Our Job is to Invent the Future | The Discipline of Innovation

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”!))

About Tim Kastelle

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

23 Responses to Our Job is to Invent the Future

  1. Peter Evans-Greenwood 7 September 2010 at 9:07 pm #


    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. Simon Bostock 7 September 2010 at 9:32 pm #

    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. Martijn Linssen 7 September 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    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

  4. Tim 7 September 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    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. Tim 7 September 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Martijn- innovation in professional service firms is a whole separate category. Or an oxymoron… :-)

  6. Jo Jordan 7 September 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    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?

  7. Tim 7 September 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    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.

  8. Rob Paterson 7 September 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    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?

  9. Tim 7 September 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    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.

  10. Boris Pluskowski 8 September 2010 at 6:55 am #

    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

  11. Tim 8 September 2010 at 7:22 am #

    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!

  12. GeorgeB 15 September 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    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..?

  13. Tim 16 September 2010 at 8:00 am #

    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.

  14. Paul Hobcraft 17 October 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    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.

  15. Tim 21 October 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    Hi Paul – I agree with most of what you say, especially the last half.


  1. The importance of creative leadership « ensparq - 8 September 2010

    [...] importance of creative leadership I was just reading Tim Kastelle’s post “Our Job is to Invent the Future” on his great blog which reminded me about the primary need for anyone who is in business to be [...]

  2. The Danger of Focus Groups « Innovation Leadership Network - 11 October 2010

    [...] he raises some important points about the problems with focus groups. I recently talked about some of my frustrating experiences with focus group research as [...]

  3. The Innovation Mantra « Innovation Leadership Network - 12 February 2011

    [...] As I’ve said before, our job is to invent the future. [...]

  4. Where’s My Flying Car? « Innovation Leadership Network - 16 March 2011

    [...] If we’re trying to innovate, our job is to invent the future. [...]

  5. 12 Sparks for Heads-Up Creativity - Mind Makeover - - Forbes - 19 March 2011

    [...] My Flying Car? Like sci-fi authors, if we’re trying to innovate, Tim Kastelle predicts, our job is to invent the future.  Sounds good, but what does Tim mean? It means that inventing the future isn’t simply about [...]

  6. Our Job is to Invent the Future, revisited « Innovation Leadership Network - 12 July 2011

    [...] Job is to Invent the Future, revisited TweetIf we’re trying to innovate, our job is to invent the future. That’s why I was struck by this quote from Ray Kurzweil from a few years [...]

  7. Innovation Challenge: Your Market is Never Stable - Innovation for Growth - 15 April 2013

    [...] But another constant is that in business, things change.  If you’re running a business, that’s a very good argument for innovating.  As innovators, our job is to invent the future. [...]

  8. To Innovate, Amplify Weak Signals | The Discipline of Innovation - 2 February 2014

    […] did some consulting for a firm that was trying to develop a digital strategy for iPads about four months before they were first released.  The insisted on running focus groups, because […]

Leave a Reply