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Sean Pillot de Chenecey chats with the gregarious Tom Cheesewright, applied futurist and author of “High-Frequency Change”.
Included in the chat:
- Tom’s new book, “Futureproof Your Business“
- Tom explains the amplitude and frequency of change
- Business leaders’ attitudes towards optimisation vs. adaptation
- Books Tom recommends
- Interesting projects at top companies
- Lessons from athletes for business
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (00:04): Hello, this podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders founded in 1999. Today Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot De Chenecey author of The Post-Truth Business and Influencers & Revolutionaries. In this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialist, areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Tom Cheesewright, the applied futurist who’s worked with a range of the world’s leading brands, those including people like BP, HSBC and Unilever, his forthcoming book, Future-Proof Your Business is weighted eagerly. So Tom, welcome.
Tom Cheesewright (01:10): Thank you very much.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (01:11): We were talking earlier on, on a complete different topic about the vibrant creative powerhouse that is Manchester, which is I know where you’re based. So perhaps give us a bit of background on that fantastic city.
Tom Cheesewright (01:22): Home sweet home and it’s is city about which I feel very passionate these days. I’m an adopted Mank rather than a born Mank, but I was attracted there first in the 1990s when it had this incredible music scene centered on the Hassey ender, arguably the world’s first super club. And it’s got a feeling like that again now it’s, it’s, it’s grown, it’s expanded, it’s got much more of a, of a tech scene than perhaps it had back then, or even when I arrived in 2005. But I love the fact that I great example, I was looking for somewhere to film tomorrow morning. I’m making something with a German TV company about the future pizza tomorrow morning made out of insects and we needed somewhere to film. And I put a request out on Twitter and within about half an hour, about 20 companies had come back and said, oh, come and use our office. It’d be fine. It’s just, I love that, that sense of atmosphere of community that it has.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (02:11): Fantastic. Tell me Tom, one of the things I think about the world of futurism and forecasting, as it relates to organizations and brands and businesses of any and every type is that over the last decade, we’ve seen an, an astonishing amount of agents being agencies being set up in this area. A lot of consultants in this area, some good, some not so good, some like yourself, highly renowned and absolutely at the top of their game. And rightly so, one thing I find really fascinating about reading about your background and looking at a number of, of the videos of the year online is this thing that you talk about the amplitude and the frequency of change, which isn’t something that I’ve tended to hear elsewhere at all. So it’s a really interesting angle. So perhaps you can just tell us about exactly what you mean by the amplitude and frequency of change. Yeah,
Tom Cheesewright (03:07): Sure. I mean, you know, for me there, there’s kind of two types of futurists that I come across. There’s the ones who come from academic background, who’ve got sort of solid methodologies built on looking 30 years in the future. And then you’ve got, you might call you more sort of performative futurists who maybe were in a strategy role or an executive role in business and like the performance side of things and like standing up and giving their opinions. And those people are generally really entertaining. And I’ve tried to sit myself somewhere between the two. I, I wanted to have a methodology, a solid sort of, not exactly a science, but at least a sort of formal process. I could point to behind what I did, but I’m not denying that I enjoy the performing and the speaking and everything else. And, and as part of that, I was trying to understand why the phone was ringing.
Tom Cheesewright (03:45): Why, why these companies calling me when, when I moved into this, this sort of profession full time, about eight years ago. And the conclusion I came to initially was it, it was around this idea of, of, of accelerated changes. It’s something we hear a lot change happens faster. Now you’ve got to do all these things to keep up and it made a lot of sense. I, I totally bought into this idea until a friend of mine. Who’s historian sat me down over a couple of beers and told me that it’s absolute
Tom Cheesewright (04:25): And if you look at construction or lots of different industries, things haven’t moved that fast at all. So I had to go back to the drawing board and try and understand and try and build this methodology and this, this basis for why people were calling. And what I started to understand was that something is taking friction out of certain things. Some things are getting faster, it’s getting easier to do certain things. And what’s doing that is technology. Technology is, is the, is in the broadest sense is the tool that we use to take friction out of our lives. And wherever we remove that friction, we’re seeing this accelerated change, but where there’s still friction with perhaps not. And so you have to try and explain to people the difference between these long, low frequency changes that we’re still seeing things that take decades to happen, but perhaps touch every aspect of our lives.
