About the time you read this, I’ll be stepping onto the stage here in Monterrey, Mexico, to kick off the Universidad de Monterrey’s annual Innovation Summit. Arrived here yesterday, and did what I always do. Had our driver pull over and my hosts and I breezed through the aisles of a local hyper-mart, taking it all in. Who has shelf space in the diaper aisle? What new products are being introduced? How full is the parking lot? What’s the vibe?
These drive-by tours are one way I trend-watch on the fly. I learned to do this by studying and hanging out with the greats of innovation. Trend-tracking is an essential activity if you want to get better at thinking ahead of the curve.
Seeing Around Corners: I once asked Filippo Passerini, one of the most innovative chief information officers of our era, where he got the idea to transform Procter & Gamble’s back office operations. It was a bold move that took out billions in costs, while helping the company introduce new products more rapidly.
“It was our reading of trends,” he explained. In bull sessions, Filippo and his team saw that the world was moving from “big is good” to “big is bad.” In the fast-paced consumer products realm, being a slow-moving giant amidst nimble regional players such as those here in Latin America is a prescription for disaster.
When I asked Filippo how he keeps his mind focused on seeing around corners, he revealed his lifelong passion for competitive chess. “It forces you to think two and three moves ahead.” All the great innovators do this. They take in more data, more inputs from the environment, from the meeting, from wherever. They live in what I call the future moment.
This skillset, which I write extensively about in Winning the Innovation Game, is a safeguard to being blindsided by change. It’s fundamental to discover incredible opportunity. Below are four strategies for stepping up your game in this essential area.
1. Set Up a Future Scan System
Audit your information diet of developing technological, social, economic, and global trends. Is your intake sufficient, given the pace of change today? If you’re not reading at least two to three newspapers a day, five or more periodicals a month, plus various reports and white papers and blogs, chances are your diet is inadequate. Make it a point to notice trends wherever you are, wherever you go. As you surf the net, as you glance at spam, as you monitor your various mailboxes and inboxes and outboxes, pay attention. Try to “suss out” subtle patterns of change, and think about the implications of these changes going forward. Attend conferences, watch TED Talks, read biographies and history, and seek out different points of view. Above all, allow your assumptions to be assaulted.
2. Develop Front Line Observational Skills
Do this when you’re walking through airports, or retail shops, or your own organization: pay attention, keep your antennae up, and carry along what the novelist Tom Wolfe once called his “portable ignorance.” It’s also important to connect with people, especially those who stimulate your imagination when you are around them. Such people in your life — and they are always rare –have a tremendous influence on your psyche, on your possibility zone, on your ability and motivation to seize the day.
Interacting with people when you are attending a conference, rather than pecking away on your smartphone, could lead to new connections. Ask questions everywhere you go, especially of taxi and limo drivers. Cross-check perspectives and be sure to rub your chin. Think of yourself as a journalist; get informed, don’t just allow yourself to be informed passively. The results of doing this daily are cumulative.
3. Master the Art of the Deep Dive
Let’s say you are asked a question for which you don’t have the answer. Pay attention to such moments! Make a note to get off your jet ski , and don your mask and fins and do a deep dive.
The greatest opportunity spotters do not have a different genetic composition. They simply are more alert to such moments, when the future is calling, and then dig in and explore the depths. “What passes for vision is just a lot of grinding-it-out information gathering,” FedEx founder Fred Smith once told me.
Game changers like Smith listen to their intuition. They respond to that little voice inside that says: “Wait a minute, this is important.” Or “this doesn’t feel right,” or “other people must be having this problem, maybe there’s a better way of going about this.” Smith told me that the idea to do FedEx came from noticing how business people were showing up at his little company at the Little Rock, Arkansas,” airport that refurbished executive aircraft. They were practically frantic to get a package to its destination urgently, and begged him to charter a plane to ship it, even though that wasn’t his business. The existing freight forwarders were oblivious to the growing demand.
Take it upon yourself to do deep dives on emerging issues, new technologies, unusual but intriguing customer requests. Gather more information. Become the expert on the subject. Think through the implications and examine the possibilities and develop a POV – point of view. Leverage people’s thinking for them and they will value you highly. Pretty soon you’ll develop a reputation as the “go to” person for information and insight in this area.
4. Look For Ways to Exploit Trends
Serial entrepreneur Richard Barton, whose startups include Zillow, Expedia, Glassdoor and others, hatches billion-dollar ideas by repeatedly asking a simple question: “What piece of marketplace information do people crave and don’t have?” Wow! Is that a powerful question or what?
The classic credo of the entrepreneur is: find a need and fill it. It’s not enough simply to be well-informed. Innovation-adept leaders like Filippo Passerini don’t just gather better intelligence. They do deep dives, crunch this data, argue about it, debate its implications, brainstorm responses, and try to connect the dots in some meaningful fashion. They seek to arrive at a point of view, both individually and collectively, about how to turn today’s rapid changes into tomorrow’s growth opportunities. And then, they take action to exploit what is often called “first mover advantage.”
“One of our pillars is thinking out in the future, anticipating what is coming, and then making your move,” Passerini explained. “It’s so much better than reacting.” Not bad advice for all of us, in a world where the best is yet to be.