The Trolley Problem is a well-known ethical thought experiment that poses a difficult moral dilemma. The problem is often used in philosophy and ethics courses to spark discussions on the ethics of killing, sacrifice, and utilitarianism. The Trolley Problem goes as follows: A trolley is heading toward five people tied up on the track. You…
As motorists, we continually scan the areas of the road to our left, right, and behind us, but the most important place to examine is immediately in front of us. Therefore, our driving teachers have stressed the need to always focus on the roadway in front of us. While we are stuck in traffic and…
Some people are fascinated by the past and enjoy reflecting on and learning about everything that has occurred up until the present time (possibly thinking that they will learn from it). Some individuals enjoy living in the present because it allows them to be aware of what is occurring here and now, but how many…
Utopia, what is it about? A positive vision of the future. What is it about human beings working together, living together being together without conflict that annoys people? Why is it that dystopia is so compelling to people? I mean, I could give you thousands of examples of this, but it’s something Gene Roddenberry wanted to…
Are You Looking Far Enough Into The Future? Since our earliest days as primitive savannah wanderers, we humans have had a natural tendency to prioritize immediate gratification above achieving more far-reaching goals. Along with the capacity for thought and reason, human beings are the only animals that are capable of planning and thinking ahead to…
Many pundits far and wide talk about how our newest technologies will be eliminating millions of jobs. Artificial Intelligence (AI) mostly, in addition to other new tech, for some reason to many, feels different.
It’s time to retire the word. For everything.
Read an article the other day in one of my favorite magazines – the New Philosopher (yes, as an innovator, you should read broadly too – just reading HBR and innovation tomes doesn’t open your mind like philosophy and great, far future sci-fi do) where a father was urging on this son to excel at chess. To keep from hurting his feelings, he never used the word “lose”, as in “Did you win or lose?” when he came back from his matches – but the phrase “Did you win, or did you learn?” Of course, there is learning in winning as well, but who can argue that we learn more than we lose. In fact, isn’t it true that we learn more when we lose because we hate feeling pain worse than love feeling pleasure?
Either way, note that the dad specifically did not say “lose” but “learn”. In the same say, can we not constantly attribute failing startups or losing market share to a solid lesson learned? If we slam our innovation initiatives every time they fail, do you think you’ll see your people continuing to take risks?
No, you’ll never get the kind of disruptive innovation that you need, you’ll get the same incremental stuff that might help a little – but won’t lead you to those unicorns you love so much.
We need to recast the concept of failure, eliminate the word as much as we can. Didn’t Thomas Edison say that he never failed, just came up with hundreds of ways that didn’t work? We need to look at risk-taking anew and realize that without risk of “finding ways things don’t work” then we rarely get to the way that does work.
If startups and projects don’t gain traction, they pivot or shut down. The lessons learned from these moves into the founders next startup or the project teams next project or company. Instead of saying “a string of failed startups” you should be thinking “a string of educational experiences”
We had a very long string of inventions, from the Renaissance to the jet engine, truly disruptive concepts which dented the human universe and changed humanity for the better. Even those concepts which were tried and didn’t fly taught us what not to do or educated us that this was the wrong time and place for this concept (so many businesses start too far ahead of the world and are unable to pivot to product/market fit).
But should we slow down, should we stop trying, just because it might cost us to learn? If you ask me it costs us more when we don’t take the risk, when we are afraid to fail.
When you are afraid to fail, then you never do, and without doers, where would we be?
I’ve said before many times that the biggest issue with being a futurist is that you are a lot like a weatherperson – usually right, but at the wrong time. Another corollary to that is that everything that has been imagined happening, within reason, will happen, and the only question is when.
Basically, if it is physically possible to do something, then it will probably happen at some point. It may be soon, it may be 5-10 years, or it may be even further out. The trick is trying to figure out when.
In our futurist programs, we ask our clients to imagine what the world will be like 10 years out. We ask them to imagine what they will be like, what their customers will be like, what their products and services will be like, as well. We get them to project into this, for some people, far future (remember that many people can hardly think even a quarter or two out, concerned that there are massive technological and cultural shifts just around the corner.
In these exercises, we usually get many excellent ideas which are natural extensions or combinations of current thinking. We get many incremental ideas. Sometimes, we really get some groundbreaking ideas, and for those, depending on if they can be currently implemented, we take them to a proof-of-concept (which is much more easily done these days due to the frameworks, systems, and tools available), then present them directly to small subsets of users. If they like the idea, we then move it to the next step.
Some of these ideas are interesting but not radical, and still, others are so radical and out-of-the-box, they are a tough sell to move forward on. Think of it this way – if it’s a good idea, then it will eventually be built by someone. Even if there is no current business model or infrastructure to support building the concept, that will change in the future, when new business models and technologies make it possible.
For example, imagine someone, several years ago, seeing their car sitting on the driveway and thinking “why am I paying a monthly fee for my car to just sit there 80% of the time”, and then thinking, “what if I could give people rides for a fee to help cover my costs, in my spare time”. Without smartphones, Google Maps, inexpensive data plans and GPS, Uber, Lyft, and its counterparts would never have been invented. I would not be surprised if there were several people who came up with the exact same concept, just lacking the technology, the drive, or the funding to make it happen.
It’s much the same with other ideas. If they are physically possible, they will happen. They just need the right timing: for both the technology, the business model, and the culture to line up at the same time, and boom – you have a billion-dollar business.
