Business anticipation: a new angle on futures thinking

We like to define our work at Claro Partners as insight-driven innovation. More often than not, these insights emerge from conducting global ethnographic research. However, there is one type of work where understanding people’s current behaviours, needs and drivers falls short. ‘Futures thinking’ is inherently speculative, and as such, it can’t fully rely on understanding people and the world around them today. It requires projecting today’s signs into possible tomorrows, constantly asking “what if” questions, and always considering alternatives, enablers and barriers.

Today there are at least twenty well-known methods and tools for futures thinking: trend analysis, scenario planning, cross-impact analysis, Delphi method, forecasting and back-casting, causal layered analysis, and more. Though there are valuable pieces in each approach, as stand-alone methods we believe they are missing three key elements. Firstly, they lack a way to ground conceptual futures in real contexts with real environmental factors – which is fundamental to making these futures tangible. Secondly, they miss a user’s perspective – i.e. an integrated narrative of how people will react to the changes around them, and what new needs and behaviours these changes will create in their day-to-day life. And lastly, they miss a clearly articulated actionable element – that is, a way to translate theory into strategic next steps for businesses.

This year Claro Partners worked on three projects that had a strong eye on the future. One was focused on creating future scenarios around mobility, the other one looked at human-robot interactions in the retail space, and the last focused on the future of European cities. In what follows, we introduce our major takeaways from these experiences in the form of a new methodology for future thinking projects – or, as we later termed them: business anticipation projects. This insights-driven methodology has a rigorous front-end piece focused on defining emerging changes from a people-centric point of view. Then, it integrates scenarios to show how different changes interact with each other and manifest in specific contexts. Finally, this approach ends with a visions workshop, which is the kick-off to the creation of a strategic roadmap.

THE MINDSET

It is important to highlight that the intention behind this methodology is not to predict the future. Prediction is about declaring things before they happen, it suggests a static position in the present. We aim to be consultants, not prophets, so our intention is much more action and business oriented. The objective of this methodology is to understand what drives today’s most transformational changes, and then project these ahead in time to define specific outcomes – i.e. potential futures. The purpose is to create a clear connection between today and those potential futures, so that our clients can identify unique business opportunities. We like to call this “business anticipation”, not “prediction”.

THE STEPS

1. Inspiration: Where ethnographic research falls short, one of the best options to drive insights-driven innovation is to interview experts – as a complement, or a substitute, so long as it is coupled with a thorough secondary research process. When recruiting experts for this type of work, it is fundamental to consider three key points. Firstly, to balance the academic with the practical perspective (e.g. professors vs. start-up owners). Secondly, to balance a systemic with a discrete perspective (e.g. US vs. global expertise). And lastly, to be intentional with the areas of expertise that are selected. In the case of our future of cities project, we developed a framework that organised experts around four key areas: urban governance, infrastructure, dynamics, and economies.

2. Synthesis: Those working in innovation consulting will know this next step well. Expert interviews, much like user interviews, lead to patterns, contradictions and gaps. Discussing and organising these is what generates inspiring questions and new insights, so the next step is to make sense of the information gathered and elevate key findings. In our case, we clustered future visions around similar topics, and this led to “preliminary shifts”. These shifts included the description of a change and where it may lead to, its impact on people, quotes from the experts, and a selection of data points from the desk research. We articulated them more clearly as the synthesis developed, and we shortlisted the most relevant shifts in collaboration with our clients. In the case of the human-robot interaction project, this phase also led to seven principles that were later introduced as the cornerstone to designing robot-enabled retail experiences.

3. Deep dive: Each preliminary shift conveys a “reason to believe” that a significant change is taking place. However, they do not yet fully articulate how changes today lead to specific future outcomes. This is what the deep dive phase focuses on: developing a credible evolution of events from today until a specific point and situation in the future, for each one of the shifts. The output of this step is what we call “future signs”, which are further developed shifts that integrate the following three elements: structured time, alternatives and barriers.

