An American legend, Kodak, has filed for bankruptcy. A key lesson from Saving Innovation details how to change the way employees think about problems by instituting a futures mindset. Could thinking with a futures mindset have saved Kodak? That’s too late to determine now, what we’re concerned with is how YOU can use a futures mindset to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to your business.
This concept is too important not to share. Here is our COMPLETE chapter from Saving Innovation related to the futures mindset.
– Chadd Scott, co-author, Saving Innovation
In 1982 when the EPCOT theme park opened at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, a reporter on the scene commented to Roy Disney, brother of the late Walt Disney, “Isn’t it a shame Walt isn’t here to see this?” Roy responded to the reporter without hesitation, “Walt saw this 30 years ago, that’s why we’re standing here today.”
After learning to generate more ideas and then better ideas, the next frontier of idea generation is channeling your inner Walt Disney and changing the way employees think about problems. You do this by instituting a futures mindset.
Decades before it opened Walt Disney imagined a planned community of the future to be located in what was then an uninhabitable swamp in The Middle of Nowhere, Florida. It was an audacious idea that drew ridicule at the time, but Disney was operating with a futures mindset and this level of thinking demands a degree of boldness and risk.
When we go through basic brainstorming we’re trying to address immediate needs, put out fires, grease the squeaky wheel and solve the problems of today. While that is an important function of idea generation, when you’re after innovations that can amaze customers, catapult you into the future and separate yourself from the competition, you need to start changing the way employees think about problems.
This challenge necessitates moving your creative process beyond merely solving problems to a place where you begin anticipating the needs of the future, needs people don’t even realize they have or will have.
In the early 1960’s, housewives weren’t saying, “I wish I had an oven the size of a couple toasters which could heat my food in seconds and never get hot inside.” Customers weren’t demanding the microwave. No one then was thinking about how the ability to cook Salisbury steak in 90-seconds could allow millions of bachelors to live exclusively off frozen food; fortunately, an accident in a laboratory lead to a spark of imagination which fed creativity resulting in a prototype that ended up becoming an innovation that changed the way America eats. The futures mindset seeks out the next microwave by visualizing the future and innovating solutions to unmet needs.
Most people think the future just somehow happens. Remember Richard Branson? When he was a kid, he thought someone would eventually come along and develop commercial space travel and all he had to do was wait for it. He waited and waited and it didn’t happen, he had to make it happen.
The future doesn’t just happen, people innovate it when they move from a focus of solving the problems of today to a consideration of what their business and industry will look like five to 10 years or more from now.
HELPFUL HINT: I can hear you saying, “That’s a big job: predicting the future and innovating solutions to needs people don’t even know they have!”
It is challenging there’s no doubt about that. This idea generation obstacle, however, like all the others we’ve discussed, has a starting place, a progression, and a set of basic techniques which, when broken down into steps, makes the possibility much more manageable.
For starters, if you get to this point, congratulations! When you find your culture of innovation firmly established and your people so skilled and sharp with their basic brainstorming, brain-writing and observation that all of your immediate business challenges are being met and the only area remaining for you to explore becomes the future, treat yourself to the best restaurant in town for a job well done. Once you’ve drilled the basics, practiced them repeatedly, worked numerous ideas all the way from imagination through innovation and believe your team’s full potential can now only be met by entirely changing the way it thinks about problems, you are an innovator and I am proud of you.
For achieving this, your reward is the tremendous challenge and opportunity of determining the future. I’ve used the “crawl before you walk” analogy before – brainstorming is crawling, brain-writing is walking, observation is running, changing the way your employees think about problems through an incorporation of the futures mindset is competing in the Olympic decathlon. While an advanced technique, if you’ve built a solid foundation of innovation with your employees you can do this and innovating for the future has the potential to be one of the most exciting initiatives your team can undertake.
The chief obstacle to incorporating a futures mindset is that it doesn’t come naturally. In order to change the way your employees think about problems, you have to reprogram their minds. The establishment of a futures mindset requires employees to think counter to the way they’ve been trained to think all of their lives.
Ninety-nine percent of our problem solving ability works towards issues and problems of the day: what to wear to work, prepare for meeting with Jennifer at 10:30, forms to fill out, e-mails to respond to, where to go for lunch, have to pick up dry cleaning at five, what’s the best way to get there? People are trained to be problem solvers. We have been conditioned to handle today’s pressing issues, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.
Pulling employees out of that mindset and placing them into one that envisions the world of the future is formidable. Fortunately, resources and exercises exist to help accomplish this and the potential benefits are staggering.
The need for a teachable method to transition employees into a futures mindset was a project I had wanted to tackle for years. I realized it couldn’t wait any longer after a series of more and more frustrating idea generation sessions I was facilitating with teams in the food industry.
