By Mike Hyzy, Senior Principal Consultant, Daugherty Business Solutions
Also posted on Foresight Matters Medium Channel.
In the rapidly evolving world of product management, there’s a stark realization that by the time you build a product to fit today’s needs, those needs are obsolete. The product cycle, even in its most “agile” form, could take months to years, depending on the scale of the project. Therefore, a visionary approach is critical, one that propels us to think two, five, or even ten years into the future. This way, when a product launches, it’s not just catching up but spearheading innovation, providing us with a first-mover advantage.
The first-mover advantage, the competitive edge gained by being the first to market with a product, is a prized asset in product management. It is the catalyst that can turn a good idea into a market dominator in this high-speed, ever-transforming landscape. By spearheading innovation, we’re not just creating a product, but carving a niche and setting the market pace.
From a product manager’s standpoint, this is game-changing. We’re not only shaping customer preferences but also creating barriers to entry for competitors because, let’s face it, the product landscape is as much about defense as it is about offense. As first movers, we can take command, define standards, and establish brand loyalty before others catch up.
And this is where foresight fits in seamlessly. It’s the tool that empowers us to anticipate, strategize, and capitalize on future drivers before they become mainstream. With foresight, we can identify upcoming needs, develop matching solutions, and launch them immediately, securing our spot as industry pioneers. Foresight doesn’t just contribute to a winning product; it’s a key ingredient to becoming a leader in the marketplace.
Using Foresight for Future Products
Before I took the Foresight Essentials class at IFTF, I did light exercises around foresight when working on strategy projects. One was a design thinking method to create a press release or magazine cover for a future launch. While some design thinking exercises scratch the surface of futures thinking, they differ significantly in their structure and school of thought. Design thinking as a field focuses on an empathetic, user-centric approach to problem-solving. It seeks to understand user needs and, through rapid prototyping and iterative processes, crafts solutions that address these needs.
Foresight, on the other hand, takes a broader, more speculative approach. Instead of focusing on the user’s immediate needs, it hones in on potential futures. Foresight is not about creating solutions for problems we know exist today but about anticipating challenges and opportunities that might emerge in the future. There’s an art to being able to visualize the road ahead.
I’m very grateful that I could participate in IFTF’s Foresight Essentials in the spring of this year on the recommendation of a good friend and fellow consultant and futurist. After two months, my mental models shifted, and I began to notice changes in how I thought about and interpreted the future. IFTF taught me to create the future I imagined, and that’s what great product managers do. Foresight propelled my creativity and experimentation in crafting new products or prototypes and envisioning the possibilities that lie ahead.
Understanding the Foresight Practitioner Roles of a Consultant and Product Manager
According to IFTF, foresight practitioners often undertake roles such as trusted advisors, analysts and synthesizers, translators, and community facilitators. As a consultant, I often resonate with the first two roles, whereas as a product manager, I identify with the latter. To give some context, here are more about the roles:
- Trusted Advisor: Provides informed input to decision-making
- Analyst and Synthesizer: Absorbs and synthesizes information from diverse sources at multiple scales; creates frameworks and metaphors for understanding change
- Translator: Transforms material into specific, dynamic organization languages and realities
- Community Facilitator: Engages people around ideas, creates momentum, and leverages internal networks
As strategy consultants, we act as a trusted advisor, and that goes beyond just providing expert advice. The trusted advisor cultivates a deep relationship with clients, gaining a complete understanding of their challenges and goals. This role is critical because it fosters a more meaningful, collaborative engagement, enabling tailored and more impactful solutions. Moreover, providing foresight is essential in this role. As a trusted advisor, your insight into future drivers, possibilities, and risks becomes a strategic asset. By anticipating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, you’re helping your clients navigate the uncertainties of the future.
Change is a constant in business and life. When strategy consultants handle change management projects, we operate as analysts and synthesizers, deciphering the complex panorama of shifts on the horizon. However, our role extends beyond analysis; we serve as navigational aids to our clients, helping them understand, embrace, and adapt to these changes.
As a product manager functioning internally, my role aligns closely with a community facilitator. Just as a conductor guides an orchestra, a product manager synchronizes multiple communities within an organization.
