Who doesn’t want to know what the future will hold? I know I wouldn’t mind a glimpse at times to know how to get ready to adjust to future trends. Foresight professionals can help with that task. But what is foresight and how can we make it a success at our company? That’s what I’ll discuss in this article, which is largely based on our podcast episode with a global foresight leader.
What is foresight as a function in companies?
Foresight in a company should provide the company with:
- guidance on investment choices in the future
- understanding the consumer of the future
- seeing the patterns of change
- an understanding of what’s happening in the world
To an extent, the book on foresight as a function is still being written. It’s different from the field of study of futurism, said Joanna.
“People who do trend forecasting that’s very different to foresight,” said Joanna, then a foresight leader Mars Wrigley and who is now with McDonald’s. “Strategic functions in a business are probably the most similar to what foresight does.”
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How it’s implemented depends on each company, and it’s up to the professionals that lead and build the team to define and offer that tailored solution that works for your business.
Does your company understand the differences between macro trends or what a signal is, for example, Joanna added. And then it’s always good to remember what the biggest struggles are and see if those can be solved with foresight.
What is a foresight team?
Joanna had been working for Mars for almost three years when she helped the company start a global foresight team.
“It’s essentially a new part of our insights business – what we call our human intelligence business,” she said. “Really helping us understand the consumer of today and the consumer of tomorrow.”
Foresight teams try to help businesses understand the future consumer at a deeper level and explain what the change means to the company.
That can include changes in:
- consumer behaviors
- who competitors are
- and more…
Foresight teams try to help businesses make the “right investment in the further-out future,” Joanna said.
Members of foresight teams can come from different disciplines, she said, including marketing or market research. For example, Joanna worked as a consumer insights manager before starting the foresight team. Before that she worked as a brand manager at General Mills.
“When I work now with my marketing and brand teams, I feel like I can get on the same page with them a lot easier,” she said. “It gives me an added level of respect and understanding.”
The foresight team looks at the high-level strategic impact of changes but also looks at making the connection to what teams can do with that information.
“The more you can connect the dots for them over time, the more they’ll start doing that themselves over time,” she said.
The difference between consumer signals
The foresight team also help understand the weaker consumer signals.
“You have weak signals and strong signals,” Joanna said. “The strong signals are the ones that are pretty mainstream, they’ve been around for a long time and they may have already been scaled in your category or another category.”
Weak signals on the other hand may come from early adopters or trends on the fringe.
Foresight teams also look at existing patterns and map them, Joanna explained.
“You have patterns and then you group the patterns and it’ll tell you what a change is likely going to be,” she said. “Then you try to connect that all together with your micro-trends, macro trends. And then once you get past that stage you move into prioritization, the cone of uncertainty, and scenario planning. Some of those things can help your business make really strategic investment choices.”
Understanding the past
And while foresight teams are looking toward the future, understanding the past also is helpful.
“A lot of foresight people say they are closet historians because so much of understanding the world is understanding how we got here,” said Joanna. “We look at pivotal points in time.”
That can include understanding how markets have grown in the past and then projecting that into the future to see where there are opportunities.
“We should be learning from history so we are not repeating the same mistakes,” Joanna said.
How do you create a culture of foresight in your business?
“Foresight can be the lifeblood between different parts of the business when it’s working,” Joanna said.
Of course, to get it to work, companies must:
- commit to it
- hire the right people for the team
- ensure the team understands the business
- enable communication
- make collaboration a priority
Find ways for the team to communicate with other teams and be integrated.
“Allow your foresight team to be a little bit disruptive,” she added. “Give them the breath to be that troublemaker – positive troublemaker – to help us disrupt our thinking and standard way of doing business.”
Communication matters and that often comes back to having the avenues to communicate with the right people at the right time inside a company.
One way Joanna shares foresight content is through her podcast “Future Imagined Podcast,” which started as an internal podcast but is now also published publicly because guests wanted to share it as well.
The podcast “is a podcast created by Global Foresight Leaders within the CPG industry to inspire curiosity. We speak with guests from within and outside the industry, exploring themes influencing the future.”
Each episode dives deeper into a specific topic.
“We balance bringing facts and making people informed about the future with making people feel why is this happening and how is it impacting things,” she said. “We try to make it an easy and fun listen.”
The conversations and exchange of knowledge during the episodes can also lead to finding solutions to future business problems.
Another way to communicate the message of foresight was for her to hold a handful of provocative sessions that included presentations from futurists.
“The great thing about that is that afterward, we had so many people come to us saying, ‘oh, I want to learn more about that, can I partner with you?'” Joanna said.