Coming up with ideas wasn’t the problem for these groups, their problem was being so stuck in the mindset of solving the challenges of the day that they couldn’t envision any solutions that were new, unique or breakthrough. Unconsciously, these teams had built huge walls around their idea generation and hemmed in their potential by exclusively viewing their challenges through today’s eyes.
One team trying to sell more product became fixated on the idea of using the endorsement of a celebrity chef, another wanted to take its brand into low-carbohydrate offerings, a third centered its solutions around the ability to order products on-line and have them delivered to customers at home. These were good ideas and they were five years too late. I was working with these groups in the mid-2000’s and by that time the celebrity chef fad along with the low-carb craze and a rush to put everything on-line were played out. These ideas were tantamount to developing a better 8-track tape player in 1980. It was time to move on.
Trends in the food industry move fast and these groups had already missed out on the leading edge of those movements. Trying to catch up would put them in on the back end where results are small, if experienced at all.
I knew simply imploring these employees to think differently would never transition them to a place where they could begin imagining the future. That change requires a shift in mindset too dramatic to go through without any specific guidance or coaching. What was necessary were a set of tools to bridge the gap between how these people were thinking, how most people think, and the futures mindset necessary to start developing the breakthrough ideas companies are demanding.
To assist the transition I set about creating progressive exercises that could help lead any group of people from a focus on the present into a mindset of inventing for the future and solving unmet needs.
Whenever I begin introducing a team to the futures mindset I always start with this question: how many people here have the ability to predict the future? No one initially raises their hand; I do.
I keep my hand up without saying anything else, accepting the strange looks and allowing the class to think more about the question. I see the gears in their minds working. Team members’ thought processes start with, “I wish I could; I’d put my 401K on a 10-team parlay in Vegas and leave this seminar for Bermuda.”
Gradually, they remember they’re in an innovation class, we’re talking about the future and they know I have no supernatural powers that allow me to see tomorrow. They begin to view the future, as we’re discussing it, as something they have control over. Eventually, another hand goes up, then another and another. By the time every hand in the room is raised, the team is united about what it will be working toward: predicting the future by creating it. Through innovation, predicting the future becomes a matter of choice, calculated risk-taking, and effort.
Once a group understands and believes it has the ability to shape the future I always pull an example relative to the business I’m working with that shows how a team in this field should have been able to predict the future and the tremendous benefit it could have reaped from doing so. There are thousands of examples of this in literally every sector and finding one that applies to your team will be easy.
• How long were customers and experts telling American automakers to improve their product quality and transition to smaller, more fuel efficient models with no action from Detroit? After decades of warnings and a dramatic loss of market share to foreign competitors, the bottom finally dropped out on the Big Three American automakers in the late 2000’s with massive plant closings and layoffs, the need for government bailout, and bankruptcy for General Motors and Chrysler.
• It’s well documented that Folgers saw Starbucks coming and laughed at the idea that anyone was going to spend $3 for a cup of coffee. Instead of branching out, Folgers stayed in the commodity business buying and selling bulk coffee and has been left in the dust by Starbucks as a purveyor of “venti iced-mocha latte with whip and an extra shot.”
• Netflix was founded in 1997, went public in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Blockbuster entered the on-line movie rental marketplace. Blockbuster has been eclipsed by Netflix as the nation’s top video rental company and according to a 2009 article on moneymorning.com, “Blockbuster’s operating income at the end of its second quarter in 2004 was $105.3 million. That was just before Netflix entered mainstream consumer consciousness. Blockbuster’s operating income at the end of its second quarter this year was a loss of $1.5 million.”
• In 2006 the animal feed business was going through a terrible slump because widespread government sponsored ethanol subsidies had dramatically raised the price of corn, the main ingredient in animal feed. Where previously corn cost $2 a bushel, its price rapidly doubled leaving animal nutrition companies struggling to meet demands and turn a profit. Who could have ever predicted the price of corn doubling in a year because of ethanol subsidies? A book titled “2025” did that exact thing. The book was published in 1998. That book and that prediction have drawn more than a few gasps from animal feed teams I have worked with on the problem of how to survive a marketplace where the price of corn has skyrocketed.
The future almost never appears as a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, much more typically it will hint at its arrival for years.
So how can this be used? How can you use trends, research and your expectations of what the future of your industry will look like to innovate for the needs of tomorrow?
I suggest using the following prediction to introduce you and your team to this method of idea generation; consider it a warm-up exercise. Start your team’s utilization of the futures mindset by approaching the problem of population growth. I have employed this example numerous times with groups in widely varied industries and always find it successful.
