This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
This post was cowritten with my colleague David Farber.
Not that long ago, it would have seemed strange for companies to send their employees into consumers’ homes to observe how they used products and tackled challenges. Now, corporate anthropologists and ethnographers – researchers trained to observe people and cultures – are fairly common, especially among consumer goods companies. The same companies that once led the way in popularizing ethnographic research – customer-centric leaders such as P&G, Intel, Ford, and General Motors – are now bringing corporate futurists into the mainstream. Futurists are individuals whose job is to observe and predict. They research trends, talk to people with different backgrounds and study how things are changing. They look well beyond their own industries to understand how economic, social and technological forces will shape consumer demand and impact their businesses.
But are futurists really necessary? After all, companies have survived for this long without them. Unfortunately, it’s becoming harder and harder for companies to succeed in launching new products. First, there’s a growing need to be faster. Especially for established companies, product development timelines can be long. Ford’s in-house futurist once noted that a brilliant new idea for a car could take three years before it actually made it on the road. At Intel, it could take five to 10 years to make a new chip. Meanwhile, startups are working more nimbly, and product spaces are growing ever more crowded. At the same time, there’s an equally important need to be better. Consumer expectations for new products are rising, and industry disruptors are raising the stakes by offering on-demand services and products that are tailored to individuals. What we’ve seen is that companies are having a hard time meeting the bar that modern consumers have set. In a 2015 report, Nielsen found that among more than 20,000 new product launches since 2008, there have only been 74 that were distinct, enduring and relevant enough to be classified as breakthrough innovations.
It’s hard to launch a successful new product, and you certainly don’t want to place a large bet on an offering that’s nearly dated by the time it hits the market. So why will so many companies end up firing their futurists so soon after hiring them? As a result of the siloed way in which many companies operate, there’s often trouble bridging the gap between customer insights and strategic planning. Given that futurists straddle the two arenas – without fitting cleanly in either – a number of organizations will struggle to make futurists’ findings actionable. We offer three strategies for helping to ensure that your trend insights don’t go to waste and that your futurists stay gainfully employed.
Create a common language that is used cross-functionally. One of the reasons for the gap between insights and strategy is that teams don’t use the same language in their day jobs. You’ll often hear insights or marketing teams talking in terms of need states and customer segments. By the time you venture over to the strategy or commercialization teams, the conversation is completely different. If you bring it up, you may find that someone has a vague recollection of seeing a segmentation once, but the discussion instead revolves around leveraging competencies and projecting the size of the opportunity. Both sides are generating lots of meaningful output, but there’s no cohesive flow to help ensure that the final solution reflects the earliest insights and is best positioned to succeed in the market.
"Jobs to be Done" is one framework for bridging that divide. While different departments may have varying objectives and points to prove, a common language can be used across the organization to improve the development process. The “jobs” and “job drivers” that customer insights teams use to understand customer needs and how markets may be segmented can also form the foundation for strategy conversations around market potential and repurposing existing assets. While the framework is more nuanced than what we lay out here, the underlying point is simple – by having all departments use the same terminology, you create alignment that ultimately leads to more successful product launches.
Map trends and opportunities to specific occasions. Another reason that freshly uncovered trends tend to get ignored is that they don’t have a direct relationship to the occasions where your products tend to play a role. Sure, the Internet of Things (IoT) may be an important trend, but what does it matter if your company sells sponges? Actually, it can matter a lot. Let’s stick with the sponge example, just to illustrate the point. While you probably wouldn’t end up integrating Wi-Fi capabilities into your sponges, you could see a scenario where connected-home counters automatically alert consumers that their cleaning needs are piling up. Perhaps the type of cleaning called for – antimicrobial, stain removing, etc. – could impact the way sponges are categorized. That could have a big impact on how you market and sell those sponges.
Importantly, there’s room for innovation beyond just the product. Instead of making a better sponge or changing the way you sell your sponge, there may be other opportunities for growth. Perhaps the IoT trend creates an opportunity to proactively offer an on-demand cleaning service that responds to the connected-home counter alerts. Even if you don’t create this new revenue stream, you might decide that you actually want to partner with the hypothetical counter company because it gets people using your sponges and other cleaning products more regularly than they otherwise might – in much the same way that the Dollar Shave Club model gets people to more regularly replace their razor blades.
Regardless of how you decide to act in response to a trend or an under-satisfied job that you discover, it’s important to put the opportunity into the right context. Futurists are necessarily going to be bringing in insights that are a little unfamiliar. There will undoubtedly be people saying that those findings are irrelevant for your industry or your company. The futurists that do the best job of preparing their companies for what’s coming, though, will be those that map their insights to contexts, occasions and customer types that are already on the company’s radar.
Build a process that culminates in a transfer plan. While many companies invest in setting up some sort of innovation capability – be it a team of innovation champions or a Stage-Gate process for advancing new ideas – few excel at designing a truly end-to-end program. In many cases, the focus is on two relatively small areas: ideation and idea collection. The kinds of innovation programs that lead to repeatable success are much broader. They create a step-by-step process for gathering insights, developing and prioritizing ideas, and building business cases for the most promising ideas. They provide tools for helping potential innovators, and they offer ways for everyone to build their innovation skills.
Notably, the best innovation programs have one more thing in common: They end in a transfer plan that allows an innovation project to get passed off to a commercialization team or an existing business unit. These plans involve making sure that the recipients become invested in the project’s success, preferably by getting their input and buy-in early on. They provide the map that ensures that the project remains adequately staffed, funded, and supported, fighting off the Not-Invented-Here mentality that so often gets good ideas killed. While it seems like such a small part of innovation, a well thought-out transfer plan is essential to the survival of good ideas.
In the coming years, we’ll see that corporate futurists can offer companies a lot of value. As organizations struggle to understand what the future will hold, trained futurists can provide important insights into how customers and industries will evolve. This will give businesses an edge not just over their competitors, but also over those competitors that they don’t yet even know exist. But if companies don’t change the way they operate, bringing on futurists will all be for naught. The futurists’ insights will get lost, and their tenures will be short. It doesn’t have to play out that way, though. Companies can introduce a common Jobs language that allows insights to flow easily across departments. They can ensure that futurists map their findings to contexts that resonate with key stakeholders. And they can design a process that protects nascent ideas as they move on to commercialization. By taking just a few easy steps, organizations can make sure that the trends that they uncover turn into promising innovations rather than presentation handouts that sit around collecting dust.