In the Age of Imagination, small trends have big impacts

For most businesses there is little to be gained in searching for the so-called megatrends long-term energy shortage, the convergence of computer and communication technologies, and government involvement in the financial arena. These trends are, typically, too massive, too general, and too widely recognized to be of value to any but the largest companies. Rather, attractive new opportunities for most new and established companies are typically the result of identifying and taking advantage of smaller, more human-size trends.

I characterize these more manageable trends as “minitrends” — emerging trends that will soon become important, but are not yet widely recognized. The challenge is identifying, assessing, and taking advantage of opportunities afforded by such minitrends. But a culture that encourages a continual alertness for important minitrends is better positioned for success in today’s rapidly changing technology, business, economic, and social environments.

A new age brings new problems.

In depicting the story of mankind, historians typically characterize each era according to the key technology of the time. Thus, we have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Agriculture Age, and the Industrial Age. The last two decades have often been described as the Information Age and, indeed, we are currently being absolutely swamped by a tsunami of information.

The almost unlimited amount of information being produced, together with increasingly effective techniques for accessing and processing this information, means that, in the future, success will not depend on the amount of information one can gather, but rather on how imaginatively individuals and organizations can employ this information. Thus, I am convinced that we have entered a new age—the Age of Imagination.

To succeed, individuals and organizations must be able not only to access information efficiently, but also to develop imaginative ways to apply the information. If you examine recent successes such as LinkedIn, Skype, and Groupon, in each case, their success has been based on using information that was available to everyone in new and imaginative ways. Identifying interesting minitrends can ensure your business can do the same.

Where do the great ideas that lead to such successes come from? In some cases, imaginative ideas present themselves almost by accident. Examples include Reed Hastings’ inspiration to establish Netflix resulting from his unhappiness with a $40 late fee for a VHS tape. But most often, important new opportunities are the result of a focused search for imaginative new ideas—leaders must identify minitrends.

How to do a targeted search for new ideas.

There are many approaches for individuals with an entrepreneurial bent to uncover attractive minitrends. Examples include follow the money, follow the leaders, examining limits, searching for convergences, noting demographics, and analyzing frustration.

In the case of “follow the money,” a minitrends seeker can search for groups that are interested in supporting new technologies. Such groups include angels, venture capitalists, non-profit foundations and, most notably, the federal government. The federal government has a vast amount of capital available and is quite willing to make funds available for innovative concepts. By seeing where the U.S. puts its R&D dollars you might see a coming trend.

The National Science Foundation is required by law to identify any project it funds and publicizes areas of new technologies in which it is interested. The Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Program require most government agencies to reserve two-and-a-half percent of their extramural research funds for small businesses and, by law, to publish the projects they have funded and areas of research that they are interested in funding. Reviewing such announcements can assist you in identifying profitable minitrend opportunities.

Another approach for searching for attractive minitrends is to examine where different trends converge. In Austin, Texas, Mason Arnold noted increasing public interest in organic foods, locally grown foods, and a desire for simplifying grocery shopping. He took advantage of these trends to establish Greenling, Inc., a company that delivers locally grown organic foods directly to customers’ doors. The company has grown from two employees to more than twenty. The imaginative nature of the company’s culture is indicated by the titles of its product managers, i.e., Curry Courier, Bringer of Good Thymes, and Keeper of the Peas.

To encourage a culture that prizes imagination and to reap its benefits, I suggest individuals and businesses set up formal minitrends programs for searching, evaluating, and exploiting minitrends proactively.

A strong minitrends program creates a mindset that feeds imaginative ideas and opportunities to the business. The process provides individuals and members of an organization with the tools to utilize their perceptiveness, their innovative nature, their experience, and their common sense for their own benefit and that of the organization. It can also be a lot of fun.

Ultimately, a commitment to minitrends provides the tools for success in the emerging Age of Imagination.

Dr. John H. Vanston is Chairman of Technology Futures, Inc. and conference chair for MiniTrends 2012: A Conference on Translating Emerging Trends into Business Opportunities. He is also the author of “MiniTrends: How Entrepreneurs & Innovators Discover & Profit From Business & Technology Trends.