Foresight: For complex innovations
How can large, established organizations transform their innovation success rates in the face of increasing complexity and increasing rates of change? If you work at this kind of company you’ve probably seen first-hand how hard it can be to change the course of such a big ship, and all the challenges it creates when the world outside the organization seems to be changing so much faster. One way to tackle this challenge is by using Strategic Foresight: a systematic method for innovating in a changing environment that helps you to see, understand and act on the underlying drivers of change – so you can more quickly adapt and profit from those changes in both the short and long term.
By connecting your actions today, and next quarter, to a vision and strategy for longer-term success, foresight helps solve three critical challenges that large, established organizations and brands face:
- How can we avoid getting blindsided by “disruptive” competitors who come along and change the rules of the game?
- How can we navigate uncertainty and take smarter risks, given the future is inherently unpredictable?
- How can we spot and seize emerging opportunities for growth in a way that leverages the advantages and assets we have today?
These questions are particularly relevant for large companies with complex structures. Startups – and even mature companies with founder-led or entrepreneurial cultures – often don’t have these same concerns, because their simpler structure and higher risk tolerance makes it easier to adapt quickly. A friend of mine who works at Shopify is fond of saying that their CEO, Tobias Lütke, is hard-wired to think about the future – that he is injecting foresight into the organization on a daily basis. In big, mature companies, we see the same type of forward-looking person, but they may be siloed, and don’t always have the power to drive change through the organization the same way a founder-CEO does.
Within these large companies, smart leaders who are serious about innovation know they need to be thinking about, and designing for, the future, even if short-term priorities clamour for attention.
Here’s who can benefit most from a rigorous approach to foresight:
- Innovation teams who want to go beyond chasing trends and align their innovation efforts with the underlying drivers of change, in order to continue to be category leaders or “fast followers”.
- Leaders working in mature categories and industries that are ripe for disruption – especially those where the established players have all been relying on the same business model for years (or decades).
- Businesses whose growth is tapering or flat and need to innovate by stretching into new categories, or by superseding the current rules of the game (see more on this Spectrum of Innovation).
At Happen, many of our clients are facing these same challenges, and we help them to navigate through uncertainty, to seize emerging opportunities and to avoid getting blindsided. Recently we’ve used strategic foresight to help one of the world’s largest dairy companies create platforms for breakthrough growth and to help a leading food manufacturer maintain and future-proof their category leadership.
The core principles of our approach are:
- Look broadly: search for signals of change inside and outside of the category, and across a broad range that includes generational, political, economic, social, environmental, technological, and legal trends. Not trying to predict the future, but instead immersing in it. As novelist William Gibson says: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
- Reveal drivers of change: make sense of trends by mapping how they relate to each other and larger-scale drivers of change using our systematic Trend Blueprinting process, then identify areas of opportunity on 3, 5, or 10-year timeframes that can support both short and long-term innovation efforts.
- Push consumer insights into the future: combine what consumers want today with emerging drivers that might transform the category, so that our big picture view of the future is firmly grounded in human wants and needs, and vice versa.
- Connect the vision of the future back to the business – and do something about it: look beyond the obvious 1st-order implications to reveal the 2nd-order implications for the business, then build strategies and platforms that leverage current strengths and assets to unlock future growth.
- Change mindsets to inspire action: take a participatory approach to all of the above, for two reasons: to leverage the collective brainpower within the team, and to change their thinking and inspire action.
In a recent project, I was reminded how valuable this change in mindset can be. Partway through the foresight work, one of our clients made a connection to a restaurant she’d been to the day before – and how their hybrid digital-physical dining experience was a perfect example of one of the drivers we’d been exploring. She was seeing those pockets of the future in the now, and realizing how her business could be part of creating that future. That’s the real value that our foresight work delivers – it changes the way our clients think and act in the now, improving their ability to adapt and win in a changing market.
Knowing the time it takes to create breakthrough innovations and get them to market in complex businesses, the only way to be winning in 5 years is by spending the time now to see those emerging opportunities, grasp the implications for your business, and translate them into action today.
Written by Happen Director Ben McCammon