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Digital business designers

Welcome to the Futurestate Design series

Opening up our toolbox to help businesses future-proof in the digital economy.

In the 17 years since we first launched our business we have worked with hundreds of organisations, all with a common goal: to build a better business for the digital economy.

A key part of that process involves asking where their potential lies in the digital economy, and exploring what they can become in the future if they harness it.

One of our most striking observations is how difficult most people find it to step out of today and scope the future. To overcome this, and to unlock their potential, we developed a series of processes and techniques that we call ‘futurestate design’ that have arguably become the most important part of our strategy and design work here at WF.

We receive a good deal of interest in the futurestate design-related content we share here on ‘The Human Layer’ and, following a keynote presentation at 2019’s World Forum Disrupt London on ‘Futurestate Thinking’, we felt it was time to give the subject its own focus. The Futurestate Design series was born.

In the series, each week we’re going to explore what futurestate design is (and what it’s not), how to take advantage of it in your company, why––second to owning a crystal ball — it’s the best way to future-proof your business strategy, and more.

We believe that futurestate design is a critical part of the process of building a strong digital business that’s fit for the future. The Futurestate Design series aims to help you understand it and use it in your own company.

What is futurestate design?

There are really two key questions at the heart of any strategy or transformation programme: ‘What are we aiming for?’ and ‘How do we get there?’

The ‘How do we get there?’ part is the strategy: a framework for the organisation to follow, built on purpose, a clear vision, a series of operating principles, key transformations, roadmaps and so on.

The ‘What are we aiming for?’ is, in theory, a part of that strategy. It’s a way to describe what the organisation is looking to become so that everyone knows where they’re headed and why.

All very straightforward, except that, historically, that second question has been answered with a series of very intangible models, accompanied by statements like ‘a data-driven business’, ‘decentralised operations’ or ‘close to our customers’.

They can be useful business principles but they don’t really answer the question of what that future business might make possible for its customers, or what it might be like to be part of. The vagueness also creates obstacles to making important strategic decisions, whether that’s agreeing where the gaps lie between today’s business and its future self, or where key investments should be focused.

Futurestate design aims to fill that void, where a range of research, business thinking and design techniques are used to form a tangible picture of what that business of tomorrow should be. Think of it as constructing a prototype of a new product that everyone can hold and connect with directly so that they know what they’re working towards.

Customers and services are the magic ingredients in futurestate design.

Building a tangible vision of the futurestate is key to the whole process, and to do that you need to break away from how things are done today and imagine what a future generation of services could achieve.

It’s incredibly hard for members of any established company to think about what the future company should be, beyond broad-brush statements about culture and behaviour. However, ask them about how — if it didn’t have to do anything it does today — the company could interact with its customers (or any other commercial partners), and a whole series of opportunities emerge.

With facilitation, and some stimulus material to help them think without current constraints, most people can put themselves in the place of a customer and imagine what a new approach or radical alternative might be. By feeding in broad market perspectives, real customer insights and experiences from other sectors — and dismantling ‘why we can’t do that’ mindsets — teams frequently shape genuinely innovative approaches and describe customer experiences that would transform their company. In our work, we usually capture the ideas and insights in workshops, then build on them and visualise futurestate customer journeys.

For any business aiming to build a future in the digital economy, the spine of these futurestate experiences is always, of course, digital.

Once that futurestate experience is in good shape, everyone involved can tangibly see what they’re aiming for (answering that ‘what are we aiming for?’ question). We can start to analyse the gaps from today and identify new capabilities and initiatives that will be required to achieve it. This could be anything from new technologies, to a new organisational design or operating model.

Organisational strategy can now be formed with a clear goal in mind, made possible by thinking about customers and what their future service experience should be like.

If your futurestate isn’t in reach, it’s irrelevant.

While the ultimate aim of futurestate design is to ensure that you don’t create a business that is designed for the past, it’s equally important not to envision one that’s implausible.

For the vast majority or organisations, futurestate design is not a futures discipline. It is not about potential utopian and dystopian visions, nor is it about imagining distant theoretical or highly speculative scenarios. It’s a careful balance of the realistic and the ambitious.

It’s critical to envision a future that’s within reach — that the whole organisation can realistically imagine achieving — because while a far-future, hypothetical vision might appear compelling and exciting at first, people quickly lose interest in it because they can’t make meaningful progress towards it. Its inaccessibility makes it irrelevant and everyone shifts their gaze back to the present.

We usually favour a three-to-five year horizon for futurestate design exercises, and the outcomes never feature anything that requires a breakthrough invention to make it possible. This may sound unambitious, but it works, because unless you’re building a new railway or sending people to Mars, most businesses can achieve a radical transformation in that timeframe, and most people can commit to this as a goal.

It should be clear to anyone who has lived through the last 20 years that a lot will change over three-five years, so the futurestate vision that’s built should never be seen as an instruction manual. It’s a way to build a robust view of future ambition, not an exact specification for what it will be like when you get there.

When should you use futurestate design techniques?

Futurestate design helps an organisation to step out of its current operational mindset, so it is a technique we use extensively during organisational transformation and digital strategy programmes. Let’s recap on its three core benefits:

  1. It articulates a compelling vision of the future that anyone can understand and unite behind
  2. It provides a tangible ‘to’ in a ‘from-to’ and enables critical transformations to be defined
  3. It breaks down current-state constraints and enables more creative thinking about where a company or service should go

So, it really comes into play when your organisation is stuck in a long-established position, or needs to think differently about how to become a strong business in the digital economy. It can also be used to reimagine an individual service rather than the whole organisation — particularly valuable when that service is a major source of income for the business and is vulnerable to some form of disruption.

It’s important to say that it’s equally valuable for companies that are doing well as it is for those who face challenges. In fact many organisations most in need of a substantial rethink look great on paper, because they’ve stuck to their knitting religiously and squeezed every ounce of efficiency out of the machine. Their consistent performance frequently belies long-term underinvestment in the future and hides a deep fragility to disruption by more future-focused competitors.

Throughout this series we will explore futurestate design in more detail, arming you with tools, rules, techniques and insights that will help to future-proof your business. We’d love to hear from you, whether with questions, suggestions or insights of your own. Do please get in touch with us on LinkedInTwitterInstagram or send us an email.

How to design for the customers of tomorrow

When envisioning the futurestate of a company or a service, we’re usually faced with the challenge of designing for a customer that doesn’t exist yet. What do we mean by this? Well, they exist in the obvious sense, they’re just not ‘there’ yet.

Customer-led design won’t lead you somewhere new

Customer-led design is an accepted norm these days; a go-to approach for innovation teams. But there’s a fundamental flaw in customer-led design when you’re trying to take a real leap forward: customers can’t lead you there.

Coming of age: 18 years of WF

9th January 2021 marked Wilson Fletcher’s 18th birthday. The coming-of-age party we’d planned obviously won’t be happening (our 21st definitely got a scale-up) but it’s an amazing milestone for us to hit. Some reflections on the journey so far…