– Structured time: Future signs divide the evolution of a shift into blocks of time (e.g. present, short term and long term) to understand the evolution of events step-by-step, as well as the causal relationships between one change and the other (e.g. “A leads to B. Consequently, C is profoundly affected. In time, C will make D emerge”).

– Alternatives: To acknowledge the elasticity of one single shift, it is important that future signs illustrate at least two ways in which one shift could evolve. These alternatives or “stories” need not be a utopia and a dystopia, but could also be different perspectives: industry A and B, US and UK, city centre and suburbs, etc.

– Barriers: For each story during each block of time, it is crucial to think of what unique situations might hinder the main sequence of events, or if there are key inflection points that need to be considered. This forces us to question our own deductive logic, to be counter-intuitive, and to surface any underlying assumption.

4. Intersection: As consultants, we want to make sure we recognise the complexity of this type of work, not hide it or over-simplify it. As thorough as the process sounds so far, the reality is that future signs that are confined to their subject silos are not be the best way to illustrate the richness of potential futures. The most interesting questions and whitespace opportunities emerge when different lines of change interact with each other, so the objective of this step is to explore what happens in those intersections. For our projects, we did this by creating “scenarios” – compelling narratives that show how multiple signs converge at the same point in time (e.g. 2030). Beyond this, scenarios are the perfect tool to ground future signs in real contexts and understand how they manifest differently when the environmental factors around them change. For the future of cities project, for instance, we selected three European cities that were of strategic relevance to our client and created three scenarios that intersected the most contextually relevant signs.

5. Activation: The last step of this methodology involves a stakeholder workshop to share future signs, scenarios and any other outputs such as design principles. The objective of this workshop is to inspire, provoke and convey a sense of urgency to those on the client side who want to anticipate potential futures. In the case of the future of mobility project, for example, stakeholders were gradually exposed to four scenarios. Based on these scenarios, and a number of facilitated rounds of analysis, brainstorming and synthesis, they developed one new value proposition per scenario and a series of immediate next steps. For instance, the key next steps that one of the teams agreed upon, was the development of a new and very specific set of capabilities within one of the company’s group. This, as well as other simple but actionable measures, were the ideal way to start the creation of the project’s ultimate output – a strategic roadmap.

THE OUTPUT

The most widely accepted process by which companies articulate where they want to be in the next ten or twenty years and how to get there is strategic planning. Despite the name, these plans are deeply rooted in financial arguments, as opposed to the overarching business strategy that holds these arguments together. They also take months to develop and tend to be very rigid and top-down in their approach. It is no surprise that today’s fast-changing world – where social and technological cycles outpace corporate planning cycles – has led to the adoption of an alternative approach, one by which companies prioritise iterative, shorter planning cycles over long-term strategies. Many companies today, especially start-ups and Silicon-Valley-minded corporations, don’t even develop strategic plans. Instead, they adopt agile and scrum methodologies, design thinking, sprints, and the like, to explore as many options as possible within the realm of one (purposefully) broad vision.

The ultimate objective of our business anticipation methodology is to create a strategic roadmap that brings together these two approaches, and that provides a long-term vision while avoiding the pitfalls of lengthy, rigid, traditional strategic planning. Once that vision is defined, we can develop a flexible roadmap that outlines a set of actions to reach that vision. This could be focused on an external transformation where the client’s customer and external offer is key, or an internal transformation, where the client’s employees play the leading role. Yet, beyond a defined vision and roadmap, we believe business anticipation creates business value by enabling decision makers to visualise and articulate what role they would like their company to play in the foreseeable future, in a lean yet rigorous way.

Depending on the specific interests of a client, a business anticipation project could focus more on the development of the shifts, the future signs, the scenarios, or the facilitation of a stakeholder workshop. It could also kick off with expert interviews, global user research, or a combination of both. This type of work would be particularly valuable for companies who are expanding internationally, moving HQ, creating new business lines, or delving into a completely incipient area (e.g. human-robot retail interaction). What certainly seems to hold true for us is that the more uncertainly a company is facing, and the more their industry is being disrupted, the more relevant it becomes to anticipate potential futures, and in doing so, future-proof the core businesses.

SEP 4, 2018