Any big industry like healthcare or insurance flows like a river. It has an established—albeit—messy form. For this body to thrive, its primary focus is to keep the water streaming while using overwhelming force to constantly find the most efficient path.

Those that don’t understand how the river flows and how its banks change over time… well, those are the “innovators” that we often see underestimate the undercurrent and drown or end up beached somewhere scratching their heads. Why? Most overcompensate for the general idea that it’s a non-linear ride on the journey to growth. Arrogance (or ignorance) has too many entrepreneurs thinking they have a cheat code to speeding up the trip, so they do a terrible job of preparing for the crazy journey ahead. Or… leaders of established companies think they can acquire a ton of “stuff” that can be aggregated into something that eventually becomes too big and ill equipped to appropriately navigate the new, unforeseen turns that are ahead.

Bigger boats may be able to weather obstacles in the river better. They can carry more customers. They have more scouts to predict the turns ahead. They also may be unable to navigate a big bend that’s coming. There may be a blockage ahead that changes the flow. This alternate journey could require a different type of engine or a nimbler vessel. All this to say, “no matter your size… it’s the river taking you for a ride.” It’s not the other way around. 

There can be disdain from some established industry leaders when words like innovation and disruption are used (which aren’t the same, by the way). When they evaluate the banks of a river, they’ll tell you that nothing is changing. Their eyes tell them this. That’s what they need to believe, because they have experience navigating the current flow. Expand these views out to weeks and months, and things still may look pretty similar. But… the river is changing its flow and shape. Every day. Take a look at a time lapse of a river’s banks over many years via google. A river changes materially over a long enough time period. This is why organizations need a mix of different leadership perspectives.

On the surface, a deep, well-formed river has a big bias against significant change. The water already flows in a well-carved channel whether you’re there or not. In nature, the river is undertaking significant (but often slow) transformation. There are different currents at work, which create meanders. The river eventually pushes its water to connect the two closest parts of these bends to regain flow efficiency.

The rest of the bend is cut off and becomes an Oxbow Lake. This lake usually becomes marshy and sludgy until it dries up. Sears executives know how getting caught in the Oxbow Lake of retail turned out for them. It wasn’t because they had hordes of dumb leaders. They just didn’t see and navigate the changes to the flow and shape of their industry early enough and ended up in the wrong place where changing course became impossible. Their ride seems to be ending in the sludge of bankruptcy right as the river full of retail revenue gets deeper and roars past them.

You’re probably thinking two things right now: 1) thanks for the science lesson & 2) why does any of this matter to me?

If there is agreement that these industries do flow (& change) like a river, then it becomes a fun exercise to think through what it takes to live off what it provides.

You might be the navigator—a.k.a. boat captain. It’s important for you to steer the ship safely in these waters. You know them well. You rely on others to help you understand what new obstacles are ahead (and if they warrant a change in course). As a navigator, you’re interested in solutions that help you get from point A to B faster, safer and more efficiently. You want to make sure that the passengers enjoy the experience. You know that the river is changing, but it’s a slow process that doesn’t impact the day-to-day of what you need to do much. But, when you mess up, it’s a big deal. Bottoming out the boat on a hidden sandbar or guiding the ship off-course is usually a costly mess. The worst long-term outcome is driving into a section of river where the water is about to dry up.

Or… you could be a scout. This person looks up-river & down-river to see what’s changing. Will these transitions require course corrections or new strategies? Does the current vessel fit for what’s coming? Will we need to be faster? Should we slow down? Is there something that navigates better than we do? Do we have enough fuel to drive through any changes in the current? Convincing the captain to take your advice is job No. 1. Your solutions are based on managing intelligence collected from many qualitative and quantitative datapoints. How do you make sense of the data? Is it reliable? You need solutions that help you sort through this information. You need expertise that helps the possibility of change not seem crazy. Oh, the life of a scout… it’s quite strategic and can feel under appreciated at times. Maintaining credibility as an expert is what you need most to be effective. The last thing you want is a planned path that takes a vessel where the water is leaving.

Is being a climatologist your thing? Someone has to think about the conditions where the water sources to the river might dry up or shift. This is a job shared by academics, investors and the senior-most executives. If a source is about to face new challenges due to changing environmental conditions, should we stay dedicated to that waterway? Are there partnerships that need to be formed to help us navigate what’s ahead, or is there a diversification strategy needed soon? Are our efforts around innovation taking these new projections into account? Big picture environmental planning with something as complicated as predicting how the future climate will impact today’s business models is a big dog’s game.

Solutions that can credibly inform you on a range of outcomes that the future might hold have a place. The same is true regarding those that help provide adjacent relationship building with fellow climatologists (even those studying other regions). Missing major shifts that happen over long periods could be catastrophic. Rivers need water to run. Navigators need a course that’s reliable. Shipbuilders need a plan to know what conditions they’re up against. Will our customers stop enjoying the ride if the flow becomes a trickle? Predicting how the source is fed is the key criterion here. If it’s a dying resource, then the fight over what’s left will be one hell of an adventure. And… is that fight worth the effort, or is it time to move? These are the kinds of decisions that often require a keen gut and a deep, diverse network.

Maybe, you’re the engineer? This is the person that has the heft to divert the flow of the river by building a dam or creating an explosion that changes its shape almost instantly. They can decide if you’re allowed to be on it. Should the flow of the river be modified to create a societal benefit? Or… do we need to specify new requirements for being a safe navigator on the water? This is usually the role of government leaders and/or regulators. This is the yen to the industry’s yang, and it requires highly effective management. Solutions that help keep a pulse on those engineering the industry via regulations are popular here. One well-placed stick of dynamite can cause a chain reaction impacting the dynamics of the river pretty quickly. Not proactively building relationships with key engineers and helping to shape their planning could create unexpected changes to a river you know well today.

What part of this slate of characters relates best to your work? The river analogy feels like a useful one as you consider the plays for succeeding in healthcare and insurance. This body is constantly changing its shape. No matter how it looks today versus tomorrow, it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s going to keep on roaring. This means there’s plenty of water (& obstacles) ahead in the coming years for leaders to navigate. For innovators, it also means knowing how and with whom to best position the role you want to play. If you’re new on the river, it wouldn’t hurt to get an idea of who’s already there. Then… finding ways to be a credible solution to the problem you’re solving (and whom you’re solving it for) becomes the real adventure.