Three key elements of future gazing for all businesses.
We’d probably all be happier if we knew what the world held in store for us. We’d prepare our planet for catastrophe, hopefully, treat each other a little better and none of us would have to answer that dreaded question: “where do you see yourself in five years?”. Humans have a lot of skills in their locker, but seeing the future isn’t a talent we’re gifted with. I mean - 2020 is evidence enough of that.
Whilst we don’t have a crystal ball, our human brain does have the ability to mentally remove ourselves from the present in order to imagine events that are yet to happen. Bill Gates wasn’t a supernatural being when he seemed to predict the COVID outbreak in his 2015 TED talk. He had some compelling evidence; he observed the fallout of the ebola crisis and rightly pointed out that world leaders had spent billions investing in nuclear deterrents rather than any kind of fit for purpose epidemic response.
What Bill was doing is a classic example of future gazing. He accessed the trends, technologies and challenges which could shape our future and made some pretty right on assertions. In business, where the stakes aren’t as dramatic, we use future gazing to centre our focus and make sure we’re running in the right direction.
But I like to think about it in simpler terms. For many businesses, those who can’t stretch to the services of a ‘futurist’, looking out of your window into the world is enough. Importantly, now is the time to start; COVID-19 has accelerated change beyond recognition, lag behind at your own risk.
Step 1: Take in the trends
Start by listening as much as possible. Scroll social media, read reports, visit platforms, listen to podcasts, look at your competitors - wherever you think your customer could reside, go there and set up camp. You might think this is already happening but zoom out and challenge your perspective, it will be biased.
Ask yourself the important questions. What are people interested in? What are they talking about? What concerns them? Look at what people are doing and importantly what they are not doing.
In the context of COVID-19, we’ve seen new trends emerging every day. For example, more people are working from home therefore sharing and conferencing capabilities have had to improve and be adopted on a wider scale.
But what are the future trends? Doctors are now conducting appointments online and there is new wearable tech in its infancy for remote treatment. Could this be the next trend we need to prepare for on a wide scale - Is IoT due another explosion as we’re all forced to engage with services remotely?
Step 2 - Understand future technology
Next, examine new technology. Remember it’s not always clear-cut, sometimes technology doesn’t transform industries. 3D printing was heavily hyped in its early days but isn’t used by all or a majority of ‘traditional manufacturing’ firms, it’s still more expensive than other forms of prototyping and unexpectedly, 3D printing companies are now favouring using metal over additive plastic.
At the moment, we shouldn’t be thinking about the next big thing. Enhancing technology is the trend and we can see it happening everywhere. In cars with autopilot, supply chain optimisation, predictive analysis, computer vision understanding video streams and vast numbers of images spotting quickly what a human would have taken hours or days to do. It’s enhancing us.
As I’m writing this now, my google doc is suggesting what I should type. I’m also running Grammarly to make sure you can actually read this stream of consciousness. Trust me, it’s making a difference.
Step 3 - Consider the challenges
The world has its fair share of problems, when understanding our future it is important to understand the context. Large corporations have to think of the big issues, like resource depletion. In your world, as a business, think about the challenges - out of your control - which could affect your interaction with the marketplace. A good example of this is an ageing population, it could spell a larger emerging market for your services. Another important case is climate change, how will you scale your operations, products and services in a world dedicated to the fight against climate change. How new technology help you achieve it? After following these three steps to the letter you’ll have a pretty long list of pieces to tie together but at least you are able to see a direction.
And once you do spot something, don’t just sit and wait for it to mature. Take action. What you do today, the actions you take the direction you go in will dictate your future. Today's efforts make your future.
I find all of these concepts can be wrapped in a few movie quotes from the 80s: in the words of Doc Brown - “[It means] your future hasn’t been written yet. No ones have! Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one!”. And in the words of Ferris Buller: “If you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.”