The key to the future is right answer, not the first one

Last week I attended a very nice “networking dinner” in London. The location was excellent, the food was very good and the cross section of experts collected to discuss the issue were amongst the brightest and best in the area. The people paying for the whole event were interested in how this field of technology would play out – and how they could be involved. I am not sure they got what they wanted. It got me thinking about the various ways I have seen people try to predict, or at least anticipate, the future so that they could prepare for it.

An important part of being successful in business is to develop the products and services your customer wants before your competition does. This makes knowing what the future holds an important part of business strategy. When I worked in industry, I was often invited to join visits to customers. My role was to help the sales person get past the stock response to the question “What can we do for you?” which was “Lower your price!” The approach was to discuss how our customers customers were evolving and what sort of challenges they were facing. This would quite often lead to the identification of something our customer needed to do to satisfy their customer. There wasn’t really a process, and the success depended on the knowledge and experience of all involved. What I learned was that, without preparation and practice, predicting the future was difficult and prone to huge errors.

The first time I was aware of a process to identify and prioritise ideas about the future was the first UK Foresight programme in the early 90s. They used a Delphi process – in which a group of wise people in each area (which oddly included me in the Materials area) set out a number of things that might happen, and then the wider community was asked when these events would happen and what might stop them. The answers to these questions were then fed back to the community for a sense check and to obtain consensus. The interesting point, for me, was that although the various communities tried to use these visions of their future, government itself seemed to abandon the output.

I have been to a large number of networking dinners like the one last week over the years. Very few have failed to yield something, but those with the best preparation seem to yield the most interesting, and potentially useful, output. Knowing the goal of the event is paramount. Without a question, most people talk about what they know through the perspective that they are familiar with. Giving participants an opportunity to reframe their knowledge in the light of a specific question beforehand makes for a brisker, and more efficient, discussion. On the evening, good chairmanship is vital. Although many will have thought about their knowledge in the light of the reason for the discussion, there will always be a few participants who just want to push their own ideas or demonstrate their superior knowledge. Being able to manage the discussion to minimise the disruption they cause will make everyone happier – except perhaps the people being managed!

A useful evolution of the single dinner is the serial “road-trip” networking dinner. This is based on the belief that not everyone with good ideas lives in London or can spare the time to travel (from outside London) to such an event. If the output of the first dinner is given to the second dinner about half-way through (to avoid making it too easy for them to shortcut the discussion) then they can develop the ideas of the first dinner, add them to their own and refine the summation. Using this approach a few years ago led to the High Value Manufacturing Strategy for Innovate UK (or the Technology Strategy Board as it was then).

For a more thorough and (slightly) evidence based approach, then Technology Road-mapping is useful. In this a group of experts in the field try to predict the future as a development of the present, but incorporating what they know of societal needs or upcoming regulations to set limits. The roadmap they agree is then published to the wider community and further refined by discussion within the community. One useful variant of the process involves asking how it might be possible to shorten the timescale to achieve the same goals. This often identifies the real roadblocks to delivery. This process was used successfully to develop the Low Carbon Vehicles Roadmap used by Innovate UK and the Automotive Council to ensure funding went into the projects that would not happen without that funding.

Most of these techniques rely on the fact that most innovation is evolutionary. For the real off-the-wall challenges, my experience is that sandpits (or ideas factories as they are sometimes called) are worth the extra effort. This week-long process, first developed by the EPSRC about 15 years ago, selects participants by a combination of knowledge about the area of interest and their potential approach to teamwork. The process starts by taking the ideas that participants inevitably come to the meeting with and expanding and prioritising them in small teams. The resultant ideas are then taken through another divergent-convergent thinking process to yield yet another set of ideas. These get subjected to yet another round of expansion and prioritisation such that – by the middle of the week – most people have forgotten the ideas they came with but are very good at developing and prioritising new ideas. With the judicious injection of “provocations” from people who know about the challenge being faced, these events have consistently come up with unexpected and very different ideas about how to tackle the chosen challenge.

What the successful variants of these various approaches have in common is the combination of a clear challenge to address and a belief that the first idea you come across might not be the best one, so everything must be tested.

It is, as often been observed, remarkably difficult to predict the future, but all these approaches have given, and can give, new insight into the world we will have to live in and new ways to address the challenges we face to ensure we can live there. But the dinners have the highest calorific value!

Innovation "Theory"
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