Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Applying Structural Dynamics to Microtrends

Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne's Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes is a fast paced, breezy read on 75 trends in 15 categories. Before, during and after he got hired and fired as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist during her presidential run, Penn ran a polling firm that focuses on emerging forces shaping American and other cultures. Microtrends are under the radar screen and typically involve something like 1% of the overall population. Fathering, for example, shows up several times as an emerging trend. There are a lot of "old new dads" these day (50+ y.o. men having babies) but politicos, to their peril, are ignoring fathers in general by spending all their time with soccer moms (a term invented by Penn) and "ardent amazons," i.e., the growing number of women going into jobs that demand physical strength, such as the military, fire-fighting, plumbing, sports and building. Penn's thesis is that the dynamism of these (and other) multiple microtrends is both positive and negative socially. Positive because they demonstrate the boundless energy and inventiveness of humanity; worrisome because they indicate that we are radically fragmented, moving in a multitude of directions simultaneously.

Our point here is not to add another concise distillation to this already concise and distilled book. Rather, it is to point out the assistance that Structural Dynamic can bring to even as crisp a presentation as Penn's. Structural Dynamics seeks to identify the persistent, core elements of a system and then to use that analysis to generate a range of alternative futures. Penn does an excellent job of laying out these ingredients for the microtrends he examines, but he does not do so in a graphic way that allows the reader to hold his entire argument in mind, nor does he make much an attempt to demonstrate the linkages between the trends he studies.

In every section, Penn pulls together data from a number of sources to support his assertion that a relatively unnoticed group of people are exhibiting a behavior that has aggregated into a social phenomenon. Lets take "Pet Parents" as an example. More and more people in childless households are giving extremely VIP treatment to their pets. The first class jogging pet stoller at right is available "just for pets" for a mere $169.99 (including shipping) is one of a myriad of goods and services (think health insurance) for pets that were basically unheard of five years ago.

So far, so good: Something's happening here/what it is ain't exactly clear, but then the situation comes into shaper relief via the microtrend analysis. That analysis then opens up a raft of possibilities that one might not have thought of previously, e.g., the burgeoning employment opportunities emerging in all things pet.

However, the linkages between the elements of the pet parent system aren't really apparent with Penn's approach and that's where Structural Dynamics comes in.

Here's a picture of the factors that Microtrends offers in its thinking about pet parents, modified by the addition of one element that creates a systemic look at the phenomenon.

Many factors are creating childless households, such as increased
longevity and the delaying of child birth by women into later years. Women in particular seem to be pampering pets in droves prior to giving birth to children and couples without children are likely to be pet owners. Increasingly, people who either have been parents and want to continue to have an experience like that or people who have never been parents of children but want to pamper somebody are going all out for their pets, as Penn demonstrates in a way that was mindboggling to us. Not surprisingly, all of the advanced goods and services being purchased for pets is causing them to live longer, providing humans with the proven healing power of pets for a longer period of time, which is another factor that is driving human longevity. (This was the force we added to Penn's analysis.) The more that pets are part of the family, and we mean really part of the family, the more they'll be coming to work, and that has its own set of dynamics. Of course, there are critics of the so-called pampered pet phenomenon, including animal rights activists who think that the whole concept of "owning" an animal should be prohibited or at least overseen by various watchdog agencies, no pun intended. The "o" associated with the arrow between animal rights activists and pet parents means that the more powerful pet rights advocates become, the more strictures pet parents are likely to face.

This comment about the power of pet rights advocates allows us to make a summary point: just as in every other system, each element affects the whole. If pet insurance rates fall drastically because life insurance companies become convinced that something furry or reptilian or winged is going to help people live longer under all sorts of conditions and, therefore, make the pet owners better insurance risks, one could expect more spikes in pet ownership and pet parenting. If, on the other hand, pets become associated with law suits and higher and higher veterinarian malpractice insurance rates leading vets to perform fewer and fewer procedures intended to extend the lives of animals and charging higher and higher rates for whatever they do in fact do, pet pampering is likely to suffer.

Microtrends is a great read, and we would like it to have gone farther. A systems analysis, such as the one we've developed here, would have made it more powerful. By the time the reader gets to the end of each section, he or she is likely to have a hard time remembering all of the ingredients of the argument that have been presented. A Structural Dynamic approach pulls the information together.

Penn worries about social fragmentation. Graphically illustrating the linkages between the various trends identified and pointing out the prospects for high leverage interventions that would touch the many interacting components identified in these 75 stories might have pointed toward transcendent, macro factors that may reduce the the tensions that arise when individuals and small groups pursue their specific interests. If interest groups are only passionately disintegrated, a "tragedy of the commons" with all of its attendant hostility and conflict is virtually guaranteed.

The expansion of the rights, power and individuation of women, which is a big part of the Pet Parent picture, seems to be showing up across cultures, nation states, and economic strata. Women may be microtrending in all sorts of directions, but they are macrotrending toward having a greater influence in all matters. Perhaps a whole raft of microtrends are differing manifestations of this one larger phenomenon.

At the moment, the book's celebration of microtrends seems to only be adding to the shattering of social cohesiveness it laments.

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