By Greg Heist
“The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” — John Scully
Picture this: your organization owns a fully-functioning time machine. Armed with such a device, you unfailingly know what to offer consumers, and when to do so to maximize your competitive advantage. Suffice to say, such a machine guarantees your company’s ever-increasing growth, market domination, and naturally, the envy of your industry.
Of course, such a foolproof way of peering into the future doesn’t exist. Yet, this reality doesn’t absolve organizations from looking beyond what is in their immediate field of view.
On the surface, monitoring trends—societal, technological and consumer—seems like a promising way to uncover where future opportunities and threats lie. As a result, organizations budget for trend teams, subscribe to trend services, and attempt to create awareness of these trends among the broader organization.
Yet, conversations with multiple clients over the past year suggest that there is something systemically “rotten in Denmark.” Both insights and innovation professionals still largely regard trends as an interesting novelty, rather than an indispensable factor in developing and sustaining their business strategies.
Why is this?
While there are likely several explanations for this “shortsightedness,” let’s shed light on three key reasons trends are failing the modern organization—relating to the analysis, aggregation and activation of trends.
ANALYSIS: Trends aren’t answers to be understood. They are data to be analyzed.
It is often tempting to latch onto a trend as an ‘answer’ that will unlock the door that stands between us and an earth-shattering breakthrough. As evidence of this, many specialized adhoc teams are formed around understanding a single megatrend—all the while becoming fixated on the gravity of that trend, rather than it being a factor in a more complicated equation.
My friends and collaborator, Mary Meehan, is fond of saying “trends are merely data.” Considering trends as data streams drives us to examine them in a more rigorous way. Like other streams, trend data also has volume, velocity and variety. As such, we can apply the same principles of data analytics to gain a more rigorous understanding of the dynamics at play. Fundamentally, this makes it possible to parse out passing fads from enduring trends that stand to have disruptive potential.
Good example: Millennials have been under a microscope for nearly a decade—from their shifting in spending to differences in values. But these examinations ultimately present a reductionist view of 80 million people. Looking at the three V’s of ‘millennial data’ would lead an organization to analyze and pinpoint patterns over time to gain a more dynamic understanding of millennials’ influence on culture, consumption and their business.
AGGREGATION: Trends can’t be looked at in isolation. They must be interpreted in relation to one another.
It’s nearly impossible to go a week without seeing an article entitled, “How [HOT TREND] Changes Everything.” In fact, many organizations become fixated on the impact of a singular trend, and about how it will play out over time.
That’s largely shortsighted, since the reality is that any given trend exists in the context of other trends playing out in society at a given time. Netflix didn’t become dominant in the home entertainment market simply because people didn’t want to drive to the neighborhood video store anymore. Rather, it was the confluence of the decline of brick-and-mortar retailers, the rise of on-demand content, and the acceleration of broadband that created this seismic shift in the market. All three of these trending inputs played a crucial role; albeit, it took hindsight for executives to see this.
Moving forward, organizations can become more prudent at examining key trends and asking, “What kind of additive—or neutralizing—effects can these trends have on each another? And, what opportunities or threats might they create if they converge at some point in time?”
ACTIVATION: Trends shouldn’t be socialized in a one-size-fits-all manner. They must be synthesized in a way to be relevant to each particular audience.
The reports generated by the big subscription trend services are carefully crafted and appeal the aesthetics of general audiences within and across industries. It’s tempting to openly share these off-the-shelf reports amongst various audiences (I’ve done that myself). However, based on numerous conversations with clients, a “canned” approach to socializing trends has had its drawbacks—particularly related to the ability to activate on them.
While many functional areas across organizations are hungry for trend information, what they really need are actionable trend insights that speak to their area of influence (i.e. marketing vs. product innovation). It means dedicating someone to own the steps in between the “what” (here’s a trend) and the “now what” (here are ways to capitalize on the trend learnings). The most effective way to drive this home is to create tailored “experiences” that reflect both their level of expertise and inputs required to act on trend-driven insights.
Trends will never have the prescient power of the time machine, but we can dramatically increase their value to the modern organization by shifting the ways we think about analyzing, aggregating and activating trends. Doing so will unlock their potential to inspire innovation and create clarity for organizations as they navigate their way into the future.