I recently sat down with futurist Faith Popcorn and had an intriguing conversation with her- on topics such as microchips embedded in humans, intestinal health and all female office floors. Faith is a pioneer who brought foresight work into a more prominent place in strategy. She is the author of five books and her company, Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, has a business model based on networked collaboration.
I was most interested in understanding Faith's perspective on the intersection between futurism and strategy. Here are parts of our conversation.
Faith, tell me more about the technique you use.
I observe about the future. A big part of what we do requires some 'backcasting'- that is, if we want to understand something that is 20 years out, we need to work backwards from there and work out smaller time segments. We deconstruct signals that we have collected and researched.
How do you define 'futurism'?
Futurism is reading tomorrow's news and acting upon it.
Why do you think more businesses do not incorporate futurism on a regular basis?
Well, primarily I think it's because they will not be there when it happens! Also, there is a lack of ownership among some employees in companies who don't have a vested stake in the organization.
Fundamentally, this work is important because if you don't know where you are going, you will not get there. Futurism is not taught, because it has been considered to be crystal ball territory- but it really should be.
Yes, I have observed that doing foresight work makes you paradoxically very present and mindful because you have to pay attention! So many companies today are trying to figure out ways to disrupt- what advice do you have for them?
To disrupt from within, you need the right people...and they won't necessarily be people who follow the rules. Most employees are trained to abide by rules and legacy. I would say that 99% of innovation comes from an external disruptor- not from within. One way larger companies end up doing this is through the acquisition of smaller upstarts that have begun disrupting their industry. We saw this with the acquisitions of Tom's of Maine by Colgate-Palmolive Co., as well as with Ben & Jerry's by Unilever.
What is a key trend to which business needs to pay attention?
We talk a lot about knowledge transfer, but there is a shift happening away from knowledge transfer to knowledge enhancement. There are plenty of examples of knowledge enhancers. Google has become this universal brain, available to enhance what we know at every turn. Chips have already begun to be embedded in pets, and now some people have started signing up for it. It could help with knowing where your children are! Amazon has been integrating exoskeleton apparatus for their factory workers to assist them with ergonomic issues.
The other patterns we are seeing are about projection, protection and escape. ...More to come on that in my upcoming book.
We do need to be mindful that making things bigger (through mergers and acquisitions and through big data) does not necessarily make them better. Companies must keep the human condition- for example, childcare- top of mind. There is a sort of willful disbelief that happens when people do not pay attention to signals from the future.
What final words of advice do you have?
To bring futurism into a company you must be brave and subversive. Just start to implement it- quietly! I found in my career that futurism protected my clients from where they were going and helped them to get on the right road.