How do you determine what will strike? That’s beside the point – because we don’t. The output of a typical ideation session could generate 20-1000’s of concepts, and you may have no idea which will become the big ideas. Or if there even is one in there. Once the idea is created and captured, however, this will trigger “implementation thinking” – now that it’s out there and formed, then someone, most likely the inventor, will drive to see that idea become reality. In this way, all ideas, unless they are fantasy, will happen, the trick is to guess when.
To guess when we need to be highly cognizant of the world. To actively seek signals which match up as precursors to this idea. Things that, when taken to a next logical (or even illogical step) will show us an embryonic version of the idea. Once we see that, it is the best time to start looking at building the capability to deliver that idea, or if that capability is available, then the ability to build those combinations and get to that idea.
The Most Disruptive Innovation Can Start With Zero Demand
We hear a lot about profitability and ROI in my business – some of my clients innovation groups need to continually justify their existence day-in and day-out, since, for some reason, every innovation initiative always seems to need to be tied back to some level of profitability – it needs to cut costs or increase revenues out of the gate (or even before the gate) before we can even think about it.
The drum beats for ROI are loud and clear – we get it. No one likes to feel like that they are “wasting money”, which for some reason seems to be the excuse for innovation initiatives which don’t beget at least billion-dollar businesses. However, nothing spent fostering a culture of innovation and creating new products, services, and process improvements is wasted.
Where does innovation come from?
1) Most truly disruptive and incredibly successful innovative new products do not have an ROI, simply because they have zero demand when they launch. The product or service never existed before, and it may not even address a problem. Take, for example, the iPhone. The iPhone may have been the last truly independently generated product, but how can you calculate the ROI of a product which no one has ever seen before, and solves no specific problem? It’s a phone, a mini touchscreen tablet, a camera, and a computing platform all on one, and it sprang forth from Steve Jobs and his team’s imagination. No one knew that they needed one until they saw it, and everyone now needs one. The iPhone was developed secretly, and there were no users studies, there were no focus groups. There was no idea that it would fly and be the success that it was. Steve took a risk, and it paid off.
2) What if you are doing something so out there that you have no idea what will happen? Take something like Twitter – which has rapidly become THE premier communications tool for the US President, and many others. It has become the source for breaking news and crowdsourced reporting. No one had any idea of ROI when Odeo developed and launched Twitter. They thought it might be a cool adjunct for their podcasting service. They had little idea of who would use the service and for what, and its grown from nothing to be one of the powerhouses of social media. Today, you can almost not even imagine a world without Twitter, and its many, many social media variants.
3) No one is saying that the only innovation is innovation without an ROI – we don’t chase fairy dust either. All we are saying is that your innovation team should have a healthy mix of both kinds of initiatives – the solid, pragmatic incremental bread-and-butter stuff which visibly contributes directly to the bottom line, as well as a cool, edgy, interesting stuff which doesn’t have a well-defined market or ROI. There are tons of well established, multi-billion-dollar companies which were based on an untried, untested idea which just captured the hearts and minds of as yet unidentified market. Plus, it has never been easier to spin up and test a quick proof-of-concept with the tools and frameworks of today.
There’s no excuse – your lab needs a good mix of grounded stuff and moonshots to be as effective as they can be.
Recognizing the future is tough but not impossible.
Many people say that predicting the future is hard. It is – there are few of us who can take the myriad signals and drivers of today and successfully map them to a tomorrow which may happen.
Although, personally I believe that everything that we have envisioned will happen (no matter how crazy it might seem right now), we just don’t know when. As I’ve said, being a futurist is like being a meteorologist, you are usually always right, just at the wrong time.
For example, I made several predictions as part of a futurist program at one of our major clients 10 years ago. About half of them have already happened (although they are not called the same thing), some are in progress, and others have yet to begin happening. For the half which is happening today, most are not named anywhere near the same, and while some map to the spirit of the original prediction, they may be implemented in a completely different way.
So how do you recognize the future? How can you look around, or come across these clues which will lead to major changes? How will you know which of these truly have long lasting staying power, and should be invested in, where others are just fads which will fade?
There are certain attributes which these signals have which help to indicate that they will be something which may become the future.
For example, who could have predicted that the e-commerce industry would be as big as it is today, compared to Amazon of 1999, which looked like a guy behind a makeshift desk at a single computer with an “Amazon.com” banner over his head (I’m sure that you’ve seen the picture)?
How To Review The Clues.
You must look at these clues with both your heart and your head.
Start with instinct – take the clue in front of you and think about it. Can you project it into the future? Can you see it evolving into something, new, different, important, powerful? What does your gut say?
Next, can this thing become a platform? Can it turn into something that others can use as a tool to do other things, beyond its original intent?
Next, think about what a future version of this signal will solve. Is there a current problem it’s addressing, or is it like most innovations, solving a problem which we did not know was there? Does it seem like a doorway to a whole new ecosystem of some still undefined other place?
Next, does it make you feel a little queasy? Is it unsettling or “creepy”? Does it sit on (or over) the edge of acceptability? Then it may be truly innovative, and therefore, part of the future.
Identifying clues to the future will now let you address them – if this future is going to happen (and it may) then what steps should you be taking to ensure your companies continued survival. Recognizing the future is not easy, but its also essential for you the survive and thrive.