What is your future history?
Just because you can't see the future, doesn't mean you can't write it.
I can’t see the future. Maybe you can, but I can only guess what might happen. However, these guesses are a handy tool to explore the context in which a strategy might be successful or otherwise.
Build your scenarios
Peter Schwartz wrote an excellent book in the 90s called the Art of the Long View. This book is about building scenarios; if you can find a copy, take a look. But Mr.. Schwartz is not the only reference for writing the future. Indeed, strategically writing down an effort's ideal or projected future state is incredibly useful for identifying any gaps that might exist. We all know that timing is critical to the market adopting a new technology; how can you identify when the timing is right? Well, you should write a story.
I can be astonishingly myopic. I admit to being initially baffled by there being a camera on my phone (I’m a Xennial, the micro-generation that remembers pre-internet life, just.) When Google Glass came along, I was taken by the possibility but missed the initial privacy concerns. In both these situations, I hadn’t taken the time to consider scenarios and context.
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In the case of mobile phones, someone in Nokia (probably?) clearly understood that these devices would become intrinsic to our day-to-day lives and saw the power of a camera that was always in your hand. Whereas, in the case of Google Glass, the technology was written without the context of a societal privacy concern being considered. For Google Glass to succeed, a different societal environment was necessary.
Take Augmented Reality (AR); what scenarios would make AR a broadly adopted technology? First, we need to be able to access the technology efficiently. AR is best when it is immersive. Seeing AR through a cell phone is very limited for mapping and navigation applications, though it is functional. In addition, AR (as opposed to VR) is best when used in a mobile environment because experiences are being augmented, not invented. So, the user needs to be somewhere for it be augmented. So our success scenario imagines a future where many people are comfortable with something that allows a display to sit between the user’s eye and their view while they walk around. Obviously, we immediately jump to Google Glass here again. Well, why, in this future, would Google Glass now succeed? Have we become more comfortable with numerous pictures being taken of each other? Are we all comfortable with our privacy being sold in exchange for free software? Perhaps. Alternatively, have specific privacy concerns been addressed? Have blurry virtual backgrounds given us the idea that, in some way, devices can be built that automatically blur faces unless overtly asked not to? Can AR have privacy built-in? That feels possible.
Already, then, we have built two success scenarios: one in which we have all given up privacy completely and one where privacy is built into hardware. These are two quite different futures. Life is rarely binary, so there must be incremental scenarios in between these, in addition to other completely independent scenarios.
I am sure you are building the pattern of activity here. Imagine a future where your company, business, product, service, or organization is wildly successful. What does it look like? What needs to change? What can you influence? Are there gaps you need other products to fill? Is there a societal change necessary? Do you have the cash runway in your business to wait for these changes to happen? Are you a catalyst for that change? Are you willing to be Google Glass and fall on your sword so that ten years later, others might meet with more success in building a new market?
An adjacent truth
Finally, a point of further consideration with regard to scenario building. Our past is full of possible adjacent truths. Consider scenarios where alternatives happened. What if the market had decided that touch screens were annoying? Would we all be using Blackberrys still? What was the tipping point? What caused the crowd to move one way or the other? In some scenarios, the answer is clear; in others, the answer is much less so. I talk a little on this subject when talking about the emergence of dominant designs.
As a reminder, a dominant design is a common pattern that has emerged, “cars generally have four wheels,” etc. It is worth sometimes considering why these patterns emerge and what would need to change for these patterns to change. Because, in many ways, we are exploring the success and failures of other scenario-planning exercises.
Often the innovation itself is not the driving force for its own success but the environment it finds itself in. This returns to the question of timing and identifying the scenarios of success.
So, what scenarios do you succeed in, and what are the gaps between today and that success?