Today’s rapidly changing environment often requires rethinking fundamental strategies and looking ahead to the next generation of products or services. Core elements of your operations may also need rapid reinvention to maintain the success you are currently enjoying. Innovation leaders must play the role of Futurist, anticipating disruptions and thinking beyond evolutionary improvements in order to secure and maintain their business’s competitive edge.
What is a Futurist?
A Futurist looks toward the future, scouts new opportunities, and brings future possibilities out of the fog so that everyone can see them and their potential. He or she enables people throughout the organization to discover the emerging trends that most impact their work.
Bringing the Futurist to Life
Playing the role of Futurist requires leaders to become comfortable going beyond what
they know and be interested in discovering something new. The leader’s role as a Futurist involves recognizing signals of the future, sharing the trends, encouraging others to seek trends, designing processes to share, and building a future-oriented culture.
Recognizing Signals of the Future
Leaders need to identify and respond to the signals of the future. They need to be able to scout trends that can impact the enterprise (e.g., robotics, sensors, big data, commercial drones, renewable energy, 3D printing, self-driving cars). Some of the tactics they use include:
- Working with their teams to look in unexpected places for new and unanticipated trends.
- Actively monitoring the external business environment to learn about emerging needs, technologies, competitors, and adjacent markets.
- Engaging with customers to see how the most forward-looking ones are beginning to use your products or services, or to notice what else they might be using instead.
- Getting to know the start-up companies working in garages, labs, and innovation incubators all over the world.
- Being open to surprises that are filled with learning and innovation opportunities.
A Forward-Looking Culture
It’s not enough for one leader to recognize signals of the future. A Futurist must make trends visible for others and encourage people to be on the lookout for important trends themselves. Tactics used to create a forward-looking culture include:
- Creating processes that make it easy for others to share what they’re thinking without judgment or negative consequences.
- Making it easy to share that information, perhaps in meetings or in a platform like IdeaScale.
- Ensuring that trends are brought into the organization on a regular basis.
- Building a future-oriented culture, a dynamic enterprise, where people understand that “we are on the move and the only thing we can count on is change.”
There is something compelling about seeing new ideas and processes that other innovators are creating. The future has a sense of energy and excitement. Looking ahead tends to add momentum to the idea generation process that follows it. Once you and your innovators connect to the immense creativity occurring in your field, new ideas typically flow naturally from what you learn.
Failure to Think Future
Too often we see innovation initiatives that completely skip the “futuring” aspect. They ignore the true front end of the innovation process and move directly to idea generation. Winston Churchill once said, “Those that choose to build their present out of images of the past will miss the opportunities of the future.” Brainstorming based only on current conditions and customer needs runs the risk that the ideas created will not carry the company very far into the future.
The future will never look the way we imagine it. In fact, much of what we foresee in the future already exists in today’s leading edge companies. Some of the trends we see now will survive and thrive to become tomorrow’s standards, while others will quietly disappear. We can’t possibly predict the winners and losers, but the thinking we do to anticipate potential changes will prepare us for the actual future, as it becomes our new day-to-day reality. We’ll be in touch with the customers, know the potential partners, understand where to find or acquire the new technologies, and have teams with background knowledge ready, who can quickly put their learning to use to create new solutions.
Embracing Your Inner Futurist
You’ll often play the role of Futurist, even when you don’t intentionally mean to do so. Perhaps you’ll spot a trend as you read an industry article, or perhaps inspiration will come to you as you simply spend time enjoying a cup of your favorite beverage. Channeling your inner Futurist will allow you and your team to continuously think beyond the past so that you can invent a better future.
In the next installment of the Leading Innovation series, we’ll share the key traits of the Direction Setter role. If you’d rather not wait, download the entire chapter today.
This blog post is part of the Leading Innovation series authored by Laszlo Gyorffy, MS. Laszlo is president of the Enterprise Development Group, an international consulting firm specializing in business strategy and innovation. He also is an accomplished speaker, certified instructional designer and trainer, and co-author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Ideas and The Global Innovation Science Handbook. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator a cloud-based toolkit that teaches people how to successfully generate and champion bigger, bolder, and better ideas.