There’s no telling what can happen beyond 18 months. But designers and managers can adapt, by embracing that in their innovation strategies.
Nearly two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history,” the triumph of liberal democracy, and the end of clashes between political ideologies. He got it wrong: Since then, we’ve had our fair share of “history.” Similarly, a few weeks ago, no one would have predicted that the Obama administration would be engaged in three wars in the Middle East, or succeed in killing Osama bin Laden. Governments spend billions of dollars on research and analysis in order to get a grip on the future and still seem to flounder, so I’m often puzzled by the confidence design strategists exude in proclaiming the Next Big Thing.
Especially when such a thing is impossible to predict. Eighteen months ago, the iPad was just a rumor. When it finally arrived last February, many in the press were skeptical. I wasn’t. I guessed it would change the world – – and it did. Yet today, with Apple struggling to ramp up production to meet the overwhelming demand for the iPad 2 and Steve Jobs on another medical leave, can anyone guess Apple’s stock value three years from now? I’m guessing not.
A few weeks ago, I was visited by a senior executive from a very large tech company that is retooling its process and strategy following the iPad’s success. (Similarly, half of our work is now done in the wake of the iPhone and the Android’s success — both of which were mere guesses just two years ago.) Cloud computing is now touted as the next great breakthrough. That just might be true. But 18 months ago, I guessed electric cars would be a reality in California — I mean a real reality for the average Joe — and guessed wrong. I now predict it will be at least five years before the soccer moms and dads of the world buy into the promise of zero emissions.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m guessing a lot here. Here’s why: I think the design world oversells certainty, especially when looking way into the future. This overconfidence leads many companies to invest their design energy and research in long-term programs, which could prove obsolete two years from now. Designers and thinkers take advantage of uncertainty by promising too much to executives who are eager for some clarity regarding future developments. Such promises often prove to be, at least in part, wrong — and the design community loses credibility as a result.
We need to redefine the parameters of the future in order to build greater trust in our work. I believe the future is only 18 months away. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. And if you accept my definition of the future, design has plenty of highly effective ways of shaping it.
The other day, I had lunch with a design executive from a wonderful company that’s been doing everything right — it has a strategic design agency (not mine), and it has had design thinking in its bloodstream a decade before the term was coined. And yet what it’s doing just isn’t working. By the time its last design strategy process ended, it was nearly obsolete — too prescribed and too inflexible. My buddy had to start over again, and this time, he opted for a different philosophy: No design strategy would take a long time to define or be too stiff to bend to an evolving reality. The marching orders now are for short, concise, and dynamic processes, allowing products to be introduced into a marketplace that are well understood and within a reasonable forecast.
But while future-based innovation takes 18 months, any healthy company should perform six-month sprints. A six-month product-development cycle can lead to effective products, even though it leaves only a month for serious design work. That’s not bad if you’re familiar with the evolution of the fruit fly. It reproduces quickly, with many mutations and lots of mistakes, yet it’s one of the most adaptable life forms on the planet.
Being realistic about what the future holds benefits both the business and design worlds — and reduces the risk of making painfully wrong predictions. An actionable future is only 18 months away, and by working in that timeframe, we can get things done faster and better.