Imagining Your Organization’s Future: Finding the Intersection

innovationspaceOrganizations tend to be, or become, innovative for one of two reasons: Either it’s their culture (the style of the people the organization attracts, or at least that of its leaders), or it’s forced by a crisis to innovate or die. But my experience has been that most organizations are not very good at innovation; they don’t seem to be able to put together the right combination of people, environment, incentive, process, and knowledge to get it quite right.

Great ideas, and real change, almost always occur at intersections, at juxtapositions that are often serendipitous but can be tweaked to advantage if you know where to find them. Innovation usually happens at the intersection of three spaces: What’s happening, What’s possible, and What’s needed.

  1. You discover What’s happeningby ensuring everyone on your innovation team is as knowledgeable as possible about the entire organization and industry, and current developments in every discipline and area of society that can have an impact on your organization: Politics and regulation, economics, demographics, science and technology, the arts and aesthetics, culture, communication and education. You can enrich your What’s happening knowledge with a Continuous Environmental Scanning process.
  2. You discover What’s needed by staying in close contact with customers and potential customers and investing time understanding their business and their situation, and ‘thinking them ahead’: What if this happens?; What if we could do this for you?
  3. You discover What’s possible by using your imagination, by bringing together the right people in your cross-disciplinary innovation team (including customers and potential customers, and creative and knowledgeable people from other disciplines) and using techniques to enable them to think outside the box, techniques like those illustrated below:


I’ve written before about this discovery process — a process suited both to solving critical problems in complicated situations and enabling a collective understanding to emerge in complex situations. There’s no rocket science to this: You can see children use essentially this process to solve problems, alternating between individual thinking and asking questions and the collaborative and discovery steps. I’ve seen every step followed, in almost precisely this order, by squirrels working together to defeat my successively more sophisticated squirrel baffles on our bird feeders. It works.

The steps in the discovery process Learn, Listen, Explore, Understand are designed to surface What’s happening and What’s needed knowledge. The steps in the discovery process Imagine, Reach Out, Brainstorm are designed to surface What’s possible knowledge.

It is the Imagine step that is usually most difficult, at least for us adult humans. For that reason most organizational innovation programs include some kind of Future State Visioning process — a powerful application of story-telling technique. But many of the Future State Visions I’ve seen are pretty timid, and reflect the myopia of the preparer’s perspective: Whether they work in the manufacturing division or the service area or the R&D department, their creative vision is pretty clear (but often not terribly bold) for the area of the organization they know well, and pretty fuzzy and naive as that vision gets further and further away from their area of expertise.

This is why it is so important to start off with the Learn step, and to have a preliminary session that allows the innovation team to

  • learn about what happens in the parts of the organization they aren’t familiar with (a key element of What’s Happening), and, even more critically,
  • listen to customers describe how they see the organization operating from their point of view and how they think it could be improved (i.e. What’s Needed).

Once you’ve done that (and only once you’ve done that) you are ready to effectively explore What’s Possible.

At this point you can jump-start the Imagine step by giving the team examples of stories of Future State Visions that differ dramatically from the Current State in different ways. Here are some possible ways to do this (my examples are just illustrations, your Future State stories should be grounded in knowledge of What’s happening and What’s needed):

