2.0, e-commerce, and so on. The Fortune 500 companies are changing at record pace. Organizations in general are growing or collapsing more quickly than ever. At the end of the day, what makes or breaks success is whether your culture can adapt and innovate.
GO: In your book, you talk about “adaptive innovation.” Can you explain?
GUTSCHE: It means that in times of disruption, you don’t need to tear everything down and rebuild. Rather, you should be looking for shifts in mindset, try new things, and make small alterations on a continuous basis. It's not about discovering a single consumer need. It’s about tracking the pace of collective consumer needs.
GO: What do you mean when you say, “If you’re big, act small; if you’re small, act big?”
GUTSCHE: When we talk about adaptive innovation, we’re asking big organizations to think and act more entrepreneurial—more people-empowered, more agile. For entrepreneurs, on the other hand, it’s never been easier to create a giant presence, to act big. Online you can create a brand that can go head-to-head against the major players, in the same sandbox. Social media can intimately engage consumers of a global brand, and enlarge the footprint of a start-up shop. In the last decade, we’ve witnessed revolutionary, dramatic change.
Gutsche’s book, Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change, is available at bookstores and major online booksellers. You can also download a free electronic copy of the book at www.trendhunter.com.