Anthony Scherba is the President and Founder of Yeti, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco.

Is your competitive advantage truly sustainable? Will your current strategies keep you competitive in your industry for another 5, 10 or 20 years?

In the modern era of rapid technology development and disruptive startups, businesses need to continuously innovate to stay competitive.

Harvard professor and businessman Clayton Christensen summed up the issue in his prescient 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," where he pointed out the pitfalls of focusing solely on fulfilling the needs of your current customers. The dilemma comes into play when a successful business gets comfortable, and neglects to explore new technologies because their customers are happy--for the time being.

But any business that's on top of its game today can get blindsided tomorrow by a new, disruptive technology that its team never imagined would affect their industry:

  • Streaming video is threatening the reign of cable TV.
  • Uber, Lyft and similar technologies are shaking up the centralized taxi industry.
  • 3D printing has the potential to disrupt a number of industries as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible to the average consumer.
  • Driverless vehicles are a looming threat to businesses in the auto industry, such as auto insurance providers, that fail to adapt.

The Power of Moonshot Thinking

All of these industries could have used moonshot brainstorming years ago to prepare for these emerging technologies. For businesses to sustain their competitive advantage and market position over time, keeping tabs on developing technologies is crucial. That's why at Yeti, we work with companies in a variety of industries to brainstorm and investigate how cutting-edge technology could affect their industry in the next 5, 10 or 20 years.

Regardless of your industry, moonshot thinking is a fun and very useful exercise for any business. By imagining all the possible ways in which new technology could affect your industry, you can be prepared to stay agile and competitive. Not only will this kind of brainstorming help predict future innovations in your industry, but it can also be an effective way to brainstorm interesting and potentially lucrative opportunities for future business development.

How to Bring Moonshot Thinking Into Your Office

When it comes to most businesses, moonshot thinking is easier said than done. It's tempting to resist investing in futuristic hypothetical business situations, as opposed to pouring money into ventures with more immediate and tangible returns.

But you don't need to invest dollars or bring in an outside consultant to start looking ahead; holding even occasional meetings and brainstorming sessions focused on the future of your industry can help you solidify your place in that environment, get a better sense of what technological challenges you are facing, and understand how you can evolve to drive the business forward.

In our work with clients, we use a simple strategy to kick off these conversations, and it's one that can be easily adapted by any team or industry:

  • Zoom out. Your staff and colleagues may initially question the motives behind moonshot thinking. Encourage them to visualize a bigger picture. What is your brand? What does your company stand for today? For example, while we were working with a chocolate company, we started by going back to the founder and the company's philosophies. We asked: Why does this company sell chocolate?
  • Now change the picture. In a completely different world with evolved limitations, how do these qualities shine through? Do they? Choose to be bothered. In the example of the chocolate company, we said, what would happen in a world without chocolate? What would happen if the cocoa bean went extinct (this could actually happen)?
  • Submerge yourself. What does your company look like in this new world? Moonshot thinking is an exercise in what-ifs. Think about the things that could happen in the next 10 years. Virtual reality? Drone delivery services? 3D printed food? In keeping with our example, these all could have an effect on a chocolate business.
  • Be willing to go on tangents, even if they may not make sense in the current context. Imagine a new one and whiteboard your ideas. With moonshot thinking, it's good to get excited about things and build on top of other people's random thoughts. Always be asking, "And then.....?" The more that you put out there, the better; later, you can move to, "Hey, we can actually prototype this!"

Ten or 20 years ago, who could have predicted the rise of 3D printing or driverless cars? Yet those technologies are now poised to make many successful businesses obsolete and extinct. Get ahead of the curve by asking yourself "what if" before your competitors do.

Published on: Jun 3, 2015