“FUTURES MINSET” IN ACTION – Global census takers agree that by 2050 the world’s population will hit nine billion. It was only in 2008 that the planet’s population hit six billion. That means over the next 40 years our population is expected to increase again by half.
To adequately feed all those people, over the next 40 years we’ll have to create as much food as has been created in all of human history. That calculation stuns readers and is a belief widely held by experts – experts paid and trained to predict the future. Let your team absorb that information then ask these questions:
1. How might that change impact you personally over the next 40 years?
2. How might it impact your business?
3. What is it that your key customers might need as a result of this?
4. What might your business or company look like in 2050 as a result?
5. What products or services might you need to have to maximize profits during this time?
6. When do you feel you should start working on the products or services that can take advantage of this situation?
Each one of those questions leads to a mini brainstorming session within the group where you spend 20 or 30 minutes discussing. Approach the questions in order as they are progressive and systematically move an individual’s mindset through a natural process which ultimately allows them to tackle what can be vast and nebulous challenges.
Question five, “What products or services would you need to have to maximize profits during this time?” will help your business and may be what you’re most interested in, but if you start your team members brainstorming around that question immediately without leading them up to it by asking the preceding questions, most likely they’ll find the challenge too daunting and idea generation will be stunted.
Questions one through four serve as a series of stepping stones leading your team to question five. When we’re posed with a situation, we instinctually think how that information will impact us – question one. Our brains then move to our next sphere of influence, our jobs (question two), then to our customers (question three) and eventually to the world at large (questions four and five). Question six completes the series bringing the team back into the present by demanding action.
Questions one through five rely on imagination and creativity, question six begins the process of innovation. As you move through these steps watch as the ideas generated by your team branch out to include different business models and fantastically imaginative products and services. Notice the energy created by taking on the future and how team members’ thought processes begin to evolve from an exclusive focus on the present to a consideration of tomorrow.
The next step in applying your team’s burgeoning futures mindset requires finding an issue and future scenario specific to your business to start working on. This can be another opportunity for your team to practice developing focused problem statements and brainstorm. “What future trends or predictions might this team start focusing on for our business to take advantage of?”
If you already have trends, scenarios or predictions in mind, great, if not, there’s no need to struggle in finding them. Information and predictions about the future of your sector are everywhere from trade publications, books, on-line sources and your own intuition. To augment what you find on your own, there exists an organization called the World Future Society whose members spend their time analyzing data and conducting research intended to predict the future.
The World Future Society (www.wfs.org) publishes a book each year entitled The State of the Future which can serve as a tremendous resource for anyone trying to find thoughtful, detailed, exhaustively researched predictions for tomorrow and beyond. The State of the Future includes forecasts for nearly every industry and aspect of life from travel, communications and education to science, technology and the environment. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the World Future Society, but my connection to them in no way influences my support of its work, its accuracy, or my belief in its ability to assist your idea generation.
The State of the Future and the other publication I highly recommend to spur your futures mindset, the World Future Society’s annual “Outlook Report” which features its most thought-provoking forecasts for the year, aren’t vague, fortune teller nonsense. These predictions are the best estimates from the top experts about how our world will change five, ten, fifty years and more down the road. You can’t trust every statistic or prediction as absolute, but you can certainly gather enough information and use your own experience and common sense to determine the future trends your industry and what will likely transform it in the coming years.
After choosing a scenario or prediction specific to your industry and communicating your interest in undertaking this exercise, ask team members the same questions from the global population example above; those same questions are used to start all future-focused brainstorming sessions. At this point, you follow the progressive idea generation steps I have previously established:
1. Develop a focused problem statement
2. Perform brain-writing
3. Sort the ideas into themes
4. Mine those ideas down in further detail
5. Determine which ideas have the most promise or create the most energy among the group
6. Come to a consensus about which of those ideas to pursue
7. Task follow-through
Don’t be Chairman of the Bored
As I began developing exercises to encourage a futures mindset, I started thinking about the people who are happy and unhappy in their jobs. The more thought and observation I gave the issue, the more clear it became to me what common bond the unsatisfied employees shared: boredom.
Employees stuck in a rut, performing the same routine daily, bound to an ordinary or mundane work experience are rarely engaged in their work and functioning at maximum capacity. Conversely, those who achieve and stand out have goals that push them to excel. Innovation works the same. If all your efforts are targeted at handling daily problems and continually working through similar challenges and exercises, you and your team will become bored.
Groups incorporating a futures mindset into their brainstorming do concern themselves with the present while also allowing themselves to reach out and work on a vision for what the future they want looks like. This keeps the process fresh and evolving and stimulates the minds of employees maintaining their engagement and productivity.
