Our Job is to Invent the Future

If we are trying to innovate, what is our actual job?

According to Mark Earls in Welcome to the Creative Age, our job is to invent the future.

Seems reasonable to me. Here is how he builds that argument:

…opinions are what you get back from customers once you’ve done something, so they are largely irrelevant to you. They aren’t the precondition for customers doing something or a good guide to what you should do. At all.

So don’t waste your time with ask/answer research and opinions. Throw away the reassurance of quoting the consumer or stats garnered from opinion polls. Watch your customers, observe them, live with them, but don’t expect them to tell you much themselves. Because they can’t.

Instead, recognize:

  • It is your job to invent the future – you are the inventors.
  • It is not the customer’s job – they are not good at the future but they might buy your invention if you get it right (or not).

LeChatNoir and His Contraption (version Two Full Stop Ought)

I’m in the process of working through some focus group results for a consulting client. Against my advice, they insisted on doing this work to try to figure out the best use for a new piece of technology. So this section from Earls rings particularly true for me at the moment.

I keep trying to tell them that it is up to them to invent the future – customers may well play a co-creative role in the process, but first my client has to come up with an idea, a proposal to put in front of their customers. It’s their job.

Since they’re not listening to me, I hope that you will.

If we’re trying to innovate, it’s our job to invent the future. As simple as that. And as frustratingly, vexingly hard as that too. In any case, it’s our job. Time to get started.

(photo from flickr/redteam under a Creative Commons License (discovered after searching for “contraption”!))

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

24 thoughts on “Our Job is to Invent the Future

  1. Hiya,

    Spot on. I’d even state this in a more extreme way.

    You’re either a follower or a leader. If you choose to delegate your decisions to focus group, then you’re a follower. A leader needs to have courage of their own convictions to create the future they want.

    Think iPhone (which had terrible reviews when it came out) compared to the focus group driven, feature complete competitors that are going nowhere.

    Or at a more personal level, think Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet (who was written off during the .com boom) and even Rupert Murdoch (the market is yet to decide if he’s right or wrong, and there’s a fair chance he’s right even though the pundits have written him off).



  2. Totally agree. With a big ‘but’. (As you know, I like ‘big buts’ and I cannot lie).

    The organisations which can teach their customers to navigate the future and ‘innovate’ will always do well.

    The real problem with focus groups is not that customers lack deep understanding of the issues (although they do, at least in a consciously competent sense), but that the environment of a focus group is so removed from reality that no true observation is possible.

    So, do do research and ask questions – oblique focus groups.

  3. Focus group, Cluster, Special Interest Group, Community of Practice, Competence Centre: the list of synonyms is endless, the list of results very, very finite

    Consulting client don’t do innovation: look at Capgemini’s annual report and you’ll count the word innovation more than a dozen times. Yet, there is no Innovation Budget. Heck, there’s not even an R&D Budget

    Firms like those have their innovation driven by and from their clients: if their clients want something new and to pay for it, then they might try. It’s easy really, if you’re in a Time & Material market it’s just very unwise to innovate: it’ll not only cost you money but future income as well!

    A word on Murdoch, Peter: traffic on the Times has gone down by 90%, and advertisers are leaving http://www.stoweboyd.com/post/1053361179/two-months-after-rupert-murdochs-decision-to

  4. Thanks Peter – definitely agree. Although I’m still not sure if this is only the realm of visionary leaders. That’s probably worth a follow-up at some point…

    Simon, I agree with your big but- we still have understand our customers. But I agree with Earls in saying that there are better ways to gain this knowledge- which I think is what you’re saying too.

  5. Surely the purpose of a focus group is to see the world through the focus group participants eyes.

    They probably barely know your client exists.

    Your job is to understand the focus group and then to show your client where they fit in. Build the bridge?

  6. Thanks very much for stopping by Jo and for making the comment – I appreciate it!

    I think that seeing things through the customers’ eyes is definitely important, but I also think that focus groups are a poor method for doing so. Simon’s comment above addresses some of the issues with them. And historically, focus group data regarding new things that are genuinely novel has been mostly useless.

  7. The test will be if they hate it – the new should frighten people – ask your client what a really novel idea should elicit? Ask them to think back abut any great new idea and how it was received initially. Ask them what great new idea ever started in the mainstream?

  8. Agree with all of that Rob. I can’t get any traction on this particular job due to the way it’s been structured, which is why it’s been so frustrating. And there are people within the firm who know exactlybwhat to do too.

  9. Hi Tim

    Your dilemma is a fun one to contemplate (from the outside at least :) ) – I find myself chuckling with the idea of a company inventing something which was built without an initial usage model in mind. Without, in essence, knowing what problem they set out to solve.

    This would be even more amusing if it wasn’t so typical for companies to embark on a dumb innovation process like this.

    Of course, once the invention is built, the best you can get out of a focus group is a series of usage possibilities – with little/no real data on actual probabilities of the product being used in that way.

    Don’t envy you! Best of luck!

    Boris Pluskowski

  10. Thanks for the comment Boris!

    It’s a frustrating situation, for a variety of reasons. The worst part is that I know I could help them if the political situation were different. Oh well. At least the other consulting I’m doing right now is having a significant (and seemingly good) impact!

  11. Tim, As you stated. “If we’re trying to innovate, it’s our job to invent the future. As simple as that. And as frustrating, vexingly hard as that too. In any case, it’s our job. Time to get started.”

    Per this statement, the premise seems to be: “We really need to create something, real bad – and right now!”..(?)
    If so that is from the standpoint of “because..”(I/we have decided..)

    The client seems to be asking for insight as to “What does the customer think they want, but really need instead – and how can we provide that..?” This derives from the standpoint of first finding the root cause (instead), on which a viable solution can (only) then be conjectured.

    I find it hard to work against gravity – easier to open a can of tuna than to herd cats..(?) Perhaps my viewpoint is skewed..?

  12. Hi George – I think you’re reading a fair bit into the post that isn’t there. I’ve written quite a bit about how innovation needs to be done taking the perspective of the whoever will use it. And it’s definitely a network process.

  13. hi Tim,
    Got a bit stuck on this comment of yours ‘customers may well play a co-creative role in the process, but first my client has to come up with an idea, a proposal to put in front of their customers’- I’m not sure I agree.
    If you take Tony Ulwick’s work on outcome driven innovation it is knowing what are the jobs-to-be-done as the first need to understand, then fit by ranking all the possibilities into the outcomes that might generate for the company a ‘fit’ with these unmet needs’. We also can generate plenty of ideas based on our own perceptions of what customers want but these might still miss the real value creation mark of what the customer really wants. Your client coming up with a idea, a proposal should be based FIRSTLY on understanding what job the customer wants to achieve within the areas of your clients expertise. Knowing those has brought the customer ‘front and centre’ into the equation. The ‘invent the future’ is through observing, evaluating, assessing what ‘needs to be achieved’ by customers and then setting about delivering those as solutions. Not the other way around. We must stop asking ?what do you need?’ or ‘is this what you need?’ and start at ‘what are you trying to get done’ first.

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