I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); Theirs names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who — Rudyard Kipling
Innovators and entrepreneurs, often, become so attached to their ideas that their blind side expands to obscure the whole horizon. Also, unless they are good futurists themselves, it is hard to size the future growth of their market without understanding the mega trends shaping their market. This article lays out the impoetsnve of futurists who can look at a multidisciplinary view of the world and therefore help innovators to overcome their blind sides and to avoid a siloed approach to business problems.
The Role Of A Futurist
In Ancient Greece, an Oracle was a priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity. A
As per the Merriam Webster dictionary, Innovation (noun), for its part, can refer to something new or to a change made to an existing product, idea, or field. One might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone either an invention or an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.
A futurist a person who studies the future and makes predictions about it based on current trends and past events. In the UK, the Winton Group — a hedge fund collects data on financial cycles as far back in history as it can. Many believe in the age old aphorism by Mark Twain and in The 1874 edition of “The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day” which he co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner:
History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.
Now, if you combine them with Twain’s other observation which is that there is no such thing as a new idea, you can understand why someone who can string together the past and the present to extrapolate a highly probable and a less probable but likely future is indispensable to innovation.
Take a very obvious example — the developed world faces an ageing workforce which many call a ‘demographic time bomb’. In the absence of adequate immigration or inflow of young labor to contribute to growth and social security of the ageing population, pushing the technology frontier becomes the only way to achieve economic (GDP) growth. In other words, technologies such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Machine Learning and AI become a logical progression along the technology frontier. The second order effects are that the data needed to power Machine Learning and AI will become critical to their mainstream adoption. Naturally, semi-conductor companies such as NVIDIA, AMD and Chinese chip manufacturers which manufacture the Graphical Processing Units (GPU’s) and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA’s) as well as companies that manufacture sensors will enjoy robust growth as long as there isn’t another AI winter. A futurist would then say how likely is quantum computing to enter the horizon in the next 5 years thereby offering an entrepreneur a view of the future grounded in the past and the present. In fact, with the complex, multidisciplinary and exponential speed at which technology is evolving, there is an urgent need for a general specialist i.e. someone who knows enough about different components to develop the special skill of assigning better probabilities to future outcomes. The difference between a good and a great futurist will be the ability to weave emotional and compelling stories around the fundamental trends he or she is predicting to continue.
Let’s look at another example. If you observed the appreciation in Home Price Index (HPI) after the 2008 crises especially in the cities with the most jobs e.g. San Francisco and then looked at the wealth distribution by age, you would soon realize that millennials have no substantial savings and the steady rise of home prices is likely to give rise to some forms of sharing in both in housing and transportation. This part of the story could be discerned by any good economist. However, what the Economist may not know if how the world of computing is leveraging open API’s. If you add a personal need of not having affordable hotels (as in case of Brian Chesky Of AirBnB) and transportation (as in the case of Travis Kalanick), you come to a new form of hostels called AirBnB and a new form of taxis driven by strangers called Uber. Of course, you have to solve for the most important commodity both those apps are selling — ’trust’ on compete strangers.
You Need A Village For Innovation
No matter what you think, innovation is a team sport. Word association is a very powerful instrument that entrepreneurs can use to draw insights from people around them. When a futurist is painting his vision of the future, word association becomes extremely powerful.
Every word evokes a different picture in the minds of each member of the audience. Imagine if I tell you there was a princess in a castle, some may think of a pink dress, others a red dress and others may visualize a white dress. That’s because everybody looks at the world based on their unique genetics, experiences and education. For example, the concept of Uber could evoke images of time saved in the minds of other people and safety into the minds of others. Both concepts are fundamental to create a sustainable business.
Once an innovator has the approval of the management, you need great executors. Think of Steve Jobs as the provocateur and mind bender and the brilliant Steve Wozniak as the person who builds beautiful computers shaped by Jobs’ vision. Similarly, what good is an architects’ sketch without a brilliant builder. Even while executing, innovators need to consult the futurist to understand if the industry has changed or mega trends have slowed down or accelerated.
A good entrepreneur or an innovator working in the corporate world thinks of a chess board and the best people to execute his strategy. The most important thing is then to have a backup strategy. Obviously, without knowledge of an interdisciplinary specialist like the futurist, its hard to figure out the endgame and the pieces needed to reach there.
Personal Stories Hit The Hardest
I always believed the heart is more powerful than the mind in making decisions. You might have the best laid out spreadsheets but without a story that stirs up your emotions, you don’t have anything. This is because every business needs to have a higher calling not just a well laid out plan to make outsize profits. Remember the golden rule:
Profits are an outcome of living for others i.e. following a higher purpose. Do good by society and the money will follow. What’s more powerful is that people will follow you. When people follow you, you don’t just start a business. You start a revolution that changes the lives of millions. In doing so, you leave a legacy — your imprint on the world.
Of course, a journey of scale always begins small such as the Harvard dorm room in case of Mark Zuckerberg. This wisdom is not easy to digest and may come only after many failed experiences.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. This is the single biggest source of innovation. Every innovation that is not rooted in the needs of a human is bound to fail. Now, it may be very true what Steve Jobs said: consumers may not be aware of what they need e.g. the iPad. But, in my opinion, it could also be that they were not aware of a significantly better way of addressing that need e.g. using a touch keyboard instead of the traditional QWERTY keyboard.
If that necessity and the journey to fulfill it happens to be personal, you suddenly transform into King Bruce from Scotland who battled the English and reclaimed a independent Scotland. Now, people want to follow your life. They want to know how an ordinary ‘King Bruce’ battled armies of monsters (obstacles), found new friendly islands (side innovations) and failed miserably (nobody buys his vision and management is not ready to buy into his idea). Then King Bruce meets the spider (a mentor) who shows him a better way of pitching his idea. The podcast below is a brilliant way of understanding how to re-pitch your idea:
"Gimlet 1: How Not to Pitch a Billionaire" from StartUp Podcast by Gimlet Media on Apple Podcasts
This is a series about what happens when someone ...
He may also discover that there were other things he did not think about. So, he forms alliances (co-founders) who complement his thinking and have opposite world views. Along this journey, the hero always has an oracle to consult in dark times. In our case, the futurist is that oracle. Business problems have become multi disciplinary, complex and international. Someone who is detached from an innovative idea with an eye on the larger landscape and an ability to connect seemingly random dots will be in great demand in the future. That person could be a director on the board of directors, a Chief Futurist or an advisor / consultant with a multi-dimensional approach.
The Power Of A Happy Ending
All businesses are about bringing a smile to people’s faces. Most stories end with the same line ‘everyone lived happily ever after’. It was never about that. The moral of those stories was that everyone CAN live happily ever after. A team of great futurists and innovators end on a note of hope. Think about it, if hope is lost, everything is. When the hope is about a brighter future, it is highly likely that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy not just for the business but society as a whole. However, it also doesn’t mean that the futurist paint a rosy picture where there isn’t one.
In the world of business today, there is seldom an ending. Rather, the job of the CEO is that of a lifelong learner. The learning curve just got steeper and the speed needed to climb it has accelerated dramatically. Therefore, every CEO, innovator and an entrepreneur needs a navigator. A side mirror, so to speak, to cover their blind sides.