We live in a period of increasingly rapid change. Technology, business, and culture are all evolving in fast and remarkable ways. Looking ahead and anticipating change is a complex task that takes the right combination of perspectives brought together in just the right way. Many businesses don't undertake the challenge at all.

Anticipating change is a key practice for success. Consider a trend like 3-D printing. It may seem only narrowly relevant to many businesses today. But what happens to the market when a toy company (say, Lego) starts allowing their toys to be downloaded and printed at home? It's the trajectory of a technology like 3-D printing that matters, more than where it is today.

At Hyper Island, we're constantly considering which trends and patterns are relevant right now, and how their trajectories might soon affect our business. Once a year, we host an Industry Forum: a one-day think tank bringing together leaders from across disciplines to collaboratively map future trends.

Here's a snapshot of how it can work for you. 

Frame the question.

This first step frames the whole process. After assembling a group of leaders from a range of disciplines cutting across science research, editorial publishing, music publishing, digital media, film production, and academia, we posed a single question: "Over the next three years, what will be the most influential trends in the areas of business culture, technology, human behavior, and talent demand?" We chose these four broad areas to get a diverse range of ideas, rather than just the obvious trends.

Creating a clear focus is central to good collaboration and a meaningful outcome. With a clear, structured question it becomes possible to have 100 people work together at once. Then, instead of 100 individual perspectives, you get the result of 100 perspectives multiplied by hundreds of interactions between those individuals as they discuss, debate, and generate ideas together.

Explore and ideate.

In the second step, participants were placed in smaller groups and asked to generate as many ideas of trends as possible, without filtering. A true brainstorm. Every few minutes, we mixed up the groups to circulate the knowledge and ideas.

Ideas and insights emerge when people are given an open, inviting, and interactive space in which to explore. This step intentionally creates that space and provides a model for reproducing it in the future.

We gave lots of time to this step, asking participants to think big and small, broadly and specifically, and to say "Yes, and..." in order to build on each others' ideas rather than "No, but...." This step is where all the ideas come out and where participants spark and inspire each other.

Cluster and codify.

Once many ideas were generated, participants clustered them to combine common ideas and filter out others. In this step, they focused on trends that will have a high impact and manifest within the next three years. The very-low-impact trends (perhaps, "new flavors of chewing gum") and the very-far-off trends (say, "time travel") were filtered out, leaving the most relevant, most imminent trends organized and summarized.

As trends emerged, participants wrote them down as trend statements--brief sentences that describe the trend and hint at its implications. Trend statements are necessary tools for giving life to the trend-mapping process and rapidly communicating complex ideas from person to person. Summarizing trends makes them easier to understand and talk about, which in turn makes it easier for an organization to put them on the agenda and begin building them into strategies.

Prioritize and predict.

Finally, participants placed the trend statements on a large matrix. The vertical axis was for impact ("How much impact will this trend have?"), while the horizontal axis was a three-year time scale ("When will this trend fully hit the industry and society?"). For individual businesses, it's critical to examine the range of developments and forces that are most relevant to their particular context. Trends are most useful when the insight gleaned from them is tailored to an organization's specific objectives.

No trends exist in isolation. Patterns in behavior are linked to developments in technology; trends in talent-demand are connected to how businesses are evolving, and so on. Trends are always highly interconnected and dependent on each other. 

A structured process for trend-mapping can help people collaboratively produce vital predictions. No process can fully predict the future, but an exercise like the Industry Forum is important for understanding context and what lies ahead.

For the results of trend mapping to have an impact, there also needs to be a culture that supports curiosity, forward thinking, and risk taking. Businesses need processes for innovation and change, but perhaps more important, they need cultures where those things are happening informally and continuously. That way, any structured process becomes part of a culture that's ready for change and sees a future full of potential and opportunity.

Published on: Feb 19, 2015