Leading Through Chaos: How to Spot the Opportunities

Tony Hunter sat down with global trend hunter Jeremy Gutsche to discuss the convergent nature of his new book on creating the future and navigating chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tony Hunter has worked with some exceptional leaders throughout his career. He’s experienced moments of serendipity that led to business breakthroughs, and moments in time […]

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Tony Hunter sat down with global trend hunter Jeremy Gutsche to discuss the convergent nature of his new book on creating the future and navigating chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tony Hunter has worked with some exceptional leaders throughout his career. He’s experienced moments of serendipity that led to business breakthroughs, and moments in time that could have led to utter disaster.

Recently he spoke with his friend and former business partner, Jeremy Gutsche, a New York Times bestselling author and CEO of Trend Hunter, the world’s largest trend-spotting platform and innovation consultancy, about his latest book, “Create the Future + The Innovation Handbook: Tactics for Disruptive Thinking.” The two worked together during Tony’s tenure as CEO for Chicago Tribune from 2008–2016. It turns out the attitude and strategies that helped the two work together successfully then, are just as relevant to the chaos businesses are facing now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tony Hunter: What timing! Who would have thought that the content in your new book, “Create the Future,” and the timing of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in would align and converge like this. Can you reflect on that?

Jeremy Gutsche: You know, we’re obviously in a strange time. My career, when I look back at it, has always been about chaos and crisis. When I wrote my first book “Exploiting Chaos,” it was all about how people get intimidated by the doom and gloom of uncertain times. Yet those are the times that redefine us, that chart new paths, that create enormous opportunity. There are so many iconic brands that were founded in such times. That’s how I met you, Tony. You were in the middle of your digital transformation at the Tribune, and then later on your more heroic transformation, going from bankruptcy to most profitable news organization in America.

It was an honor to work with you and your team. After I wrote “Exploiting Chaos,” I started getting invitations from so many different CEOs of brands that were in terrible condition in 2008 through 2012 and looking for help through chaos. I just thought after a decade of a bull market, at some point things were going to be headed the other way. So, I brought that book back as “Create the Future.”

I never expected COVID-19, or anything like it. But everyone on my team was expecting that more chaos was bound to happen at some point. We were gearing up for this sort of scenario, though not this specific one, of course.

Tony: Your team is constantly looking at trends, emerging opportunities and threats. As you think about the new book and what’s happening in today’s marketplace, what are three to five things that you think will never be the same, Jeremy?

Jeremy: In 2008, we did a lot of research on what happens when a person goes through an economic crisis. Everything now is much, much more magnified because you’re in a psychological crisis as well staying at home. I do separate crisis from chaos because the two are different. The state we’re doing this interview in, the world is still in crisis, and that’s not a very good state unless you’re a mask maker, a gun maker, or a stockpiler of hand sanitizer. But once we get through it and enter the chaos and potential recession, there’s a period of enormous opportunity and change.

When we looked at the last big recession and our research there, we found there are a number of things that emerge when people go through difficulty. I think that’s going to happen even more so this time. The first one would be something we call potentialism. This idea that you go through an experience so difficult, you emerge, and you want to relive your life to its full potential. That means a lot of things.

For a Boomer that might mean his career has been wonderful. But he really wants to do a hobby business or craft. To a millennial this might mean, “Once I get out of here, I don’t just want to take a trip, I want to go on the adventure of a lifetime.” From my house, I realized what I missed out on. If you’re Gen X starting your young family, it might mean a return to the kitchen and recognizing how valuable the family time at home was. That’s potentialism.

Another thing would be ecosystem awareness. Gen Z already thinks that the rest of us are ruining the planet. They already have a higher attentiveness to the environment. We’re going to go through this, and point fingers and think in different ways, but a lot of it is still related to how the rest of us are mismanaging the world, our responsibilities. Even the Pope came out and said, in some ways this could be Mother Nature, the earth, reacting back. We are realizing how small we are as humans on this giant planet. Perhaps one bright side is that this sparks our attentiveness to eco awareness.

The last one I’ll give you would be that when you’re at home for this long, you question the security of your job, and you think about your career, and your life, and your family in a much more introspective way. This will have people thinking about the path of opportunity they could be on. That’s exciting for me because that’s what I wrote “Create the Future” about. A simple notion that in a world of change you see so many more paths of opportunity. When things are going well we get caught in the path we’re stuck in. We don’t realize how much potential we have. But I hope that when people enter this next period, they realize how many different chances they’ll have in the next year to really chart their course on a path that aligns to their passion.

