Wouldn’t it be great if you could predict the future—and be right? If you could conceptualize the next great innovative product and know it will be a wild success before you even make your prototype? If you could roll out the next innovative service or process without fear of it failing?
Well, you can predict the future accurately and be a great innovator. All you have to do is leave out the parts you could be wrong about.
Of course, many people feel that’s impossible to do because they believe we are living in times of great uncertainty—that things today are more uncertain than ever before. They think that everything is changing so much and so fast, there’s just no way to know what’s coming at us and no way to innovate accurately. What do you create? How accepted will it be? Will the marketplace like it? The risk and cost involved with innovation seems too high. To most people, innovation is risky, plagued with challenges, and hard to do successfully.
It’s not true.
No matter how much things may seem that way, the reality is the opposite. In fact, there’s more certainty about our future today than ever before. And we know a great deal more about the future than we think we know, which actually makes innovation easier. We just need to understand where to look.
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As an innovator, that has become your most important task.
Start with Certainty
Did you know there’s actually a science to change? It’s true. And it all starts with certainty.
As many people will attest, the only thing that never changes is the fact that everything always changes. On the surface, that’s pretty disturbing. After all, if we’re looking for certainty, that doesn’t give us much to go on … does it?
Actually, it does. In fact, it gives us everything we need. Because there are certain patterns in how things change that are as dependable as clockwork. And when you know how to spot these changes, your opportunities for innovation will be clearer.
There are two types of change that are everywhere, are very visible, and that tell you a lot about the future. The first is cyclical change. You’re in the midst of cyclical change every day, even if you’re not aware of it. Weather cycles, biological cycles, business cycles … these are all examples of cyclical change. In the United States, you know exactly when the next presidential election will be, when the next full moon will be, when the next tax filing day will be, plus many other key things that cycle with time. You know that if the stock market goes up, it will eventually go down. So there is the science of cycles; you just have to be aware of them.
The second type of change is called linear change. Once this type of change hits, you’re never going back to the old way. For example, once you get a smart phone you’re never going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China park their bicycle and get a car, they will not go back to the bicycle as their primary form of transportation. Once the people in India get refrigeration for their home, they will not live in a home that doesn’t have refrigeration.
In some respects, linear change is where the real action is, because it is not a repeating pattern and therefore creates entirely new and unique circumstances and opportunities. Linear change is what makes the future fundamentally new, and grasping this type of change is what allows you to cash in on innovation.
When you look around and determine what cycles you experience in your business and life, as well as what linear changes have been happening and then look out from there, you can see what’s next and can turn the predictable changes into opportunities for innovation. That’s how you can innovate successfully.
To a significant extent, being a true innovator means being able to recognize linear change and its interplay with cyclic change. However, this is not always as easy as it might at first seem. Some changes are nothing but temporary blips on the radar of time and contain no reliable information about the future. Other changes are so substantial and reliable that they offer very clear glimpses into the future. How do you know the difference?
It all comes down to distinguishing between hard and soft trends.
People typically don’t believe forecasts because forecasts are based on trends, and people don’t trust trends. We think trends are like fads: here today, but for who knows how long?
But science means something different by the word trend. It means “a general direction in which something is developing or changing.” And one of the principal findings of my twenty-five years of research is that there are two distinct kinds of trend: soft trends and hard trends.
A hard trend is a projection based on measurable, tangible, and fully predictable facts, events, or objects. A soft trend is a projection based on statistics that have the appearance of being tangible, fully predictable facts. A hard trend is something that will happen: a future fact. A soft trend is something that might happen: a future maybe.
This distinction completely changes how we view the future. Understanding the difference between hard and soft trends allows us to know which parts of the future we can be right about. It gives us the insight we need to start with certainty, because it shows us where we are dealing with future facts and where we are dealing with hypothetical outcomes—future maybes.
A hard trend can be either cyclic or linear in nature; both types of change yield hard trends. For example, if the stock market is falling today, we know that in the future, it will go back up again—and we know that with certainty. The rise and fall of the stock market is a cyclic change, and a hard trend. Exactly when will it turn and start going up again, and how high will it go when it does? We don’t know. The exact timing and extent of the market’s behavior is a soft trend, because our behavior and choices can influence it.
On the other hand, if the rate at which our laptop computers can process an audio or video clip has gotten a lot faster in the last few decades, what can we know about the future? They’ll be even faster. The increasing speed and capacity of computer processors is not cyclic, it is linear—and a hard trend.
Exactly which manufacturers will be introducing the newest, breakthrough models five years from now? We don’t know. The acceleration of the technology is a hard trend—but who innovates, takes advantage of that technological advancement, and brings it to market, that’s a soft trend. And that’s where your capacity for successful innovation lies.
For example, a few years ago I saw that apps were a hard trend and a major shift in computing. They weren’t going away and were only going to increase. Using that certainty, I innovated and created a suite of apps for the real estate industry, which were wildly successful. Am I a Realtor? No. But by noticing the trends, I could predict with certainty what the future of apps would look like, as well as a target audience for the products. I also knew that if I didn’t do it, someone else would. I wanted to be first, and using the law of certainty enabled me to innovate and do that.
Transformation Leads to Innovation
Here’s another hard trend you can bank on: Within the next five years, technology will transform how we sell, market, communicate, collaborate, innovate, train, and educate. Therefore, being able to transform—your company, your products, your services, and your processes—rather than merely change, is something every organization needs to embrace if they want to profit from innovation.
What’s the difference between changing and transforming?
Changing means continuing to do essentially the same thing, only introducing some variation in degree. Transformation means doing something utterly and radically different. In the early 1990s Barnes & Noble superstores changed how we shop for books. By the mid-1990s, Amazon was transforming how we shop for books, which then transformed how we shop for everything.
Like it or not, there is no field or profession, no business or organization, no country or society that is not going to transform dramatically and fundamentally over the years ahead. Even the Golden Rule of business has transformed. The old Golden Rule in business was to find out what your customers wanted, and give it to them. Today, if you ask your customers what they want and you give it to them, you’re missing a huge opportunity, because their answers will never give you more than a fraction of your potential. You’ll never gain the insights to offer truly innovative products, services, or processes.
Our capabilities are changing far too rapidly for this old rule to be useful. Customers today don’t know what they want, because the things they most want are things they don’t yet know are possible. Customers did not know they wanted an iPad until Apple gave it to them—they had no idea a tablet computer and its thousands of uses were possible.
The new Golden Rule in business is this:
Give your customers the ability to do what they can’t currently do but would want to if they only knew it was possible.
To survive and thrive, look into your customers’ visible future, look at their hard trends, at what you’re certain about regarding their future. See what problems they are going to have and solve them before they happen, so that by the time they’re just starting to experience the problem, you already have the solution.
The fact is that the ability to innovate has never been easier and has never happened faster. In transformational game changing times such as what we’re experiencing now, the key rule is this: If it can be done it will be done … and if you don’t do it someone else will.