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What If? 5 Forward Thinking Ways to Identify Future Trends

By Lisa Bodell

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The phrase “forward thinking” appears on plenty of resumes these days, as well as in the core values of companies. But in the innovation space, “forward thinking” refers to a formal process of looking toward the future to identify and capitalize on opportunities.

My innovation-training firm, futurethink, has worked with organizations like Novartis and Hilton Worldwide to formalize their process for forward thinking. No matter the size of your own company, forward thinking is both an essential and achievable exercise. Start by considering these five best practices:

1. Make the future tangible

Twice a year, German conglomerate Siemens publishes a print and digital edition of “Pictures of the Future,” a magazine which highlights technologies that will shape our lives in the next 10 to 20 years. Siemens uses these findings to showcase its vision of the world, as well as inform its innovation decisions.

While a glossy biannual publication may not be relevant to your organization, you can still channel Siemens’ forward thinking spirit through an exercise called S.T.E.E.P.

Task your product team with identifying key Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political (S.T.E.E.P.) forces that will likely impact your organization. Distribute the S.T.E.E.P. list internally and use it to generate forward thinking ideas from the company at large.

2. Conduct annual scenario-planning

Shell Oil Company uses “what if?” scenario-planning to consider a range of plausible futures and how these could emerge from the realities of today. In order to inform the company’s business decisions, Shell’s scenarios teams consider such changes as the global economic environment, geopolitics, water availability, greenhouse gases, and energy supply/demand.

To analyze long-term trends and market forces that could affect your own business, put the following scenario-planning exercise into practice with senior leaders and/or your innovation team:

Step 1. Set a time horizon (2025/2055/etc.) and scope (specific area of your business/all areas of your business/entire industry) for the analysis.

Step 2. As a group, map the key trends and driving forces that may impact your business. These include economic, political, technological, legal, societal, and industry-specific trends. Describe each trend, as well as how and why it will affect your organization.

Step 3. Look for uncertainties: wild-card factors that could upend current plans (environmental disaster, vendor bankruptcy, and/or tighter industry regulation) and threaten your organization.

Step 4. Define 2 – 4 scenarios based on the trends and uncertainties you’ve identified. Include a mix of best- and worst-case scenarios.

Step 5. Assess the scenarios. What are your opportunities? What are the threats? How can your business prepare now for these scenarios?

3. Go micro

Campbell’s Soup Company uses an internal program called Culinary Trendscape to provide insights for the company’s product development teams. The Trendscape team gathers and analyzes micro-trends observed through vendor partners, magazines, cookbooks, blogs, specialty food shops and groceries, fine-dining restaurants, quick-service operations, as well as cultural influences across the globe. Flavor and texture predictions are compiled into an annual report and used to inform new offerings.

In your own organization, designate one team member to represent each relevant department for a once-a-month meeting in which micro-trends are presented and discussed. Trend predictions gleaned from this group should be submitted to the innovation team and/or decision makers.

4. Retain a technology scout

Technology scouting is a purposeful, systematic means of identifying emerging technologies or applying established technologies in new ways. BMW recruits tech scouts from Silicon Valley, Japan, and Europe to report on new research and trends from their respective markets. Through an intranet database, these scouts distribute their findings to all BMW managers to help drive innovation thinking.

While there’s no single resource for finding scouts, Yet2 uses an open innovation platform to provide high-value scouting to corporations around the world. If you don’t have budget to retain scouting services, identify a current employee who possesses forward thinking skills like imagination and has a track record for making unexpected connections. This individual should have a technical background, broad experience within the company, and a vast network of contacts in diverse industries.

5. Tap into academia

Back in the ‘60s, Gatorade was invented at University of Florida to replenish the water, carbs, and electrolytes that its football players lost during games and practice. Today, Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo and enjoys a 75% market share in the sports-drink category that it single-handedly created.

Academic innovation can be disruptive, yet only a small fraction of universities in Europe and America have research partnerships with the private sector. Start by outlining your long-term business objectives that will be served through collaboration with a university. Among the resources for matching your objectives with the appropriate institution, PreScouter is known for connecting small start-ups, universities, and other sources of scientific and technical breakthroughs with corporations that can develop and commercialize their work.

Your company doesn’t need to be a PepsiCo. or Siemens in order to implement forward thinking tactics. Start-ups and small businesses that conduct S.T.E.E.P. or scenario-planning exercises will be in a much better position to move ahead of their competition. Even with a modest commitment of time and resources, you can utilize these proven methods for proactively uncovering future trends and opportunities.

See how online employee training puts your organization in a continually forward thinking mindset – view our free webinar, presented by Dean Pichee, President of BizLibrary:

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Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, which uses simple techniques to help organizations around the world embrace change and increase innovation capabilities. She brings her compelling message to more than 100,000 people a year, showing them how to eliminate mundane and unnecessary tasks from their everyday routines. Through futurethink’s tools, Bodell has transformed teams within Google, Novartis, and Accenture. Through her new book, Why Simple Wins, her message of simplification is reaching readers at companies of all sizes around the globe.