The future, by definition, is uncertain. No serious futurist would claim to be able to “predict” the future, but even if you aren’t a futurist, there are proven methods you can apply to create scenarios that will help you identify possible futures that your organization can use to guide its innovation efforts.
Here are 5 steps you can take to successfully map out the future and put your team on the right track:
1. Set the scope
Consider which future you need to understand.
Very often, we encourage organizations to look five, ten or more years into the future. If you really want to be able to leverage technology—even though the pace of technological development is increasing—keep in mind that it takes time for technologies to mature, and for you to be able to accurately identify the impact they’ll have.
However, given the extraordinary impact COVID-19 has had on accelerating digitization and health, it’s probably more important for short-term survival to conduct rapid forecasting and create future scenarios for what your scenario will look like in six, nine and 12 months.
2. Map the potential
Almost without a doubt, you have a ton of valuable market research in your organization from tracking customer behavior, exploring their motivations, mapping out the competition’s behavior, and keeping an eye on mega-trends that impact your business. All of this material is core to mapping out potential futures for your organization.
It’s most helpful to gather a group of people to explore these data points and make sense of them. Diversity here is key, but whether you do workshops with five or 15 people, your decision mostly depends on the time and resources you have. It is possible to be completely frugal about the process and do it yourself by simply asking a couple of colleagues for input—something is better that than nothing.
3. Identify the dark side
When mapping out the future, you want to ask the question, “what kind of future do we want to see?” But futurist and inventor of the threatcasting methodology, Brian David Johnson, says you also want to answer the question “what kind of future do we not want to see?”
That means you also have to map out the dark side, and not only identify threats to your organization, but the potential negative impacts that your future innovations may have. “In the past five years, we’ve seen a shift in companies where it’s no longer adequate to say we never thought somebody would do that with our product or service” says Brian. The ethics of innovation are becoming every organization’s responsibility.
4. Create a compelling narrative
Once you’ve mapped out the possible futures, you have to ensure that other people in the organization can make sense of them and, even more important, get excited about them. Therefore, creating compelling narratives are key.
“We know that what happens a lot of times is that you can go give a presentation and present the facts and figures and project where the world is going, but a lot of times that doesn’t really compel people to do anything differently,” as experienced by Amanda Manna, VP at Singularity University and former Head of Strategic Narrative at DIY chain Lowe’s Innovation Labs.
This experience compelled them to double down on storytelling, and build a strategic narrative where the data they had collected was used for setting a shared vision and even turned into comic books with the help of science fiction writers. The result: people paid a lot more attention and got a lot more excited. And you need to be excited if you are going to do things differently.
5. Turn words into action
Lowe’s used strategic narratives to compel their colleagues to help create holo rooms and robot assistants in stores. At water pump manufacturer Grundfos, they even used data and scenario building to create an entire technology organization to digitize their legacy business.
Regardless of how big and long term—or small and immediate—your organization’s needs are, nothing matters unless you turn words into action. Creating an innovation funnel that includes the transition from research to development is surprisingly often forgotten, but radically increases the likelihood of enabling organizations to build a better future.
Kris Østergaard is a Co-founder of SingularityU Nordic, host of Singularity University’s Corporate Innovation Podcast, and Author of Transforming Legacy Organizations. This post is based on conversations had during the Corporate Innovation podcast. Catch up on all past episodes here.