Given how much we talk about the future, it’s amazing how little time we spend trying to understand it. This is especially true where innovation is concerned. If we define innovation as the effort to introduce interesting new products and services, by definition that introduction will happen in the future. Therefore, we ought to be concerned with the market conditions, competitive threats and potential alternative solutions or substitutes that may be available in the future, when we can actually launch a new product based on the ideas we have today.
In many businesses, the cycle time from idea to commercial products is measured in years. In some firms, that time frame may represent a relatively short year or two. In other firms, that time frame could represent 3, 5 or 7 years, or even more. Given the pace and rate of change, competition and trade in the market today, the future market and customer is likely to have different needs, wants, expectations and budgets than that customer does today. It’s possible that the customer or consumer won’t exist or will have significantly different needs, or must be reached through new channels or business models. Yet most innovators spot existing needs today, and begin the long process of vetting the ideas, designing and building products, and releasing products without a moment’s consideration of the emerging needs, emerging threats and emerging shifts that will occur, and may dramatically change the need for the product or service.
Practicing the Future
Now, many of you will argue that the future is unknowable. People who attempt to predict the future are very likely to get it wrong, make the wrong bets, anticipate the wrong needs. After all, we are all still waiting for the jet backpacks we were promised in the 50s and 60s. Even though we may not be clairvoyant, we must constantly consider evolving trends in our markets, governments, society and technology, to understand how those trends may create changes that will impact our existing products and planned products. While we can’t know the future perfectly, some investigation may help anticipate changes that we can incorporate into products with long development cycles that make those products more appealing when they are released. Further, by evaluating trends and developing scenarios about potential futures, we are anticipating and even practicing the future, so there should be fewer surprises as projects unfold. By evaluating the potential future shifts, we will have anticipated some, but perhaps not all, but in doing so have positioned ourselves and our products for success.
Trend Spotting and Scenario Planning
Taking the time to anticipate future conditions and changes is the proverbial “low hanging” fruit of innovation. Performing a trend spotting and scenario planning exercise requires little investment, takes a very small amount of time and opens up potential avenues of exploration, and indicates where the emerging needs and threats may occur. Any innovator starting an innovation project attempting to create a “disruptive” product, or any team faced with a very long product development cycle misses significant insights if they fail to pursue scenario planning. This is a common mistake, one that is easily rectified and by performing trend spotting and scenario planning, the innovation team has far more insight and can create more interesting products that are more relevant when they are finally launched.