Tom Cheesewright (05:09): This is the old grand arc of history stuff, but overlaid on top of that are these short, sharp shocks, which are disrupting single industries, single businesses at the same time. And, and being some with an engineering background, it looked to me like a wave. It looked like these big, low frequency waves, you know, great amplitude, big waves that crash into the shore and disrupt everything versus these much smaller, faster moving waves, the sort of things that could still take you outta the knees, if you’re not careful when you’re waiting into the sea, but perhaps aren’t quite on the sort dramatic scale to touch every aspect of our lives, but still really disruptive to single industries.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (05:46): Mm and so on that then you know, as we are now early 2020, are there any things in particular that are really grabbing your personal attention at the moment that you are talking to clients about? And you’re talking at conferences about that you think are really, you know, grabbing center stage and a really vibrant for the year
Tom Cheesewright (06:06): Ahead. I mean, lastly for me was the year of high frequency change. That book came out and I spent a lot of time talking about that. But one of the things I realized is that that same friction lowering effective technology does other stuff. And one of the things it does is it lowers the barriers to entry into a market, which means that in almost every domain I look at, there’s more choice. There’s this explosion of choice and competition. And this is incredibly challenging for organizations because the new competition often doesn’t look like the old ones you used to have these competitors that you were used to that were a lot, like you behaved a lot, like you had products and services a lot like you, and all of a sudden bang someone else comes on the scene, does everything completely differently and you are disrupted.
Tom Cheesewright (06:46): And you know, this morning I’ve been writing about the automotive industry. I do quite a lot of work with people like Audi and BMW. And, you know, the, the automotive industry was completely caught out by the arrival of Tesla initially, and then other actually incoming car brands after that, they thought they could control the pace of change the shift from the combustion engine to electricity. They knew it was coming, but they thought they could control it, cuz they were so big and so powerful. And because all their peers were behaving the same and then bang incomes, this challenger who does everything differently, that turns the whole industry on its head that learns incredibly fast and following tests that there’s loads of brands we’ve barely even heard about yet. People like BYD in China who are doing everything differently and they don’t look like the existing competition.
Tom Cheesewright (07:30): And this is the big challenge. Now it’s a big challenge for brands. How do we maintain our presence, our connection with the customer in the face of this new, exciting, different competition. How do we come to terms with the fact that the hold we thought we had on the customer isn’t as deep as we thought it was. And then there’s this big challenge for consumers as well. How do we navigate this
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (08:07): Mm-Hmm so again, so on that precise point, that it’s a really, really fascinating one when you’ve got this extraordinary level of change, which may not as a concept, be that different, as you said, historically, there, there have been almost continual or perhaps sporadic elements of extraordinary change in culture and society and all the rest of it. When you have people, consumers confronted with this spectacular array of choices, when you’ve got corporations and companies of all types being disrupted by everything around them, there’s obviously a huge gap there somewhere. So how do you advise companies? So let’s say in particular talking about the car industry mm-hmm
Tom Cheesewright (09:09): The starting point is, is a big mindset shift. And it’s a mindset shift that says for the last 50 years, probably maybe a hundred years, if we’ve got a really mature, company’s been around a long time, we’ve been focused on optimization. We’ve been focused on doing better tomorrow. What we already did yesterday. And when I say better, I mean more profitably typically to how can we do what we did yesterday? We, you know, with greater quality, less resource, more profit, and that mindset’s got a lot of people where they are today and it’s not enough anymore. In fact, it’s actively wrong in some cases because the more you optimize for what you do already, the harder it is to do something different tomorrow. And so you, you come back to this question for people, particularly for leaders and chief execs, what are you trying to do?
