No one can predict the future. But smart innovators still try.
There are two paths to innovation. One resides in our timeline just beyond now—solving a problem that exists today with technologies and resources available today. For comparison’s sake, let’s call it simple forecasting. The other path resides in our timeline years into the future—solving a problem that is, at least according to the tea leaves of trends and R&D pipelines, imminent, using technologies or resources that may not be currently available. That’s futurecasting.
Why would an organization spend time and resources today solving a problem that may not exist for years?
For starters, it aids in long-term strategic planning. Simply informing your forward-looking opinions with as much research and forethought should add an increased level of confidence in those opinions and resulting decisions. Second, and perhaps more important, preparing for that predicted future you’ve so meticulously mapped out might take substantial research and development.
Further, you may require the entirety of that time span to be prepared to offer the most relevant product at the right time. But you won’t know what you’ll need or how to get there unless you spend the time speculating, planning and resourcing today. So, as we navigate the innovation path long into the future, what are the steps we need to ensure we’re heading in the right direction with the proper resources?
Futurecasting using the Narrative-Based Innovation process
At Magnani, we use Narrative-Based Innovation to create continuity of purpose and clarity of vision throughout any design-thinking project. It’s an extraordinarily useful framework for something as fraught with uncertainty as futurecasting.
Empathize — Understand the core human needs
Whether you perform deep ethnographic research, conduct focus groups or scour secondary research sources, do whatever you can to understand the breadth of factors, conditions and influences that drive people’s emotional motivations for engagement in whatever industry or category for which you intend to innovate. Understand what they’re getting from current transactions—satisfaction and disappointments alike. Understand what jobs they’re hiring your product or service to do today. Understand what drives decisions around alternatives and substitutes. Of course, you should document the behaviors and transactional WHATs of your market, but for futurecasting, the more important aspects to understand are the emotional WHYs that might inform the need for a new solution in the future.
Now, document those drivers and motivations. You’ll need them when drafting your narrative!
Personify — Create your hero(es)
At this step, you should have a decent understanding of the type of person(s) who is, or might be in the future, engaging with your innovations as well as what emotions are driving their decisions and engagements. In this step, start to build a day in the life narrative for these heroes. Systematically think through and document how these heroes might experience the world before, during and after engaging with your business.
Project — Set a time frame, consult your road map, map out trends
Understanding exactly how far out into the future you wish your innovation to exist is critical to the potential success of your process. As anyone in technology or fashion will tell you, timing is everything. It’s also critical to managing scope within your project.
So, pick your time frame—two, five, 10 years—and focus exclusively on understanding what will (or probably might) be different about the world, your customers, your markets, technology, etc., at that specific moment. Do you have projects in your R&D pipeline that should be in the market by then? How are the breakouts of consumer segments predicted to have shifted in your markets and the general population? How will social, economic, cultural norms have shifted?
Every business or industry would have a unique set of factors and drivers they would need to consider. The point here is to build as much dimensional understanding of the prevailing environment and motivations influencing your heroes’ decisions.
The outputs of this step can take many forms. You could write a series of “headlines from the future.” You could create a “top 10 list of things every time traveler should know” about your specific date in the future. You could write the CEO a letter from your company’s annual report for the year prior to your future date. No matter what format you choose, give those predicted values and trends as human a face as you can imagine.
Build & Define — Walk your hero(es) through your future world
Here, you’ll want to envision emerging challenges or opportunities your hero might encounter in the world we just predicted. What of the factors you mapped out might have an influence on your heroes’ behaviors, motivations or ability to engage with your business? What are the basic human needs driving those behaviors and motivations? And what within those challenges or motivations might represent a foundation for innovation?
Here, you’ll write the beginning of our hero’s journey (or heroes’ journeys) as they navigate this future world. You’ll want to explore how they encounter the challenges you’ve defined/predicted.
Walk them through a typical day. As you document the what and where of their day, dig into the emotions and motivations that directly and indirectly affect the hero’s relationship to their surroundings. What personal or professional relationships matter to them? Bring them from their general world to a moment of joy or frustration that represents a solvable moment for you to innovate around. Can you make a great moment better? Can you reduce friction or eliminate some form of frustration entirely?
Hold the story here and use that moment to craft your “How might we…” statement to use as the fuel for your ideation, coming next.
Ideate solutions for those challenges
Now that we have a narrative beginning to build around our hero and the challenges they face in the world at the specified future point in time, it’s time we do that hero a favor and imagine all of the ways we might solve for whatever challenge we envisioned in the previous step.
How to conduct an ideation session is a bit out of scope for the level of detail we are covering here, but within that session, all participants should have suitable familiarity with the hero and the circumstances that led them to require our collective problem-solving. But coming out of the session, you should have a shortlist of prioritized solutions to serve as the foundations for the next chapter—the prototype narrative.
Create the (prototype) narratives of the heroes’ encounters with the solution
In this step, you can use a story to work through the most important moments of engagement between the hero and the solution(s) imagined in the ideation phase. Don’t skimp on the details here. It’s critical that the full experience be considered, described and rationalized. The trick is to be thorough enough in the telling of the encounter that anyone with no prior knowledge of the solution should be able to envision the experience and make a rational judgment as to its potential desirability because next, we share and test those solution narratives to begin to quantify what the viability and market prospects of these solutions.
For testing, you may want to create prototypes that take the form of text-based stories, storyboards, explainer videos, dramatic enactment video, etc. What level of fidelity and production value will depend on the level of confidence you expect to glean from the outcome. Generally, the broader the concept you’re testing, the lower fidelity your prototypes need to be.
Share — Test
Testing can take a number of forms. If you want to understand raw market potential, you may do more quantitative testing, like an online survey. If you’re looking for more nuanced evaluations and feedback, something qualitative, like focus groups, individual interviews or dyads, makes more sense. In any case, present the narratives and document the response. Is this a concept people find desirable or, given the unexpected nature of some of the ideas you’re likely to present, even believable?
No one should expect to get every innovation right on the first try. If you’re creating something new, unexpected issues or reactions will always arise. Hence that whole testing phase. If you think, after testing, that you’re still confident in the problem as defined, take stock of the feedback received in testing and circle back to the ideation phase and have another go! If the feedback points to a rethinking of the problem itself, circle back to the definition phase and recraft your “how might we…” question and, once again, head back to ideation. Rinse and repeat until you have a clean answer to your hero’s challenges.
Craft the happy ending
As you envision your hero at the end of the story, having experienced your solution, document in your narrative how you expect the hero would feel. What expectations have been met? What needs have been satisfied? How might they express the engagement from their own point of view?
Even the future deserves a good first draft.
It would be great to say that the inevitable result of this process would be an ironclad road map for what’s next, but it’s more likely that the process acts as a great compass for pointing toward what direction to wander, and, more importantly, where your competition might be heading as well. I’ve said before that the best way to be wrong is to try and predict the future. But I also believe the best way to improve your odds is to create that future yourself.