Yesterday I began a short series of posts about the different roles that innovators play. There are several different and competing roles that any good innovator must assume, and understanding when and where to assume the roles is vitally important for success. Yesterday we argued that occasionally an innovator must become a Matador, able to work with the dangerous bulls that protect sacred cows. Matadors have to be quick on their feet and anticipate the bulls’ moves in advance.
Today we’ll look at another role an innovator must play: the futurist. Innovation, like it or not, is all about the future. Any good manager can look a day, a week or a month into the future and be reasonably certain of an accurate forecast. That’s because they’ll assume little change in the environment or operations. However, real innovation doesn’t get implemented and have impact over such a short time frame. Innovation is about quarters at a minimum, and typically is focused on years. Most people blanch at trying to make any predictions beyond a few quarters, and very few have any comfort trying to anticipate the future over several years. Yet that’s what innovation is all about. The future.
There are several reasons for this, but the two most important reasons are 1) your commercialization cycle and 2) the shifting demands and expectations of customers. In the first case, it takes a reasonable amount of time to generate an idea and commercialize it – anywhere from several quarters to several years, depending on the industry. That means if you identify a problem to solve today and have a really interesting new idea to present to the market, it may be years before the idea is commercially available. That means you need to solve problems in context of the timeframes when you can deliver the new product or service. In the second case, customer requirements, expectations and demands are constantly shifting. Usually they shift slowly over time, then rapidly as a new technology, experience or offering becomes commonplace. Then they shift slowly until a critical mass builds up, then shift quickly again.
Both of these phenomenon mean that as an innovator, you need to become an expert on the future of your industry, your firm and your clients’ needs. Only then can you successfully innovate and reap the rewards of your work. This is lonely, uncertain work, since the vast majority of the people in your organization will want to stick to no more than a quarter at a time. That’s relatively certain and measurable.
As a futurist, however, you need to open the book of the future and explain the stories that are there to be read and understood. You may need to write those stories that outline how the future may unfold and your firm’s role in that future. You may be laughed at, ridiculed or ignored, so it’s helpful to investigate deeply and make some reasonably correct predictions. Your firm can’t create interesting, valuable, relevant innovations without understanding the future, and more than likely there’s no one else actively trying to understand what the potential futures look like.
Like the Matador, you’ll be out there on your own. Unlike the Matador, you probably won’t be threatening any sacred cows. Everyone admires the Matador for the risks they take. Few firms admire futurists because they often have little stake in the outcomes. So as a futurist, you are likely to be lonely, and not deeply respected. That is, until you demonstrate your predictions were reasonably correct, and the ideas you’ve promoted and opportunities you’ve predicted, were accurate.
Lincoln and Alan Kay and Peter Drucker have all said, at various times “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. If you can’t create the future of your industry or offering, at least have the temerity to try to understand what’s next.
If you missed the other roles, here are links to them for your convenience:
Next time: the Jester.
Editor’s Note: For a look at some team-based innovation roles, check out The Nine Innovation Roles
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.