Whose Future Is It Anyway?

E-business currently stands at a crossroads. The road behind us is paved with the hopes, dreams, and carnage of our initial collective ideas for successful Internet businesses. It’s characterized by free, low-bandwidth content; bountiful funding (not to mention a lot of dumb money gone bust); and an audience dominated by early adopters.

The roads that lie ahead of us are unpaved, unmarked, and mysterious. Yet the experts tell us they will be characterized by “always on” connections (including a proliferation of rich media on demand and ubiquitous wireless access at both global and local levels), greater investment scrutiny, and more mainstream users.

For now, that leaves us seeking momentum to lead us out of the stock market funk of the status quo and into the next cycle of hype and opportunity. In these times of uncertainty, businesses often turn to a familiar cast of characters for direction: management consultants, venture capitalists, and technology visionaries. Last month, Greg attended a private dinner where high-profile industry representatives of all three groups met to exchange their visions of the future between mouthfuls of adjective-laden vittles.

Never Underestimate the Irresistible Lure of Free Food and Drink

Sponsored by Mercer Management Consulting, the diners included computing pioneer Gordon Bell, the founder of idealab!’s Silicon Valley office, and various other U.S. and international leaders in consulting, technology investment, and product development (so don’t ask why Greg was invited). The main subjects of discussion for the evening regarded the proliferation of bandwidth, the wireless Internet, and application service providers.

Though no one pointed it out, opinions around the table had a tendency to fall along professional backgrounds. The management consultants often played the role of optimists — for example, anticipating unlimited bandwidth capacity eventually in every corner of the globe. The venture capitalists often took more of a middle ground — expecting some great opportunities for growth, but also skeptical of other areas where there was a lot to prove before the hype seemed warranted.

On the other end of the spectrum were the technology and product visionaries, who — perhaps uncharacteristically — were frequently the pessimists of the group. Whether dismissing the value of satellites for broadband Internet communication (e.g., as long as the broadcast model is irrelevant to the Internet, so will satellites be irrelevant to the Internet) or charging that some innovative technologies are designed more for marketers than consumers (e.g., Bluetooth), this group frequently made the investors at the table nervous. (After Gordon Bell cut into something, you could sense that some of the venture capitalists were itching to duck out of the dining room to hit “Sell” on their Palm VII brokerage accounts.)

“I’ll have the crhme br{lie and short 10,000 shares of Megatel.”

We don’t think any of these groups were aware of their apparent biases, as they undoubtedly responded true to their beliefs. Yet it’s uncanny that the scale of the management consultants’ business depends on the optimism of their clients. Meanwhile, venture capitalists need to be aggressive enough to beat the next investor to the deal, yet cautious enough to avoid an investment sinkhole. As for the technology visionaries, you could make the case that they tend to be skeptical of any idea they haven’t first thought of themselves.

Whether there was a subconscious bias influenced by profession, or whether certain professions attract people of the same bias, the lesson is the same. As Greg’s favorite college philosophy teacher used to say, “Any ‘ism’ is only as good as the person who believes in it.” When soliciting someone’s vision for the future of your business or industry, it helps to know where he or she is coming from regardless of intentions.

Does this mean the messenger disqualifies the message? Hardly. In an innovative market, businesses cannot afford to wait for customers to tell them exactly what they want — otherwise aggressive competitors will have already claimed the market. Therefore, you should heed as many sources of reputable advice as you can. Any bias, if it exists, can always be sorted out afterward.

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