Tom Cheesewright (09:55): Are you trying to extract the maximum amount of success over the next six months, 12 months, two years, five years. And the average term for chief exec is less than five years, or are you trying to build a legacy? Are you trying to build sustainable success? And I mean sustainable in every sense of the word, are you trying to build a legacy that’s gonna last for decades? And if you are, you’ve gotta change your mindset. You’ve gotta change your behavior. You can’t be focused exclusively on optimization anymore. You’ve got to be focused on adaptation. How do we build a business that can be what the customer wants us to be tomorrow, the next day, the next year, how do we build something that’s gonna engage the customer and maintain that relationship through all of the potential challenges and disruptions to their life. How do we do that in such a way that means the customers trust us in 10, 20 years, whether that’s, you know, based on our impact on them and our ethics, whether that’s based on our impact on the environment, you know, so much change comes out of that shift or what do you want to be?
Tom Cheesewright (10:51): Do you wanna be mega successful in the next two years or do you wanna build a legacy for the next 20? And if the answer is the latter, you’ve gotta change your focus from optimization to adaptation. Mm.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (11:02): I think that’s also, that’s an interesting angle. That’s taken up by Simon Sinek, obviously in his latest book when he talks about the long game or the infinite game. And that perspective that says you move away from having an obsessional interest on what’s around you and what your competitors are up to. So if you are in your current context, if you are a BMW, should you be obsessed with Audi on one side and Tesla on the other or should to cut it very briefly. I think as, as as Simon Sinek says, have some authentic or have a genuinely authentic viewpoint, which is just be very good at what you do, you know, don’t be short termist, focus on the long game and stick with it.
Tom Cheesewright (11:48): Yeah. Although I think you have to accept that what you do may have no value tomorrow. So, I mean, you’re this, we’re talking about car companies, but this is true of a lot of organization. You have retailers, particularly, you know, huge retail brands. Who’ve been trying to sustain themselves through this collapse of retail, just by doing better, what they did before you. Okay. We, we are really good at selling stuff. We so, and people aren’t wanting it. So let’s sell it cheaper or, you know, let’s try and work out, you know, ride the next trend. When actually you’ve got a brand, you could do something different with HMV is a great example. You know, HMV could have made the transition at a number of junctures before it went under to be, to do something else with that brand to take that brand and say, do you know what?
Tom Cheesewright (12:30): We shouldn’t be employing three and a half thousand people in shops on the street anymore? Cuz people don’t want those shops on the street. And one way or another, those people are gonna lose their jobs. So do we lose their jobs under our control? Will we try and trans, you know, translate this company into something new and use that brand equity and that relationship we have customers or are we gonna run it out, run it out to its course, take the maximum amount profit until it dies and watch it collapse, you know, UN you know, unceremoniously. And there’s all sorts of reasons why that decision’s not easy. You know, how do you go back to shareholders and say, right, those profits you’re expecting for the next three years, you’re not gonna get your dividends. Cause they’re gonna reinvest it in doing something completely different. It’s gonna be radical.
Tom Cheesewright (13:08): We’re gonna shut the shops down. We’re do something completely different. You can’t do that very easily. You can’t get out of your lease agreements on the buildings very easily. But if you’ve built your organization with the understanding that that decision point is gonna come at some point that at some point we’re gonna have to make those radical decisions. Then all the decisions you make in the run up to that are completely different. You change the expectations of your shareholders. You change the way you make those leasing agreements. You build the organization in order to be able to make that radical change at some point, and it is inherently less efficient to do so you will be less profitable. But when that change point comes, the company doesn’t die. It evolves worst case. It rises like a Phoenix from the flames. Mm. And, and that’s a, you know, it’s a huge decision for people to make, but it’s, it’s a critical one right now,
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (13:54): I think on, on again, on exactly that point. I think we’ve seen a really interesting change as companies have adapted and have moved the focus away from products to services. That’s a really, I think, fascinating area. I hear your point about HMV in particular. I remember working on advertising account Ragev about 20 years ago and you could see it then, you know, there’s a, it wasn’t working. So
Tom Cheesewright (14:16): I mean, I, I actually worked on the press conference that launched legal music downloading. Wow. And so in my, my sort of first career you know, the first Dale was done between the five major labels and what was then real networks and the big of music net, you know, I created music and the media net, and we ran that press conference. We launched that. And you can, you can plot that point on the graph of, of both HMV sales and, you know, see these sales worldwide, you know, you can see it. And even, even if you’d left it until that moment, even if he you’d ignored Napster, you know, if, as soon as that deal is done, you can see what is gonna happen. And lots of people did. We used to talk about the celestial juke box
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (15:03): Mm. Mm. What about looking back slightly in terms of, you know, key points that really triggered you to be where you are now?
