Let’s talk about the future of distribution
Distribution needs a community of innovators leading the industry into a new era; are you ready to join the conversation?
In my work with associations and their members, I’ve learned something. To help effect change, I need to start at the most fundamental level: conversations. There, I can explore aspirations and ideas, and offer to help. We are living through a time of epic change, and distribution can make a historic impact, but progress must begin with human-to-human contact through conversations and what follows. So, my request is simple: Please get in touch with me for a discussion about the future of distribution and what you and I can do together to make it happen.
Creating a community
I am at a waypoint, up against a wall, and I need help. Until now, I imagined my newsletter as a place to find and share big ideas for innovating distribution. But more is needed. Ideas require people to implement them. From now on, I will write to find and enable the people that must carry the weight for innovating distribution for the digital age.
Innovation requires committed action from the top — CEOs and business leaders working to build a culture of innovation, prioritize innovation in strategic roadmaps, develop talent, and embed innovation in operating processes. But innovation also needs visionaries and heretics—people of the moment, living through change, thinking differently, and fully vested in creating the future in which they will live and work.
In distribution, innovators lack an identity, community, and place to gather. As a start, the identity I offer is “distribution’s new innovators,” meaning people with a modern, forward-looking mindset, and driven to do business differently. Often, they are of the younger generations, but not necessarily. Mindset matters. And striving, too. Distribution’s new innovators may also be found among today’s leaders—those who are pushing for innovation to preserve their company or build a legacy, or who are at the peak of their career, reforming their work to be in the service of others, especially the up-and-coming next-generation workers, leaders, and innovators.
There is a truth that distribution must learn: Ideas are not proprietary; they are the foundation of a community. They bring an industry’s people together, bonding them in a shared purpose and guiding them to create foresight for a future owned jointly. Ideas, nurtured and implemented by a community, are essential for human flourishing and economic prosperity. As a Hoover Institution paper explains:
Ideas, unlike other economic goods, are special. They are pure, nonrival goods. They are scarce until they are developed. Once developed, they are not depleted by their use. That is, greater use by some people of the latest software, search engine, or mobile device does nothing to lessen the ability of others to use the product or service concurrently. The idea that motivates innovation becomes more valuable with its prevalence.
Distribution trade association events are evolving, but their heritage is firmly rooted in providing a place for leaders and owners to gather, network, gain exposure to trends, learn best practices, benchmark against each other, and take back a few ideas to implement in the coming year. Many associations have established programs and communities for up-and-coming leaders but not innovators. And while every distributor line of trade is unique in the product it delivers, there is overlap among customers served. Moreover, every distributor in every line of trade serves the same communities where we live and work. Added up, distribution is a collective force for advancing our society.
Distribution’s new innovators, as a community, need a place to gather that is not bounded by distributor lines of trade. And more, one that gives home to innovators from wherever distribution is practiced, needed, or nurtured, including distributors, customers, manufacturers, universities and community colleges, technology and service vendors, venture capitalists and private equity financiers, and more. In distribution, distributors alone are an $8 trillion sector, representing a third of the US economy. The community of distribution’s new innovators is broad, diverse, and global—and deserving of an inclusive gathering space for all.
In the months ahead, I will work to give identity to distribution’s new innovators, offer a place for them to gather, and help to build a community. I am inspired by David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain, in which he calls upon people of my generation to embrace a new mission, one that is about sharing their network, wisdom, and experience, and pursuing a cause that is bigger than themselves.
My newsletter is a resource for distribution’s new innovators and the leaders that employ them. I have a simple frame for every edition: Listen for the new language of innovation and use it. Tell stories of innovation from inside distribution, and especially from without, and look for a way forward—a method, process, or perhaps, a transcendental higher purpose of the kind that brings forth the best in humankind. The most fundamental goal of distribution is to help us all do our work and, through our work, live our lives. Big stuff, but we are living in a time of epic change. Everything is up for grabs, and distribution has a role to play. Maybe a historic one.
My last three editions, taken in total, suggest a foundation for an innovation process designed expressly for distribution. It has emerged through my work with several industry associations and was precipitated by prominent outside voices concerned with human flourishing, getting the best from technology, and curing what ails us in the digital age. I offer them as a beginning, looking for feedback and stories. Here’s the process, with a brief explanation of what is explored in each relevant newsletter:
Find your purpose. Update and align your company’s purpose and your own with the challenges and opportunities of our time. Distribution companies do not exist to do what they have always done, but to embrace new models as intermediaries, focused on the future and guided by purpose. Profit is the measure of successfully executing a purpose. Read: Epic times require a bold purpose.
Build collaborative relationships. Distribution’s practitioners live and work where their customers live and work, in the physical world. Innovation opportunities flow from creating committed and transparent relationships nurtured through capabilities and processes that achieve attention, accompaniment, and conversation. Read: Listen, engage, innovate.
Lean in. The ongoing digital transformation and generational transfer create stress and trauma in our lives and work, but properly engaged, adversity can lead to soulful happiness. By leaning in to help customers innovate, distribution companies can deliver societal goods, monetize their efforts, and find a new path to prosperity. Read: Innovating for happiness.
Foresight and footsteps
Let’s talk! More than anything, I need conversations to guide my research, writing, and advocacy. If you are wondering how your innovation initiatives align with the trends reshaping our world, let’s talk. I cannot promise I will have the answers, but I will seek insights from others to help us frame distribution’s opportunities and challenges and light a way forward. More than that, I will seek to connect you directly with others willing to pursue and develop ideas. Sometime this year, I hope to host a gathering of innovators, perhaps a small group, to see what we can create together. I’ll need funding or resources and may seek help from industry vendors or an educational institution. Let’s talk about that, too.
As always, please leave feedback and suggestions below, schedule a conversation here, or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.