  1. New Products: Envision the current core product of your organization disappearing (due to a disruptive innovation, or because it’s reached the end of its useful life cycle).Then tell a Future State story about how the organization might have rebuilt itself around a completely new product, one that’s consistent with its people’s core competencies. For example, if your organization sells audits, imagine that ‘fraud insurance’ had rendered audits of financial statements obsolete and unnecessary, and that the future organization specializes in environmental audits, audits of police behaviour during arrests, and audits of workplace conditions.
  2. New Process: Envision the invention of a completely new way of producing the organization’s current core product, and tell a Future State story about a day in the life of an employee using this new process. For example, if you’re in construction, imagine that instead of building on-site, the construction of entire walls is automated using modern, ultra-lightweight materials (with all the wiring built-in, and smart sensors that respond automatically to light and heat conditions). Imagine that all the walls are movable, reconfigurable. Imagine that instead of a concrete foundation the house ‘floats’ on a foundation that allows it to be disassembled and moved, and to be earthquake-resistant.
  3. New Distribution Method: Envision the delivery of your product in a completely different way — electronically, perhaps, or by you going out to the customer’s home or office instead of them coming to your office/store. If that’s too hard to imagine, think about $8/gallon gasoline.
  4. New Need Drivers: All businesses must meet a basic human need, and we’re accustomed to thinking that we’ve got them all covered, until an invention like the Walkman or iPod or Blackberry comes along and shows us that music and information and communication are so important we really need to have them everywhere, anytime. Imagine something that would usher in the realization of a whole series of new human needs. For example, suppose the concept of community makes a resurgence, thanks to networking technology and the growing popularity of intentional communities: If in the future many human needs have to be satisfied at the community level, instead of the more nuclear family level or hierarchical state level, how would that affect the need for what your company does, and how would you respond?
  5. New Customers/Constituencies: Networking and the Internet are changing the way we form relationships and affinities, to the point customers are taking over the marketing and development (e.g. Harley-Davidson Owner Groups), and allowing products to be offered to customers and constituencies that might never have been imagined. By disintermediating your suppliers, could you reinvent the way your industry relates to the end-consumer? Tell a Future State story about that.
  6. New Economy/Ways to Make Money: Outsourcing, globalization and offshoring are putting many industries through convulsive change. But as Marshall McLuhan said, “every service creates disservice”. Think about whether your organization should be outsourcing or offshoring in the future, but also think beyond that: Will swelling dissatisfaction over poor quality of offshored products, and worse or non-existent service from companies that do this, create a whole new set of needs your organization could fill? And if the Gift Economy is coming, rather than fighting it or hoping it won’t last, how could you embrace it and lead your industry into it?
  7. New Employees: Envision a future in which every single employee must add a great deal of value, and in which every employee is effectively a self-employed contractor. How would that affect who you would ‘hire’, and nature of work they would do, and hence what business you would be in, and what new businesses you could quickly and easily move into?
  8. New Attributes: Nobody buys a product, they buy the attributes, the benefits of that product. As Rob Paterson says, “we don’t need an air conditioner, we need coolth”. How could you reinvent your industry by better matching your product’s attributes to current and as-yet-unperceived customer needs? And don’t forget the extremely valuable attributes that technology inventors so often overlook: simplicity, ease of use, and good design.
  9. New Technologies: The technologies that will revolutionize your industry are not being invented for your industry. Be the first to study new and emerging technologies across a whole swath of different industries and imagine how they could be applied to your industry and your products and processes (more What’s Happening knowledge needed here).
  10. New Wraparounds: The book The Support Economy envisions suppliers collaborating to provide ‘seamless end-to-end’ service, so you won’t have to deal with one organization for a product, another for servicing it, etc. — intermediaries will emerge who will sell you the cradle-to-grave benefit you’re looking for, and they’ll handle the dealings with all the different suppliers for you. How would this affect your organization. Are there additional services and benefits you can ‘wrap around’ or build into your product or service that will allow you to extend your contact with the customer beyond just point-of-sale?
  11. New Customer Experiences: If you’ve listened closely to customers give you their take on their needs and how well you meet them today, you should be able to envision a much-improved ‘customer experience’ that improves both customer satisfaction and your ‘share of customer’.
  12. New Ways of Marketing/Selling: The rules are changing fast in sales and marketing as the tug-of-war between suppliers and customers for knowledge and power escalates. Today, in most industries, relationship is everything. Tomorrow, with the customer taking more control of the buying decision, but still valuing good relationships with suppliers (and finding them harder to find and afford), how will this affect how you market and sell your product?

These stories are not intended to be ‘answers’ on how to innovate your business. They are simply provokers, to get your innovation team to think outside the box, to stretch their ideas of what the company does, and could do, what the market is, who the customer is, and What’s possible.

If you’ve got the three ingredients right, you should start to sense an inevitable, and healthy, creative tension in the group that results from a growing awareness of:

  • what’s needed but not yet happening or possible (thinking too far ahead of the curve)
  • what’s happening now that is a barrier to realizing what is possible (“that’s not what we do”) or is disconnected from real needs (“they used to need that, hmm I guess they don’t anymore”)
  • what’s possible but not needed, or not yet needed (a solution in search of a problem)

It is in the discovery of what is, and what is not, at the intersection of What’s needed, What’s happening, and What’s possible that true innovation occurs. If you look at the great innovations of the past century, you’ll find they hit this sweet spot — often by luck, sometimes with brilliant foresight, always with great knowledge and greater imagination.

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5 Responses to Imagining Your Organization’s Future: Finding the Intersection

  1. aisling says:

    it is intriguing and refreshing to read about the positive, proactive thinking and suggestions you have in your blog. Imagination, and actively participating in the movement and vision of one’s organization and thus culture,is effective, adn static thinking will only lead to alienation, or at least, inneffection. Media communication technology has made it easier for everyone, no matter where their interests lay to have a voice in a changing social environment. Film, television, internet has empowered the individual and group to take a hand in what is being projected, and it is exciting to see what is happening in our world today with this power. I appreciate your insightful writing, and proactive tips, and look forward to checking out your blog again. I would also really appreciate it if you check out CitizenSHIFT there is a Forum for comments, and an RSS/XML feed for independent access.thanks.A.Chin-Yee@nfb.caAisling

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Aisling: Great site! Thanks for pointing it out. (I’ve always been a fan of NFB)

  3. Lionel says:

    Very impressive – waow! Congratulations for this deep contribution.

  4. Tia says:

    Dave,A brilliant aggregate of content but especially the flow chart. I hope youre ok if I share that with the Linked In Lot, accredited of course.Tia

  5. Dave, it’s great to learn of your work from Kerry Santo For future reference, I’ve posted your letter to her at our wiki, please delete if it’s not in the Public Domain. I look forward to discovering ways to work together. Andrius Kulikauskas, Minciu Sodas laboratory

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