Tom Cheesewright (15:14): I guess there’s a few to, to pick up on, I mean, first one in there is a there is a book sale in a church hall in
Tom Cheesewright (16:03): And you know, decided to make what had been a hobby until then I’d been writing and broadcasting about the future since about 2006 alongside everything else I was doing decided to make that the, the full-time job. And then the, a really critical recent one was about three or four years ago. About three years ago, probably where I accepted that. I didn’t know it anymore. You know, I I’d worked in marketing, I’d worked in PR I’d run a tech startup. I kind of went into this thinking, yeah, I know what I’m doing. You know, I know what this business is gonna look like. I thought it was gonna be a sort of consultancy business. I was gonna sort of lease and license some products on the side. And then, yeah, about three years in, I actually listened to the people I had around me advising me.
Tom Cheesewright (16:42): And I’d been studioy during them until then. And they said, look, you know, the things you’re doing, like speaking people want you to speak people like you speaking, why aren’t that like the core of your business? Why aren’t you doing more of that? People love you writing. Why aren’t you writing books? And so I said, okay, I’m gonna stop and I’m gonna listen. I’m gonna do what you say for a while. And of course they were right. And that’s been really transformative now. It’s I, I enjoy the speaking so much. It’s got me into some incredible places around the world, some incredible companies, and it’s allowed me to actually access new stories as well. It’s, it’s a really interesting, you, you, you write an essay or a chapter for a book or something that, that expresses an idea and then you meet people, who’ve read it and experienced something like it, and they feed back to you with their stories and their anecdotes. And that that’s been a, it is made the last few years really, really interesting.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (17:28): So on the angle of, I know you speak around the world, you travel a massive amount. So any particular events or conferences or locations you’ve been to that really stand out to you as, you know, special ones?
Tom Cheesewright (17:43): Oh, so many, I mean I spoke in, in Nashville in 2019 and, and, and totally fell in love with that city. Yeah. Nashville is if you were going to sort of you sketch out in a screenplay, a town where, you know, sort of, you know, frat party town, or sort of American student college party town, it would be it, I mean, that’s an incredible place, but it, I guess it’s, it’s a bit cliche, but it’s those moments where you find yourself in just unexpected places. You know, you find yourself on stage with the CEO of HSBC and he’s listening to you and you’re like, wow, how did I get here? Or you find yourself in a green room with the, you know, these incredible celebrities. And you’re like, okay, this is, yeah. Oh, right, okay. Hello.
Tom Cheesewright (18:32): So I was saying, yeah, I started broadcasting back to 2006, but then you, you, you find yourself in these interesting types tomorrow where I’m, you know, making pizza out of insects for as far as I can tell the German sort of German crossing, the one show in tomorrow’s world.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (19:40): So in terms of that word, fascinating. So in terms of things that inspire you, I mean, you spend your entire time inspiring other people, but what is it that sparks your interest? So what, what have you been perhaps reading or listening to, or watching recently over the last year or so that has really grabbed your interest?