Thinking for the future and handling the problems of today need not be an “either/or” decision, both can be achieved simultaneously. A perfect example of this balance in practice takes place at Google where all employees are allocated 20% of their regular work time to focus on new projects that interest them. That’s a full day each week.
Google does not treat thinking about tomorrow as a luxury or frivolity; it takes place every day as a part of its regular operations. Many of Google’s most recent and popular innovations – Gmail, Google News, Orkut and AdSense – originated from these independent endeavors.
During a 2006 speech at Stanford University, Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, stated that her analysis showed 50% of the company’s new product launches originating from this 20% “innovation time off.” That powerful return on investment demonstrates how the futures mindset can deliver concrete, bottom-line results.
As important as those innovations are to Google’s bottom line, the “license to pursue dreams” as Mayer calls it, has an additional benefit at Google and it comes in the area of employee engagement which I’ve stressed previously.
“The key is not 20% of your time,” said Mayer, “It’s that engineers and product developers realize that the company trusts them and wants them to be creative and explore what they want to explore and it is that license that fuels a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation.”
Within the technology field, Google doesn’t offer employees the highest pay. With that being the case, how come Google remains one of the most desired companies to work for? The positive, supportive, engaging work environment at Google which doesn’t only allow, but demands people to follow their individual passions, far surpasses any salary shortcomings in workers’ minds.
I’m not saying 20% is the magic number when it comes to time which should be spent imagining the future; individual leaders and teams can determine that. I am saying that making sure an eye stays continually focused on tomorrow and that resources are devoted to making sure your team gets there will pay huge dividends.
The Feather, the Brick or the Truck
Opportunities to see the future and act before its arrival show up constantly and sooner or later you will have to deal with it. When the future presents itself, will you respond to the feather, the brick or the truck?
The future comes on by degrees with the feather being that subtle tickle which gets your attention, often being ignored as you focus on more pressing and immediate matters. You know in the back of your mind that the tickle will eventually need to be reckoned with and because you’re so caught up in the issues of the day, you still neglect it.
The future arrives inevitably and if you have failed to act on the tickle, it will whack you on the head like a brick. At this point, you are certain of your need to address future concerns, however many of us simply pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and press forward on our normal course, too busy to take the time to look beyond today’s concerns.
You’ve been given two warnings and haven’t yet had to pay dearly. You will when your refusal to anticipate and prepare for the future manifests itself as a truck running you over leaving you splattered in the street and breathing exhaust while it barrels down a road you ignored with your competitors in the cab. Now you have no choice, but to respond to the future and find yourself flat on your back, often hopelessly unprepared to even catch up, let alone pass, your future-focused competition.
You may laugh at this analogy, but how many of you have ignored minor health problems claiming to be too busy to have them checked out or hoping they’d go away, only to see them become much bigger problems because they weren’t treated at first symptom?
The future works the same way: it’s coming and it’s going to be big. You choose which point you want to start preparing for and addressing it, the feather, the brick or the truck?
The sports television network ESPN has consistently acted on the feather routinely pacing the sports media world with innovative new content and delivery platforms. For more than 25 years, it has changed and dictated how fans consume sports and left a trail of would-be competitors in its future-focused wake.
Sony waited for the truck which was digital music and the i-Pod. Sony’s Walkman owned portable music for years; now that company and brand are virtually invisible in the portable music marketplace because of a refusal to work on the innovations of tomorrow, today.
Utilizing a futures mindset conditions you away from a singular obsession with the moment and trains you to notice those signs of the future that appear with a small tickle, the feather, and capitalize on them. In hindsight, we easily say a business or individual should have acted on a hint of some future development because we’re all risky, willing and bold when it comes to events which have passed. Recognizing those signals when they first arise demands thinking in ways most of us are unaccustomed to. That evolution requires changing the way we think about problems by starting to put a focus beyond today.
Great power can be found in an ability to see the future. You will also find risk. You make the decision of which trends and predictions to pursue and take a chance on. The reward for taking this risk can become your legacy. You have the ability to bring the future to people by adopting these techniques and when you do, your efforts will always be remembered.
Embrace the future, its potential, and your ability to shape it.
Think big, so big that it drives you continually. Avoid a preoccupation with how long a project or new idea may take to be completed.
I want to share with you a quote from biologist Wes Jackson, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime you’re not thinking big enough.”
Walt Disney never saw Epcot, John F. Kennedy never saw a man walk on the moon, and both achievements remain their legacy because they had the courage to imagine them. That courage was accompanied by a wisdom which allowed them to envision needs for the future most others couldn’t see and the determination to put their ideas on a track to completion, no matter how long it took. Changing the way employees think about problems, instituting a futures mindset, considering the world of tomorrow and taking action to make it happen, use these techniques to leave your mark on the world.