Tony: Well said. Thank you. That’s a great summary, and it leads me to my next question. I often talk about leading from the front in your community, leading from the front in your family, and leading from the front in your company. As you think of the chaos beyond the crisis, what advice would you give leaders today to prepare them to capitalize on the opportunities that will be afforded by this disruption?

Jeremy: Post crisis we enter a period of chaos, and chaos is wild because throughout history in periods of chaos, we shuffle the deck. Leaders change the game; they remix the rules. They make all of the research you just did irrelevant. Everything has to be looked at from a new lens. I’ll give you a list of companies founded during economic global recession: Disney, CNN, Apple, Patagonia, GE, Fortune magazine, Burger King, MTV, Autodesk, Electronic Arts, HP, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Square. I can go on and on and on.

What’s so interesting about that long list is they aren’t companies that were randomly successful during a recession. They’re successful because there was a recession, because there was chaos. When the rules change, the young upstarts come in, pull off a couple of moves, and knock out the incumbents.

A favorite example would be Fortune Magazine, which was founded in 1929, just three months after the Wall Street Crash. It makes no sense that a luxury business publication should be founded after the Wall Street Crash. What’s even wilder is that it was priced at $1 an issue, which made Fortune the most expensive magazine that had ever been launched. Each magazine was the price of a wool sweater, and everybody would have bet against it. But the founder saw a different opportunity.

When the deck was shuffled, and the game was remixed, he realized that people were at home, out of work, for maybe the first time in history because of decisions made behind boardroom doors in New York. How did that happen? Fortune offered a glimpse behind those doors: How did we get here, and when might we emerge? Fortune, a luxury business publication during the Great Depression, was simply an answer to a new consumer need. Because of that, they ended up with half a million subscribers, and they made $7 million of modern day profit during the Great Depression.

Chaos creates opportunity. It reshuffles the deck. It changes who’s in the lead. You need to use this time period to completely reimagine your research, and study what your consumers actually need now. Consumer needs are evolving by the minute.

Tony: At Trend Hunter, that’s right in your sweet spot, your core competency. I’m sure you’re working closely with your clients now to prepare, to gather the research that will reshape the way we go to market with our consumers. You are at the center of managing through the chaos. You’ve worked with a number of leaders throughout the last decade, and helped many companies navigate times like this. What are some of the attributes in leaders that you admire who were highly successful in chaos?

Jeremy: What’s interesting is that it’s not really about the industry. From the outside people don’t always know, but on the inside of these organizations, I’ve found the openness to new ideas, that ambition to assume there’s more opportunity out there, the willingness to assume that you are incorrect, these are related attributes. But they all kind of tease off whether or not you’re able to look for new opportunities, and adapt. I think when you see that in a leader, in a team, you’re much more likely to exhibit success.

I’ve worked with some of the coolest organizations in the world: NASA, the ruler of Dubai, Google, Starbucks. But one of my favorite examples is working with you, Tony, and the Chicago Tribune. When we first started working you were the publisher, and it was a simpler project for a simpler world trying to think about how to digitally reinvent. What became much more wild was watching your work as you were promoted to CEO, and trying to make this organization reinvent itself.

When I think about what it would be like to have been in your position as publisher, getting offered that top job of CEO, you’re told you need to lay off 20 percent of staff, then declare bankruptcy — which is like running the cruise ship you’re driving into an iceberg like the Titanic — that’s not a job you want to accept. It was nice to see all of the different things you did to really embrace cultural change, and make it happen.

I have a list in front of me, which I put in my book when I did your case study. You’re not going to say it because you’re too humble, but I see it as one of the most iconic business stories in America, and I can’t wait for it to be retold in many ways. But the five rules you gave me to make change happen in times of chaos were:

1. Simplify the plan.

2. Engage the team.

3. Put the customer first.

4. Invest in new opportunities, and

5. Force a discussion of competing alternatives.

I always thought that to be a very motivating list of things to think about in times of chaos and change.

Tony: Well thanks, Jeremy. I’ll pay you for that later. But to return, sir, I would say our work with Trend Hunter was eye opening. Hearing from you, and seeing the information that your company provided us during the chaos that would ensue in those years we worked together, clearly opened our eyes to what we didn’t know. It also opened our eyes to the fact that we better start making change and making change happen fast, or we were doomed. That kind of attitude really took hold in the company, and we used your book, “Exploiting Chaos” as our handbook. That was a major cornerstone of our success — being open to new things, and knowing what you don’t know. That humility is something you don’t see in many organizations.

So, I thank you for helping chart the course through chaos. One thing we’re like minded about is, chaos and disruption may wreak havoc on your business model, but it also creates opportunity that you can capitalize on, as long as you transform your company.

Thank you for your time today, Jeremy.

This article was originally published on medium.com on 5/7/2020.

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