Tom Cheesewright (19:58): Oh, so much. I mean, I think it’s still a mixture of fiction. In fact, actually, you know, I think like lots of lots of futurists, I draw a lot on science fiction. And so I I’ve been reading actually with my eldest daughter, the mortal engines series recently. So we’re on the fourth book of the mortal engine series and, and I love Philip Reid’s writing. It’s wonderful. But yeah, if you need exposing to a, to a, to a, a rather a very original dystopia
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (20:57): It was an important book. It was very, very good. And I remember his analogy of which everyone used sense about, I think it was the being in a supermarket or the hypermarket and you, it is very easy when you had three choices of jam, very difficult to buy when you have 400 choices. Yeah. You ended buying
Tom Cheesewright (21:12): Talked, you talked about shopping for jeans. It’s like, I don’t know whether I want, you know, slim fit, skinny fit, stretch, regular, turn up, not turn up a salve. Like I just want a pair of jeans and, you know, I have as a man now in his forties, I have some sympathy with that.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (21:27): Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So in terms of what’s coming up next in your life, I know you’ve got the epic book coming up. So tell us about, about that. Some more about it. When is it out? And yeah.
Tom Cheesewright (21:36): So coming out summer, I think July we’ve, we’ve just announced this is a book called Future-Proof Your Business. And it’s a very practical book. If, if my first book was really about the theory about why people feel like change happening faster, and why, why people are phoning me up and going help. The, the, the new book is really about what you do about it. And particularly as a leader of an organization, how do we change our organization? How do we build the tools of Foresight to help us see what’s coming? How do we accelerate our decision making? And it’s the fourth in a, in, in a series called penguin business experts. So they’ve written some brilliant books so far they’re designed to be sort of short, digestible, practical, really usable in business. One about gender balancing your workforce. There’s one about you know, running, leading successful projects.
Tom Cheesewright (22:18): And this one’s really that, that toolkit in three parts. How do I look to the future? You know, what are the tools for looking to the future and planning ahead and getting out of the day to day mindset? How do I speed the flow of decisions through my business? So we can respond to what customers are saying and what the market’s requiring of us, and how do I restructure my business in such a way that when we do get these big shocks, when these changes come along, we can respond quickly and efficiently and make sure we can build that sustainable success that I increasingly think chief execs want to leave behind. Mm.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (22:47): And so in terms of, yeah, a plain fact that the vast majority of businesses and organizations are not living up to, you know, this, the ideal standard, should we say? How about the ones that are, are there any companies that you talk about that you refer to regularly that are your sort of pet favorites that you think here’s an organization that’s just got it, right.
Tom Cheesewright (23:14): I, I think there are organizations who’ve got the right mindset, or, but it’s, you know, particularly the big organizations and I tend to work with the, the larger organizations. It’s very hard for that mindset to be coherent across the whole business. In fact, in many ways, I think it shouldn’t be, so you tend to find is pockets of really good practice. And that’s, you know, sometimes that’s the chief exec with the right mindset trying to share it. So, you know, brilliant brilliant conversation with the chief exec of HSBC. And I’ve quoted him actually in the new book, you know, about trying to distribute decision, making, distribute power throughout the organization, and stop having these long chains of command and let people at the edge of the decision, the edge of the organization, take power and make decisions. And you know, I mean, PLA the people who own McBites, you know, they, they were really interesting to work with in terms of being very sophisticated in terms of their management practices and communication, particularly between units of the organization and actually BMW.
Tom Cheesewright (24:07): And you BMW doing something really interesting that I got involved in where they’re now rolling out. Well, they’ve actually been doing it for a couple of years, rolling out management training across the business. And they’re teaching this concept concept of ambidextrous leadership where they’re teaching people say, look, what’s got BMW to where we are today is being greater, what we do, and we can’t stop improving. We’ve gotta keep be getting better every year. That’s the optimization piece, but it’s not enough. And we recognize that now we’ve got to learn adaptation as well. And so what we need is to sort of inculcate this almost entrepreneurial mindset in everybody at every tier of the business, and we’ve gotta be driving that out to people. And then yet they’ve got this formal really good sort of education program for everybody in the management tier of that business, driving that message out across people.
