Friday, April 1, 2016

Want to predict what new technologies mean for your enterprise? Tell stories about the future

part 1 of "The future? I've got this."

The future. It looms out there, like a fog, hiding business opportunity and threat in equal measure.  When you're in the enterprise, some days it seems the fog is even thicker for all the vendors, analysts, and news sources predicting what will happen.  How do you sort out what is important in ways that can help you make smarter decisions for business?

Although my tech career began at a help desk, and later moved into a pretty technical system analyst role, I've spent the last 15 years helping business leaders find the right information to make good choices.  I've learned something important:
Making smart predictions is a learned skill.  Anyone can make better predictions.  You can catch disruptions earlier than you do now, or you can identify trends in time to be disruptive yourself.  
But to do it, you need a toolset. That's what this article is about: the first of an Infrics series offering practical tools and exercises to give you confidence to arrive at your own understanding of things to come.  The primary output of future thinking is insight, a holistic view of emerging technology and business that a)makes sense, and b)will help guide your way forward.  For the purposes of our futurism toolset, I propose that we look at insight as the result of:
  • Information 
  • Analysis 
  • and Imagination 
Let's call these "futurism KPIs."  You need to know what's going on (information.) You need to be able to view aggregate information through lenses that let you see what is genuinely important (analysis.)  And here's the key differentiator: you need to be able to use that knowledge to create an idea that didn't exist before (imagination.)

I want to start with imagination; it's not only rarely used in business, few seem to believe it's something you can learn. "You either have it or you don't," is common to that discussion.

No. Business imagination is also a learned skill. In this post I plan to demonstrate that the very act of adding structure--learning methods to improve imagination--can free your mind to explore in imaginative ways. "the creative imagination works best when faced with explicitly understood constraints," say Michelle and Robert Root-Bernstein, in their 2009 article in Psychology Today.  With that idea, we can let go of the crystal ball concept of futurism, and move to familiar-territory business.   

To fire your imagination, start with these constraints :

  • Start small. Don't try to imagine future scenarios at the big picture level, especially when you are mastering the art of rule-assisted imagination.  Later on, any number of these small-scale exercises will form building blocks of that big picture, but for now, chose one idea at a time.
  • Pick a specific idea.  Here's an example. Take something about emerging technology that seems to be true, in this case "wireless connections will likely be more reliable in more places, with higher bandwidth, at lower cost."  Now, pick just one aspect of business, and imagine possible impacts of that statement.  How about supply chain? Now you can ask a "what if" question and begin imagining possible outcomes. Tease out that future; try thinking from the standpoint of manufacturing, distribution, and retail.

    See what's happened?  Imagination has gone from the nebulous to a structured what-if situation.  One of the huge drivers of the personal computer revolution was the Visicalc spreadsheet, which transformed cumbersome financial what-if questions to something that could be done every day.  Once it's easier to ask such questions, you're free to imagine any number of futures.
  • Work alone at first, and be fearless. With few exceptions, group-think kills imagination.  It's killed by fear of appearing foolish, need to seek consensus, and the tendency of more outgoing individuals to dominate the conversation.  Later on, you will get together to talk about imaginative ideas, but in order to work the imagination plan, you want to start just in your own head.

  • Fantasize.  This can be one of the hardest steps.  To really use imagination, we've first set some constraints; now, within those limits, that scenario, imagine that which seems impossible.  Staying within the story started above, here's an example of one future: wireless, available at previously impossible speeds, universally available anywhere in the world, and so cheap as to be free for all practical purposes.  It overlaps into the current excitement about the internet of things.  What if every person, object and process in your business had access to this connectivity?

    Not only is this likely within the near future, we already have a parallel in long-distance telephony.  Free long distance, anywhere in the world? Never happen.  Oh, wait.

    So here's a future to imagine: connect with anyone or anything in your business world at any time, any place, and exchange unlimited information for free...where can you go with that in your company's supply chain? Run with it.
  • Tell stories about the future. Then share them.  By now, there's a good chance some excellent and imaginative ideas have begun to appear.  In order to bring the still-nebulous concepts into focus, make up stories in which that reality is a central figure.
     "A Day in the Life of a Distribution Center," "Carol in Manufacturing Saves the Day," and so on.  Storytelling gives imagination a structure upon which to build, to feel real.  Here is an example of a way I used storytelling to describe a future with artificial intelligence-minded Personal Digital Assistants.

    Although I encouraged you to work solo when you're setting your imagination free, it's in the sharing of stories where excitement begins, you get some really cool synergies, and the first sense that some imaginative ideas will get traction.  Just don't let those sparkly personalities on your team (and every meeting has them) take the limelight from more introverted members.  Everyone here has something useful to contribute.  If it's hard to be fearless when you're alone, it's even more so in a business meeting.  It's the leader's responsibility to nurture a place where everything is open to discussion.
The important thing here is to fire imagination, not to be right.  In business, it's really, really tough to let go of the idea that "I have to get this right."  In fact, it's in the getting it all wrong--totally different--that imaginative genius flourishes.

Really, we're going about this out of order; imagination actually follows information gathering and analysis, but it's important to enter the futurism process with these imagination concepts in mind.  They will help you do a better job of information and a better job analyzing what you find.  

And there are structures for those as well.  That's in the next installment.