Innovating in the dark
On the surface, this sounds like an easy job. All a person has to do is start identifying demographic, societal, industry and technical trends and competitive actions and documenting them, to present a picture of what's likely to happen in the market 2, 3 or even 5 years down the road. This gathering and synthesizing of trends seems like an easy, yet interesting job. Yet, many of the firms we've worked with don't have a person in this role - often they don't even have the role defined.
I've often found it strange that innovation is supposed to create new products and services that will position a firm as a leader or will disrupt a marketplace, yet most firms don't have any consistent ability to look more than 9-18 months down the road to determine what they'll think will happen next. Yes, I know many firms have longer product roadmaps than 18 months, but that is an internal projection of a known product or service. Very few firms do a good job understanding and synthesizing trends that are out of their control and determining how they can react to or shape those trends to their benefit.
Many times we are called on to help firms generate ideas. Usually we'll want to know the context - what opportunity are we addressing or problem we are solving. Usually someone can provide a reasonably coherent answer. Next, we'll ask what competitors are doing. Occasionally we'll get some answer, usually uncertain and murky. Then, we'll ask if there are any trends in the market that will impact the ideation or results. That question usually results in blank stares.
An innovative firm understands the trends in its market and in complimentary or tangential markets and uses those trends to guide new product introductions, new services and new business models. It's not enough to merely project your existing product or service line into the future - using assumptions you can't control. You must understand what your competitors are doing and what significant trends are unfolding and use those as part of your innovation initiative. Otherwise you are innovating in the dark.