Tom Cheesewright (24:52): And I think it’s that it’s those grand scale attempts at cultural change inside the business that I really respect when people are saying not just, we’re gonna, you know, I’m not gonna try and command and control tweaks here and there. I’m not just gonna try and steer it as a leader, but I’m gonna be, open-minded, I’m gonna be open. I’m gonna try and teach other people to do this. I’m gonna release power, and I’m gonna just, you know, allow a lot more sort of a lot more sort of networked business rather than this really monolithic business. You know, when I see that that’s are the examples I really like to refer to the ones I really respect.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (25:20): Okay. And then last couple of questions. I mean, we could happily talk the days about this pet subjects, but unfortunately we’re trying to keep these podcast as sort of as sharp as possible to leave the speakers, associates, listeners demanding more to finish off. I mean, as you’re an absolutely renowned applied futurist. So if you had your sort of elevator pitches, it were, you know, what are the, the key pithy points that you’d like to put across to the to the Speakers Associates audience, whether the whoever’s listening to this in, be it Beijing or Beirut, or, you know, Berlin or whatever. What are the key things that you’d really wanna get across in terms of why it is that you are such an in demand speaker and what are your key points that you talk about?
Tom Cheesewright (26:09): I think that applied word is important. You know, futurists are often really good at highlighting problems and trends and things you have to respond to, but don’t tell you how to respond. And what I try to do is give people this toolkit for things they can take away and apply. And, you know, everyone loves a sports analogy. And I think the, the best way to encapsulate some of those tools over this sports analogy is what I call, how do you build an athletic business? And there’s, there’s really three parts where everyone can take in three things. You, what are great athletes, great at what makes them different to the rest of us? And for me, there’s three things. The first is they’ve got better senses. They sense the environment around them. They’ve got really good sort of pro preception for what’s happening in the race.
Tom Cheesewright (26:46): And they’ve got a really good strategic sense of the race as well. They know when to make that run. You know, I had a gr a great conversation with Kriss Akabusi about this, about how they won the, the gold medal, how they beat the Americans, you know, it wasn’t to do with being the fastest runners. It was about strategy and that sense of the race and the game. And it’s about in business. That’s about looking up, how do you take the time to step back, look up and look at the future, not in the next six months, but the next six years. And that’s a big challenge. You know, the second thing athletes have that we don’t is that ability to respond fast. They take decisions quickly, you know, it’s that, it’s that that moment in the game where the, the midfielder just looks up and makes that beautiful 40 yard pass onto the boot of the Wininger, who knows it’s gonna be there because they play together all the time and they’ve rehearsed this and they’ve taken, they’ve put their power in his hands to take that decision.
Tom Cheesewright (27:36): And so how do you accelerate decisions? How do you in a particular big business with all the controls and all the risks, how do you allow the business to respond quickly? Like an athlete? And then the third one’s about fitness. You know, athletes train constantly to be able to capable of doing what they do, to be able to change direction quickly, to be agile, to be fast. How do you train a business to be agile and fast? Cuz most of them aren’t, most of them are monolithic and snow slow. And you know, the, the word that gets used a lot is, is super tankers. You know, we’ve got these huge, super tanker businesses. How would you turn a super tanker into an athlete? And I think you can do it. There is a methodology around breaking it down to these functional units and training it like training the muscle groups of an athlete. So if I was gonna leave them anything I say, look, I can come and tell you the, you know, what’s happening. I can come and tell you the trends. I can point you to some stuff that’s gonna excite you and that’s gonna scare you. But most of all, I’ll try and leave you with some answers as well. I’ll try and leave you with some practical tips that people can take away, take back to their businesses and use to respond to what’s coming.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey (28:32): Fantastic. Tom Cheesewright, futurist, author, leading speaker. Thank you very much.
Tom Cheesewright (28:41): Pleasure. Thank you.
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Sean Pillot de Chenecey
Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.
Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.