Three Ways To Think About Innovation Trends

By Patricia Salamone, Account Strategist, Gongos, Inc. Part of InSites Consulting

There are countless trend reports published every year that are great resources to help organizations understand how to spot and act on trends that will help build a winning business strategy. Brands that can foresee how the market and wider world is changing are one step ahead in offering consumers exactly what they want, while those who follow a business-as-usual approach tend to lose ground…and share.

There’s a reason why many businesses find it challenging to track trends and incorporate them into a business strategy: it can feel complex and overwhelming. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be. A key first step before diving in is to simply ground yourself in ways to think about trends.

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Here are three fundamental tips to get started:

1. Trends provide ideas for a range of potential outcomes, just don’t expect them to give you all the answers

We often get caught up in the idea that the point of following trends is to be able to see into the future before our competitors can. That mindset often leads to disappointment; we’ll never be able to use trends to craft a view of the future that’s “correct.”

This lack of a clear “answer” is frustrating to businesses that are outcomes focused. But the point isn’t so much to guess right, but rather, to be prepared for and responsive to, realistic eventualities.

On September 11, 2001, The US Coast Guard evacuated more than 500,000 people from Manhattan, a rescue operation that was “bigger than Dunkirk.” Its preparedness that day was the result of a series of studies years before that assessed trends and imagined future scenarios and operational challenges. This work identified the five likeliest futures the Coast Guard would face. Not all of these came to pass; but the one that did, in which “terrorism strikes with frightening frequency, and increasingly close to home” enabled the Coast Guard to be ready on a day that tragically caught many emergency responders by surprise.

Bottom line: Use trends as a springboard to guide thinking, and plan for, multiple futures.

2. Trends are like icebergs: by the time you see one, you may be too late

Trends are the outcomes of various forces in motion. These forces have different degrees of visibility, move at different speeds, and aren’t limited to a single industry or sector. For instance, wearable health devices, like seatbelts or life jackets, are an outcome of rapidly-moving advances in technology colliding with the much more gradual evolution of society to prioritize personal wellbeing.

If you’re reading about a trend online, it means the forces behind it have come together sufficiently for it to be identified as such. It also means you’re likely already behind competitors who were able to spot the various forces underlying the trend before it hit the headlines.

At its heart, trend watching is the art and discipline of scanning for “weak signals” that hint at broader forces at work and trends that may be evolving below the surface. This means going beyond your business’s industry and looking at others–as well as following developments in the STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, political) categories. In the example above, it means not only following developments in miniaturized health technology but also, the evolution of (sociological) attitudes and behaviors around personal wellness.

Bottom line: Invest time to look beyond pre-packaged thought pieces on trends, go outside of your industry to challenge your thinking, and explore across STEEP factors to identify trends before they hit the headlines.

3. Trends awareness is a team sport

Looking for and thinking about trends isn’t an exercise that’s limited to the C-suite. Nor is it the domain of a “trends expert,” who works in isolation to spot potential trends and bring them to the attention of leadership.

Think about the myriad of roles and job functions within your organization; from leadership, to HR, customer service, and logistics, every employee has a perspective on the events, everyday challenges, and emerging tools that are specific to what they do and are part of the conversations they’re having every day with clients, customers, and colleagues.

Following trends is a process that, if done well, will bring together all stakeholders with a line of sight into an area of the operation and the various forces that may be shaping it. Every day there is new information to absorb and track and every person can be involved.

It goes without saying that this perspective applies to acting on trends as well. As we’ve described, a business can use trends to imagine a range of trend-based futures and engage the entire company to identify and prioritize them. But to truly succeed, this process should culminate in the entire business thinking about the future in alignment, using a consistent vision and language in describing and planning for it.

Bottom line: Look beyond external sources for information on trends to engage people at all levels and roles within the business. Trend-based strategies need to be culturally embedded in the organization to have an impact, ensuring that decisions throughout the business will be made based on a shared perspective of the future.

Thinking about trends is just the first step

Realistically, we shouldn’t expect a trends focus to tell us precisely what strategy to use moving forward. Nor should we lean on a trends article to determine the path for a company’s next innovation.

Instead, adopt a broad and flexible mindset and think about trends as inspiration and a springboard to help imagine and navigate various possible futures. Reach beyond the definitive industry trade magazine for greater perspectives that may impact the industry. And make it an integral part of the company culture that helps your company understand and act on consumer needs to win in the marketplace.

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Patricia Salamone, Account Strategist, Gongos, Inc. part of InSites Consulting

A career strategist having worked across the financial services, technology, CPG, and media sectors, Patricia seeks resonance with every problem she is hired to solve. She sees innovation through the lens of human need, framing what is to be answered not through the problem at hand, but rather the mystery to be unraveled. Innovation work, she believes, does not simply exist across a spectrum of incremental to disruptive, rather it occurs in the form of equity to be stretched, solutions to be extended, and go-to-market strategies to be reimagined. It is the fusion of once seemingly unrelatable inputs: a macro-trend and a micro-moment; a camera and a mobile phone; nutritional need and global warming.

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