In my previous post, I discussed the importance to keep innovating and, if possible, disrupting your own business. I also promised you a tool to discover your next possible disruption. In this post, I want to share this tool with you. It is an exercise that helps you brainstorm trends and innovations and the possible effects of it on your business. 

The exercise presented here consists of the following three steps: 

  • Plot the landscape
  • Sketch the future
  • Plan your route

Depending on your ambitions all three, or only the first two steps need to be taken. Companies that are planning on disrupting themselves are best helped by taking all three steps. Organizations that aren’t planning to disrupt themselves any time soon but do want to keep an eye out on where to expect disruption, can stick to the first two steps.

This exercise works best in a meeting of approximately 4 to 9 people. Although with some adjustments, the exercise is doable using video conferencing systems, it is preferred to have all participants in the same room. All attendees should have a clear understanding of the business the organization is in, but not all of them need to be experts in the field. Diversity is key here. Creating a group ranging from old-pros to young dogs with varying backgrounds is best. The better the mix of people, the more interesting the outcomes will be.

In preparation for this meeting, ask all participants to do some upfront research. What trends do they see in society? What innovations are taking the world by storm? What innovations look promising, but aren’t gaining any traction yet? The wider the perspective they take, the better it is. Participants should not limit themselves to the domain the business is operating in.

Materials needed for this exercise are whiteboards, markers, and sticky notes. Having a non-participating, facilitator hosting the meeting is preferred.

Before starting with step 1, make sure everyone present understands that they are part of a brainstorming session. In a brainstorm, there are no weird, strange or bad ideas. Every idea is a good idea, even if someone thinks otherwise.

Step 1: Plot the landscape

In this step, the group is going to explore trends and innovations. The goal of this part is to get the creative fluids flowing and start thinking and dreaming about what is possible. 

We will use a Trends & Innovation Radar for this. Start off by drawing the radar below on a whiteboard. 

T R Radar 1

For those familiar with PEST analysis, you might recognize the themes in the T&I Radar. Feel free to expand your radar with other categories, like Environment, Legal, Demographic or any of the other that occasionally are added to PEST analyses. Please be aware though, the T&I Radar has some overlap, it is not the same as a PEST analysis. The biggest differences are that PEST analysis focuses on threats and opportunities, here and now. The T&I Radar focusses on opportunities now and someday in the future.

Next, ask all participants to take a couple of minutes to write down all the trends and innovations they spotted on sticky notes (one per sticky note).

When they are all done, one-by-one, ask them to stick their notes on the radar in the category that it belongs to. Make sure they put them in the correct ring as well. Most will probably be in the “Now” or “Soon” category. This is okay. Don’t discuss the various items, just make sure everybody understands what they are about. Participants don’t need to agree.

Now, ask all participants if they can think of items that are still lacking. What do they think will be a trend or development someday that is not up on the radar yet? Have them write it down and shout out their ideas. Put the new ideas on the radar. Encourage participants to use their imagination to fill the other ring. When at some point the new ideas dry up, it is time to move on. 

Step 2: Sketch the future

In this next step, we are going to start dreaming. What could the future look like?

Start this step by drawing the following diagram on another whiteboard. Don’t get rid of the T&I Radar yet, you will need it as inspiration in this step.

Innovation Figure

Give the attendees some time again, 5 to 10 minutes at least. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine the future. More specifically, ask them to imagine a future in which there is no need for the business’ current proposition anymore. What has happened? Why is there no need anymore? Why would current customers no longer want their products? What does this future look like? Let participants sketch or describe their future on a sticky note. Allow everyone to come up with as many ideas as they can. There is no single correct answer, the more ideas, the better. 

Participants that have a hard time imaging the future, ask them to take a look at the T&I Radar for inspiration. What trends and innovations, that aren’t already, can be applied to the company’s current business?

Just like in the previous step, ask all participants to stick their post it to the whiteboard. This time allow everyone to elaborate on their ideas. Make sure everyone understands what is being put up on the board. Attendees don’t need to agree but do need to understand the vision of others. As a group, try to decide where on the board the sticky should be placed. The x-axis of the figure describes the feasibility in terms of time; when will technology and humanity be ready for this? The y-axis describes how closely related an idea is to the current line of business the organization is currently operating in.

I can imagine the latter needs some more clarification. Imagine you are running a courier service. A possible future vision can be: “fleets of autonomous drones are doing all deliveries”. Another one could be: “every household owns a 3d printer, there no longer is a need to physically move goods”. Both are ideas that will disrupt your organizations current business model. However, the drone idea is quite related to your current business (goods are still transported). The 3d-printer idea though is a completely unrelated kind of business. 

If everything went according to plan, you now have a board with a number of possible medium and long-term visions. Before we start planning routes, ask all attendees to put a dot behind the three visions they feel are most likely to come true someday. Depending on the number of participants and the number of ideas generated, your board should look a bit similar to this:

Count all the dots put behind the visions. A top 3 or 4 should emerge.

Step 3: Plan your route

Next up is to determine a path into the future. If you need to disrupt yourself, what should you start as soon as possible?

For the most popular ideas, ask the participants what is needed to get there? What steps and innovations are needed to reach this future? Steps are the actions or projects that need to be done to make progress towards the vision. Innovations are those developments that will allow the future vision (be it technological, legal, societal, etc.). At the same time, ask everyone to think about intermediate business models. These are the business models that become available before the future vision when suggested innovations happen and the steps are taken.

Let’s clarify this with an example. Let’s assume that, in the case of the courier service mentioned before, you want to further explore the possibility of delivery by autonomous drones. An intermediate business model could be “delivery with autonomous cars”. Steps to get there could be: “Experiment with self-driving cars”, “Design parcel protection system” and “create an automated portal for customers to register parcels”. Innovations that are needed for this would be “driverless cars” and “legislation regarding autonomous vehicles”.

Ask the group to jointly figure these steps, innovations and business models out. Let them write down all their ideas on sticky notes and put them on the whiteboard. Use different colored sticky notes for steps, innovations and intermediate business models.

Now, try to see if there are dependencies, what needs to happen first, what next, and what can be done in parallel? Visualize this with lines between the items.

At the end of this step your board will look somewhat similar to this:

Innovation Figure filled

Now what?

This overview should give you an overview of, with today’s knowledge, what is needed to work towards a particular disruption. Whether or not you will actually pursue this innovation is up to you and your organization. For some guidance on making that decision, I advise you to read this article by HBR. At least now you know what innovations you need to keep an eye on because they have the opportunity to disrupt your business. I recommend you do an exercise like this regularly, just to keep observing the world around you and the potential it bears.

Let me know when you used this tool in the comments. How did it work out? Did you gain any new insights? Or maybe you have suggestions to improve it further? Share it!