How does everything relate to each other?
From communications, consumer signals, and other environmental changes, linking what’s happening and making sense of it is an important step the foresight team can help with.
“It’s probably the biggest challenge we face – not everyone in a business can create those links in their own minds or how those things matter to us,” Joanna said. “A big onus we put on us is to connect the dots for the business.”
For example, Joanna said she predicts that the pandemic will probably not fully recover for another two years – around 2024.
“Sorry to break everyone’s hearts,” she said. “But we are going to see some things of recovery during that process, and one of the big things we are seeing is adaptability.”
That means that businesses are:
- rethinking their models
- redoing their strategies to reach consumers
- stretching their footprint
- considering new partnerships
- adapting how people work
“That is hard for people to get their heads around and say, ‘what do I do with this?'” Joanna said. “So we brought it down a level.”
Looking at how people are shopping and adding the adaptability shift could mean automated vending where shoppers don’t have to touch anything on the screen. Or roaming robots that bring items to you. Or stores where you can shop without getting in line.
“Here are some innovations that bring to light that shift,” she said. “And then here are three things we should be investing in today.”
The best foresight won’t do much good if they aren’t acted on. For example, let’s say the team shares a report with actionable insights for the next decade. Don’t dismiss it because “I have 10 years to read it.”
Joanna also mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic was predicted by reports, but it wasn’t acted on.
“The wild card was actually the lack of collaboration,” she added.
“Foresight can be your best strategic partner in the business,” she said when collaboration happens. For that to happen, we need to listen, understand and take action.
How are foresight strategies different from market research strategies?
Joanna said there are two main areas.
Focus on big pivots for the business
For example, in 2021, the foresight team is looking at the time period of 2026-2032.
“We are not just thinking about small innovations or pilots,” she said. “But we are thinking about big changes the company needs to make. The futures that our company is least prepared for.”
It’s also important to mention that certainly other teams think about pieces of this, but as Joanna said, “it’s not what they live and breath every day.”
It’s not research in the traditional sense
“We don’t really do research in the traditional sense, even though we sit inside the insights function,” Joanna said. “We do research not by asking consumers what they want but by observing the world.”
Some of the sources foresight looks at include:
- A variety of data
- Observational tactics
- Pattern mapping
- And more…
“We are not trying to come up with the ‘so what’ and a why which is what insights does but the ‘what’s next?’” she said. “We are really trying to think about and play out different scenarios that may play out.”
This is especially important as businesses can easily get comfortable in the current model, but what happens if that model gets flipped upside down? Even worse, what if it gets flipped unexpectedly?
“We are here to articulate what the consumer of the future might want,” Joanna said. “To do that we need to deeply understand human beings from the history, today, and the future projecting out.”
Driving businesses impact with foresight
Kyle Papanikolas, global insights senior director at McDonald’s, said on an episode of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show,” that McDonald’s is standing up a foresight team and is trying to learn from what has worked and hasn’t worked for other foresight teams.
“A lot of companies are creating a lot of interesting stuff in foresight, but they can’t find a way to actually land the plane and drive business impact,” he said.
Kyle said that partly happens because many companies focus on a short-form cadence, and foresight is more long-term.
“When you do foresight, it can be hard to intersect with those existing workstreams,” he said. “And sometimes it’s about how things are delivered. Sometimes foresight will say, ‘the world will look this like in 2030,’ but then I’m thinking, ‘what’s my next menu innovation?’ what the heck do I even do with that?”
And then, of course, there are always the skeptics. How accurate can that information about a time eight years from now be? How do we really know?
Kyle advises offering context and explaining why the team thinks something will or will not happen or is highly likely.
“Provide more rationale behind it beyond just predicting or becoming fortune tellers,” Kyle said. “Also acknowledge that ‘hey, we don’t know what the future will look like, but we want our organization to be able to double down on the areas that we have high confidence in.'”
Instead of saying:
The world will look like this.
It’s very likely that…
Kyle said that companies that are successful with foresight are very clear about their focus and how they work toward it.
“So the first thing we did is actually create a foresight strategy that gets into the details,” he said. “That’s important because you can end up going in 30 different directions.”
How soon should foresight show business impact?
Kyle said that it’s not next quarter or even the following quarter, but two to three years down the road, foresight should have shown some impact on the business.
“If you aren’t significant business impact in two or three years, people will look around and say, ‘what are these guys actually going?'” Kyle said. “It’s really important to find a way to business impact and get a couple of good case studies that can show ‘hey, we are helping the business. We helped deliver this product, which delivered x returns.'”