How To Think Like Great Disruptors Do
Five steps to brainstorm about game-changing products
How far into the future do you look? You must think about the future if you're a business leader or solopreneur.
The conventional approach to future thinking looks relatively straightforward:
Study and analyze trends
Build your strategic assumptions about the future
Adjust and adapt
By acting this way, one can build a decent, steady business. But if you want to create something extraordinary, you need to embrace another approach. It guarantees nothing but gives a chance. In this article, I will provide a tool that can help you start efficiently thinking about disruptive innovation.
Forecasts that didn't come true
In 2016 Gartner issued a report. In it the agency, among other things, predicted that (source):
By 2020, 100 million consumers will shop in augmented reality
By 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen
By 2022, a blockchain-based business will be worth $10 billion
By 2020, 40% of employees can cut their healthcare costs by wearing a fitness tracker
No comments. You can assess the quality of these projections yourself.
The world is so complex that even professionals whose job is to foresee the future can't predict its development more or less accurately.
But even if you had a reliable source of future forecasts, it wouldn't have meant you could leverage this knowledge. When I write this article, the world is mad about ChatGPT 3. It's evident that AI will change the world in the nearest future. Is it a good time to invest in it?
It definitely is. But you need to keep in mind that even if you do, you'll find yourself among thousands of businesses doing the same. So if you wanted to become an AI disruptor, you should have done it years ago.
If something has been called a "trend" publicly, all your competitors contemplate using it too. They read the same newspapers. So we need some other tools to create a game changer.
The Three Horizons tool
On July 16, 1995, Amazon opened as an online bookseller. The Internet's future seemed bleak because less than 6% of Americans had access to the Net. But Bezos took the plunge.
In 2004 Elon Musk became Tesla's shareholder. Electric cars were not a trend then. Tesla didn't even have a product. But Elon Musk was sure that electric vehicles had their future.
People who invent the things we then use every day aren't prophets. They don't have crystal balls or magic mirrors. But they can somehow see the upside potential of the products or technologies. They are either geniuses or lucky guys. If so, we can't replicate their success formula. But there is another way.
The Three Horizons is one of the tools foresight practitioners use to think about the future. It may help you create a new product or business model. Look at the picture.
The first horizon line (the red one) represents technologies, social patterns, norms, traditions, etc. – that have much value today. But, as it always happens, everything starts to fade into the background over time. For instance, almost all people use social media platforms these days. But now, in 2023, it is evident they are in crisis. So, it is safe to assume that their value will decline. And the day will come when they either will disappear for good or transform into something different.
The second horizon line (the black one) represents the things that are not parts of our daily life so far. But we can relatively precisely predict their future. They will rise soon and peak in 5-10 years, but their value will also begin to decline sooner or later. We often call them "trends," and AI could be a good example.
The third horizon line (the green one) represents what futurists call "the pockets of the future." These are things that have appeared merely recently. They are below the radar, and only enthusiasts or professional trend watchers can spot them now. They are not of interest to most people, and their future is yet to come. They'll probably become trends in 5-10 years and commonplaces in 10 years or so.
Personal computers, electric cars, social media, online stores, cryptocurrencies, and AI were once "pockets of the future" once. So how can we find such things today?
Connecting the dots
Strategic thinking is not about long-term thinking. Instead, it is the ability to connect the dots. Or, to be more precise, to see the connection between new ideas, concepts, or technologies with customer needs.
Progress is not just technological development. Scientists and entrepreneurs invent many things. But only those of them that 6fulfill people's needs make it to market (you can read more here).
On October 24, 2010, Steve Jobs sent an email to his colleagues. In it, Jobs clearly established the critical priority for 2011, which he termed "the year of the cloud."
He connected two dots:
The speed and availability of Internet communications allowed people to keep their files online.
People would love this ability because it is convenient.
So, if you want to invent a disruptive product or business model, you must do the same.
It would be best if you started with weak signals collecting. They are those "pockets of the future," slight alterations in the normal course of life that may (or may not) become massive paradigm shifts in the future.
Weak signals are minute changes in:
Actually, you can put on the initial long list any shift you can spot.
Has your daughter started using a new communication platform? Put this change on the list.
Does your customer send you an unusual request? Write it down as well.
Involve your team members in the process. Build a list of signs that tomorrow's world will be different from today's. The list will be long – so you'll need some time to work with it. But it will pay off.
Cluster all the weak signals you put on your list by category:
Related to customer behavior
Use a simple tool like Google Sheets to do this job.
Brainstorm with your team. Evaluate all the signals in terms of the possible value they can bring to society.
Will people love this change?
Does it promise to make their lives better?
May it enable them to solve their work tasks faster, easier, or cheaper?
What is the likelihood that a change can become commonplace someday?
Will the impact on society or your industry be significant if it can?
Make a short list of weak signals. Choose three to five top signals for each category. You can read more about identifying customer values here.
Brainstorm with your team about the signals from the shortlist.
How could you use them for your strategy?
What products could create to benefit from them?
How could you adjust your business model to become a leader in these changes?
Create a short list of ideas and test them through MVPs. Make strategic decisions. Repeat the whole procedure if necessary.
This tool is not a silver bullet. It only may help you make your strategic thinking more creative and organized. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it guarantees nothing. Your assumptions may be wrong, and the products you launch may fail.
But from my experience of conducting foresight games, I know it increases the quality of group discussions and makes the process more streamlined.
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