Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Predicting the future

In the Wall Street Journal Friday there was an interesting news item. A large PR and marcom firm, Weber Shandwick, established a partnership with BrainReserve, the firm run by Faith Popcorn. For those of you who aren't familiar with Faith Popcorn, she is one of a small group of futurists, who gather data and trends and make attempts to understand and put into context what they think will happen in the near future.

Faith Popcorn is relatively famous for coining the word "cocooning" to mean that adults would start to spend more time relaxing and entertaining at home. This meant more money would be spent on home improvements, larger houses with larger entertainment centers, more and larger televisions and other personal electronics gear. To a great extent, she was right. Ms. Popcorn has published several books, including one entitled The Popcorn Report.

The article continued to state that Weber Shandwick saw the partnership as a way to drive more and larger projects from large marketers.

What's this got to do with innovation? Everything.

As I've written before, there are three types of innovation: incremental, transitional and disruptive. Futurists can definitely impact incremental innovation. By incremental we mean the next turn of the screw, additional features and capabilities for existing products and existing customers. Transitional innovation means creating a new market with an existing product or service. Futurists can probably help here as well.

However, I have some concerns about futurists advising teams working on disruptive innovations. By definition, futurists are consider existing and potential future trends and drawing conclusions based on experience. What can we say about trends and experience if a product or service is intended to completely disrupt the status quo? It seems like a futurist would be just as likely as anyone else to discourage a disruptive innovator.

I think every firm should have a small team dedicated to gathering and analyzing trends and reporting that in some type of synopsis as part of a competitive database. I'd rather see that work done in house rather than outsourced to a firm with potential biases, but if you can't do this in house then get it from somewhere. Just keep it away from the disruptive types.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:07 PM

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