As we touched on in our introductory article to the Futurestate Design series, most people find it hard to step out of today to think about designing a new future for their organisation.
In fact, thinking about today has never been easier, because the tools have never been better.
Operational data, commercial performance, current competitors, existing customers, and market research: as lenses on a business, they can provide insights leagues ahead of anything previous generations of business had available.
Here’s the kicker: literally none of them are useful for futurestate design. In fact, they’re potentially dangerous, because no matter how you use them, they root your thinking in the present. At worst they anchor you to the past, and at best, they help you think only about the very near-term.
The business tools that will inhibit futurestate thinking.
The following is deliberately generalised, but reflects how we see these tools being used in the real-world today.
Data is a crucial part of any modern business, and everyone should be harnessing data throughout their organisation. It’s a critical component of operating any digital business; a powerful current indicator, that provides insight into what’s going on right now.
However, operational data has enormous blind spots — not least because we tell the machine collecting it what to look for and analyse. And while it’s able to plot forward trends, they’re always based on interpreting historic performance.
Data cannot tell you what might happen, nor what will happen if you do something different to what you do today. If you base futurestate thinking on current-state data, you’re simply putting on blinkers.
You’d be hard pressed to find a business that doesn’t make key decisions based on its commercial performance. Whether it’s ensuring EBITDA grows according to plan, or focusing on quarterly sales performance, the numbers have a huge impact on how decisions about the future are made.
This is fascinating, because financial results are always lagging indicators: they tell you how you did in the past, but can tell you nothing about how you might do in the future if you implement true change in your business, or if competitors change the landscape you’re in. If you build future thinking on maintaining current performance, you will think defensively or protectively: the perfect way to drive the business off a cliff in the digital economy.
Again, competitive analysis is a basic business tool, rightly used everywhere. It’s useful for evaluating how you are positioned or performing against your peers or competitors. It’s at best a current indicator (you can see what they’re doing now) but, more often, and again, it’s a lagging indicator (you can see what they did before now). You can never see what they might be planning.
Focusing on the competitor landscape can make you self-reflective and reactive — ‘they’re doing it, so we must do it, too.’ It drives incremental thinking that’s all about keeping up or nudging ahead. Not exactly the ideal way to think creatively about the future, especially when your future competitors may not even exist yet.
Hopefully, everyone now recognises the importance of staying close to customers, but there’s a catch: current customers will usually behave in a fairly shortsighted way, because most will be focused on what they need to do now, and because they’re already close to you, they’ll often simply re-affirm things that you already knew, suspected or feared.
Ironically, the customers closest to your current offer are those least likely to help you think about the future. Their thinking is often recursive, influenced by ‘similar’ things they’ve seen or experienced elsewhere — which was itself probably influenced by some of the things you yourself did (see ‘competitors’ above).
Again, they’re great current indicators: they’ll help you improve your services to meet their own current or anticipated needs, but they’re arguably even more invested in today than you are.
Large-scale research usually follows a consistent formula: ask a bunch of questions and infer key trends or patterns from the results. ‘93% said they were likely to buy X and only 13% said they would be interested in Y’. It’s powerful stuff and it seems to be predictive.
Now replace the ‘X’ here with ‘a film camera’ and replace ‘Y’ with ‘a digital camera’. Suddenly it’s not predictive at all, and it’s powerful for all the wrong reasons. Basing a future decision on this indicator could be (and was, for Kodak) disastrous.
Most of the research that is undertaken looks at current attitudes or behaviours, and delivers results based on trends or quantitative averages, completely overlooking emergent technologies or outlying innovations that could have a huge impact in the future. We’d call this type of information a temporary indicator and it’s as dangerous as it gets in futurestate thinking.
All of these tools are important for the now, but they’ll hold you back from the type of creative thinking needed to envision a future that could be very different to today. Future success will not come from being retrospective, obvious or average.
How to engage futurestate thinking and step out of the past.
The sorts of tools we use to fuel futurestate thinking are almost the opposite of those used to inform current business behaviour.
Look for sparks of insight.
Instead of looking for the trend lines or the weighted averages, look for the aberrations or oddities; the things that jump out for being out of the ordinary. Go back to that research you did and look for the single dot that sits outside of the norm. Look for single insights that new ideas can be built on, because the fact that it’s an outlier means that it has probably been overlooked.
Nobody is usually looking for the single insight, so it frequently gets overlooked in favour of the safety of the common theme. Grab hold of it instead and explore it; it just might lead you to think in a very different way.
Try asking yourself what the opposite would be to what you might do logically. What if your low-cost, mass-market thing became a small, expensive, highly targeted thing? What if the thing you do now became impossible? We pose a raft of these sorts of questions in futurestate design programmes to help break away from current assumptions.
Another approach is to imagine how you might replace yourself: how would you create a new service or start a new company that would make your business irrelevant? Given that that new company has none of your existing assets (and can’t have) you’re forced to think about how it would do things in a different way.
The illogical leaps that emerge from thinking laterally will frequently take you to a place from which you look back and think ‘I can’t believe we do it like this now.’
Look at adjacent influencers.
If your peer group is where you shouldn’t look, where should you? We’re going to cover this in more detail in a subsequent article, but it’s really important to recognise that the expectations customers will have of your services in the future will be defined by their experiences of everything else.
Essentially, anyone and anything beyond your sphere that might have an influence on the same people as you want to serve is important. So research widely and immerse yourself in the technologies and services that are gaining traction in areas that might be interesting to the people that are interesting to you. Look at how services are changing how customers behave, and then imagine if that behaviour became normal in your customers… because it probably will.
Talk to potential customers.
While, as we’ve discussed, you shouldn’t focus on current customers when you’re thinking about the future, you should definitely talk to potential customers; people who might be your future marketplace. Focus on people that you don’t currently serve — including people in sectors or demographics that you’re not in — to build a picture of how they think, what they value, and what their attitudes are to services that stretch beyond where you play today.
These conversations — and they should be conversations, not a survey — are likely to uncover some surprising behavioural traits and emerging issues that will impact your future business. By casting your net wide, you’ll spot important signals and begin to ‘tune in’ to your future customers.
Invent new behaviours.
One of our favourite futurestate workshop exercises involves outlining the seemingly outlandish innovations that ‘will be routine’ at some point in the future but, as we reveal later, exist already. These often require radically new attitudes or behaviours, from trusting a robot to take your car keys and park it safely to sharing your life with a small holographic friend who can unlock your front door when they see you arrive home.
This helps to free people up from thinking about where they are today by resetting what ‘normal’ means, and it also demonstrates how powerful it can be to invent new behaviours.
Innovation is rooted in behavioural change. You’re rarely meeting a specific need or solving a specific problem in futurestate design: what you’re really trying to do is to get ahead of the curve, anticipate what will be appealing or important to people, then envisioning the service experience that will drive a new behaviour, like “let’s make it easy for people to rent rooms in other people’s houses instead of staying in hotels”. No-one will ever do that, right?
Futurestate design demands a different mindset.
Futurestate thinking is built on creativity and invention, on open-mindedness and freedom from current constraints.
You won’t find the future in any of the places you look for insight into your current business and you can’t design your futurestate by carrying the past with you.
If you get into the right mindset you can unlock a genuinely transformative vision of the future — just don’t be surprised if you can’t wait to leave the current business behind.