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The Bicycle Theory of Business: Don’t Get Left Behind by Innovation

The key to riding a bicycle is momentum. As long as you keep moving forward, the bike seems to balance itself. Business is similar. Any business or business leader who stands still too long loses the momentum to keep going. It’s hard to get momentum back from the grip of tired corporate bureaucracies and individual complacency.

If they want to keep moving forward, business leaders have to be flexible and ready to change. The world won’t stop evolving just because you find yourself in a comfortable position. There is no end to innovation and changing market conditions. Keep moving forward with the world, adapting when necessary and leading with new creative and innovative ideas when possible. Momentum is the only way to stay upright when things change so fast.

“Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations”
–Marcus Aurelius, second-century Roman emperor, and philosopher (books.google.com/books?id=brSidvTKfcQC)

The Bicycle Theory

For decades international trade was negotiated in a round after round of global trade talks with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. As an international trade expert wrote in a 1983 issue of Foreign Policy, (jstor.org/stable/1148284) “the GATT system must move forward, or it will fall over.” Because the world is constantly changing, trade liberalizers believe that if trade liberalization doesn’t keep moving forward, if it doesn’t keep adapting to change, it will stall and regress as countries try to solve their problems with protectionism.

This prediction seems to be coming true. After decades of successes and the creation of the World Trade Organization, further rounds of international trade negotiation stalled in the 2000s and 2010s. Without moving forward, the WTO could not keep pace with changing technology and geopolitics, and countries are increasingly turning to tariffs and protectionism to get what they want.

How to Keep Moving Forward with Constant Exploration and Innovation

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
–Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech (news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/)

International trade negotiators have to constantly adapt to changes in technology and geopolitics, and business leaders have to constantly adapt to changes in technology and business markets. To stay ahead, businesses need to avoid getting bogged down in stale old ideas, and individual business leaders have to make sure they don’t become complacent about their skills or position. Both have to constantly search for new ways to improve and innovate.

Always be exploring new ideas. Always be watching what is happening around you. Don’t just watch what’s happening within your own business or industry. Hunt around. Be curious about everything. Only by gathering enough widely dispersed information will you be able to make creative and innovative connections that other people can’t.

Someone who’s spent 30 years specialized in one field might know that field exceptionally well, but they might also be blind to that field’s faults and opportunities. Innovation comes from questioning how things work and wondering how they can be better, and innovative ideas often come by applying the concepts from one field to another.

By exploring, you’ll see incoming trends first, you’ll see how different business models in another industry could change your own, and you’ll find weaknesses in your own business because you’ll have something else to compare it to.

Keeping Track of Where You’re Going

Don’t get lost in the weeds while exploring. Everyone in business has to keep moving forward, but it’s always possible to go too far. Companies that are too unstructured to ever complete a project won’t survive in the long term. Aspiring business leaders who constantly come up with new ideas but never act on any of them will never go anywhere.

Keep moving forward, but make sure you have a general idea where you’re going. Change with the times when you notice an opportunity, such as exciting innovations in other industries and changing market conditions. And change when you spot a threat down the road, such as innovations from competitors. Don’t change randomly without thinking about it.

Don’t worry about where you’ve been, but figure out where you’re going. You will only get somewhere better if you make an effort to get there. Otherwise, your bicycle will tip over, and you’ll be left behind by the pack.

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