Futurists are skilled at listening to and interpreting signals. They look for early patterns on the fringe, before those “pretrends” begin moving toward the mainstream. Although futurists know most patterns will come to nothing, they watch and wait and test the patterns to find the few that will evolve into genuine trends. The art of forecasting the future, author Amy Webb notes, involves “simultaneously recognizing patterns in the present and thinking about how those changes will impact the future so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next.” Organizations that are able to track emerging trends have opportunities to converse and collaborate with those in other fields to plan ahead.
Although it’s rare for companies to have their own in-house futurists, Webb argues that forward-thinking organizations can develop their capabilities for foresight by combining creative perspectives with logic-oriented ones. BlackBerry Ltd.’s inability to reconcile different views, she writes, contributed to the decline of the company’s smartphone business. BlackBerry’s smartphone experience, she concludes, “suggests that forecasting the future of a product, company, or industry should neither be relegated to inventive visionaries nor mapped entirely by left-brain thinkers.”
In this article, Webb offers a six-step process for identifying trends. To begin with, she advises keeping an open mind and gathering information from the fringe without judgment. This involves creating a map of what you observe at the fringe. Next, she proposes narrowing the research and uncovering the hidden patterns to spot trends. The third step is asking questions to determine whether the patterns you observe are really trends. The fourth step involves interpreting the trend and ensuring that the timing is right for the organization. This includes looking at how external factors (such as a change in government leadership or a natural disaster) could affect the trend’s development.
Once organizations have identified trends, Webb recommends two final steps: developing scenarios involving “probable, plausible, and possible futures” and creating a strategy based on that analysis; and testing and questioning the strategy you’re proposing. Managers should test their proposed strategy, she says, to make sure that, among other things, the organization has confidence in the strategy; the strategy offers customers a unique value proposition; you’ll be able to track the trend and measure outcomes; and you’ll be able to recalibrate the strategy if and when needed.