As a wide-eyed kid, did you think about a future with flying cars and personal domestic robots for everyone? We tend to see the future as a time full of opportunities and yet-to-be-discovered, society-altering inventions.
Think about The Jetsons. We’re still 44 years away from futuristic universe that the well-known show’s creators imagined in 1962 and it’s probably fair to say that they overestimated future change (though maybe when Amazon gives the Echo legs we’ll be a step closer to having our own Rosie the Robot Maid).
This isn’t surprising. When any of us imagine the future, we typically do so by making predictions about the changes we hope to see.
However, more often than not, these expectations of the future are tainted by a number of pitfalls. These little mistakes keep us from having reasonable expectations about the future.
This can be a fatal flaw for entrepreneurs when developing a product. To help fight these pitfalls, I’ve pulled together a four step process for thinking about the future in a more structured way.
Step 1: Look at trends from today, yesterday, and last year
Innovating for the future isn’t about stepping on the gas and never looking back. One of the best ways to get an idea of the future is to look at trends from today and the recent past. Ask yourself what is changing and how has the business world, for example, recently evolved?
It’s likely that the products and industries that are currently evolving will be a more extreme version of themselves in the future. Look at it this way, a car has rearview mirrors so you can see what’s behind you and make a decision about where you’re going.
Step 2: Consider the sweet spot for predicting the future
I’ve run and observed my fair share of brainstorms with companies from a range of industries (it comes with the territory of being in the innovation business). During these brainstorms, there’s one error that I see come back time and time again: people look too far into the future. They sit down and think “what can we create that will be useful in 10 or 20 years?” The problem is that 20 or even 10 years is way too far into the future.
Instead, take a look five years into the future. Some of the important changes will already be taking shape. At the five year out mark, current data can also shed some light on how a market or industry will look — inserting a bit of realism into your considerations.
It’s like checking your weather app. The likelihood that it will get tomorrow’s weather right is much higher than the chances of correctly predicting the weather 10 days out.
Step 3: Try to see where trends will intersect
But trends don’t occur in isolation. Business, politics, and society all interact with one another. It can help to think about the future by considering two evolutions that are occurring at the same time. Then think about what would happen if these two evolutions collided. While this can be pretty challenging, it is also rewardingly interesting.
Take the ecommerce sector for example. Ecommerce is growing at a fast pace — it increased in the European Union by around 15 percent in 2017 and is projected to hit similar numbers in 2018. Amazon has even proposed a system that allows its delivery people to drop a package inside your house.
But how could a trend in a completely different domain affect ecommerce? Take the recent popularity of employers providing extra services in the workplace. Companies increasingly offer benefits such as child care at the office or car washes.
These two trends, ecommerce businesses like Amazon accessing your home and companies providing extra services for their employees, could intersect. And what would that look like? We could imagine a time when employees live in company housing and order their groceries and home supplies online from their employer, which then delivers the materials directly into your kitchen.
It can be extremely helpful to think outside the confines of a sector itself to see how it may interact with other industries or societal trends. Changes that are just taking shape or issues that are now being debated are an excellent way of imagining how the future will look.
Step 4: Validate your assumptions to de-risk
Even if you follow the first three steps, the future is still all in your head.
And while that future may make perfect sense to you, it might not be as compelling for other people. This is called false-consensus bias, a fallacy that has us believe that our opinions, feelings, and experiences are normal and typical of others’. It makes us think that if we would use a product, everyone would.
On top of that, we have a tendency to hope for positive results. We tend to think that we are special and less at risk of experiencing negative events. Together, they can create a powerful spell that makes us delude ourselves. If you want to lower the risk of your ‘future-altering’ invention (I imagine you do), then it’s important to validate your assumptions. You’ll probably realize that many of your expectations don’t hold true for a wider audience.
Check with friends or family whether a product or service would actually help other people. In the best case scenario, you’ll hear that there is a real demand for your idea. On the other hand, you might hear that the idea isn’t very useful. This might be a hard pill to swallow, but think of all the heartache Google’s research lab Google X would’ve avoided if someone had saved them from the expensive catastrophe that was Google Glass.