Seeing the future comes [un]naturally

On the last day of our holiday in Umbria, my wife, youngest son and I had decided to climb Monte Patino, NE of Norcia, in the morning before driving down to Rome for our afternoon flight back to London. In order to be able to complete the walk before lunch we elected to drive up a “bianca” (dirt track) to start higher up. We abandoned the car when the track got too steep to negotiate, reversing it into a narrow space between a cliff face and the track. On the other side of the track was a vertiginous drop.

On the way down I could not help but imagine what woes may have befallen the car and how that would affect our travel plans. What if it was clamped, had been towed away or rolled down the hillside? All completely illogical ideas considering the circumstances.

Later that day I discovered that my wife had been equally obsessed by the idea that one of the sharp stones might have caused a puncture; a much more logical possibility.

Looking into the future is a vital part of the New Product Development process. It often takes a year to get new product development started, then perhaps two years to bring it to market, and a further two years for it to penetrate that market. So, your new product idea has to be brilliant not for the world you can see today, but for the world that might exist in 5 years time. Let’s call this envisioning.

Of course you can, and must, change direction as development progresses. You must respond to real, rather than imagined, changes in the market, focus on new opportunities, and take advantage of new technology. But, if you set off in completely the wrong direction, your engineers will be responding to your modified specifications in a couple of years time like the Irish man in the joke, who when asked for directions, responds “well if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.”

The first myth of envisioning is that you have to have a wacky hairstyle, snort coke or wear odd socks in order to do it. You don’t. Imagining what might happen in the future is a completely natural and irrepressible human instinct, one that helps protect us from (some) of the consequences of our actions; a nagging “what if…” makes us think twice.

The second myth of envisioning is that it comes naturally. It does not. What we do best and most naturally is detecting trends and forecasting forward. Like a catcher watching a ball fly through the air, we are incredibly good at forecasting exactly where it will be in the future and putting our hands out to intercept it. This is so fundamental to our nature that it is what we do by default. It is not a special activity and we cannot help but do it. It is useful and necessary that we include it in our product planning, but given the same data, our competitors will be coming to exactly the same conclusions.

Natural and yet unnatural? Get used to it. To envision futures that will be useful to your product development is going to involve holding contradictory ideas in your head simultaneously. This is because, to be useful, our scenarios of the future need to be plausible, but they also need be ‘hiding in plain view’; they need to be the futures that others do not see. The problem is that we tend to use the ‘plausibility’ test to reject all but the obvious, and that is where a whacky hairstyle (or at least its owner) could well help you in suspending judgement whilst you explore scenarios.

A good scenario of the future can illuminate possible futures that you may not have considered, ones where the world is just different enough from today to make your entire product planning irrelevant. You can always reject this future as unlikely, but just imagining it in the first place will change the way you think about your new product.

I will talk about techniques generating scenarios in a future post, for now just be assured that the car was fine and we made our flight.

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