I engage with diverse groups within this environment, including designers, engineers, data scientists, and leaders across various domains. My role isn’t just about managing; it’s about fostering collaboration, open dialogue, and a shared vision. Facilitating these diverse communities is about securing the right resources, negotiating funding, making complex product development decisions, and aligning everyone toward a common goal.
Foresight enables product managers to rally our communities with an informed perspective about the future direction of change, helping align our diverse teams around a shared, forward-thinking vision. It allows us to spot emerging drivers, understand their potential impact, and strategically position our products accordingly. The resulting strategic, long-term view ensures that when we finally launch our product it not only meets the needs of the present but is poised to succeed in the evolving marketplace of the future.
Utilizing the Foresight Cycle for Product Development
IFTF thinks about foresight through the lens of the Prepare-Foresight-Insight-Action cycle, which provides a systematic framework for developing informed and provocative visions of the future, then using them to generate provocative insights that lead to action in the present. Applying the foresight cycle to product development revolutionizes the process by providing concrete stages in which we can achieve a big picture understanding of the product and its purpose.
The Prepare Phase
It’s time to put on your research cap to delve into data analysis and observational studies. Your goal in this phase is to scrutinize the past and present to identify signs of impending shifts. Key to this process are drivers and signals of change.
Take, for example, a recent product strategy research project I undertook to look at the future of Human Resources as an industry. I was presenting a webinar about gamification in HR technology, and I didn’t want to focus on what they need now, but how the industry is evolving and what they should be planning for next year and beyond in their product procurement or product development. My initial step involved researching the history of software in the HR sector. History repeats itself, right? The data showed that since the 1980s, each decade marked a significant shift in HR software’s usability and functionality. For example,in the 1980s, software like PeopleSoft emerged, focusing primarily on basic HR tasks like payroll and employee data management. With the advent of the internet in the 1990s, we saw the first web-based HR solutions, such as Ultimate Software’s UltiPro, offering enhanced interactivity and real-time updates. By the 2000s, platforms like Workday began to leverage advanced analytics, thus fortifying data-driven decision-making. The 2010s introduced us to cloud-based solutions like BambooHR, facilitating seamless integrations and promoting real-time collaboration across global teams. This chronological progression, underpinned by crucial technological breakthroughs, demonstrates how HR software has constantly evolved to align with the dynamic needs of modern businesses.
You can undertake this kind of investigation as a standalone research project or in a collaborative setting using a whiteboard to lay out timeframes and plot significant changes. This exercise, what IFTF calls “Look Back to Look Forward,” allows a visual mapping of how things have changed over time.
Another important step in the Prepare process is identifying “drivers of change.” These are the underlying forces with the potential to mold our future. The scope of these drivers can be wide-ranging, including social, technological, economic, environmental, or political (STEEP) aspects, among others. In the context of HR, for instance, I spoke to experts in the field who identified demographic shifts and the growing impact of remote work as crucial drivers of change. Demographic shifts towards multigenerational and more diverse workforces signal the need for greater personalization and accessibility in HR platforms. The gig economy’s growth points to a demand for portable reputations and skill-based recognition that workers can take across jobs.
These drivers don’t spring up out of the blue. They gradually evolve, and their influence can be far-reaching. For HR professionals, recognizing these shifts is crucial. Acknowledging and understanding these drivers can provide a strategic edge, assisting in anticipating the future and allowing for active participation in shaping the industry’s future. We saw that HR technology has really evolved over 10 year cycles and we are seeing the verge of a new 10 year cycle with the advent of AR and wearable technology. Therefore, staying attuned to these drivers of change is essential, as they can guide the way to a more proactive and prepared approach to HR.
Another key practice in the Prepare phase is gathering “signals of change.” These unexpected or disruptive events provide valuable indicators of potential futures. For example, Walmart has successfully incorporated Oculus Rift VR headsets into its training centers, known as Walmart Academies, to innovate employee training. The technology has allowed Walmart to assess employee skills and deliver training in a more engaging and effective manner. Results have been positive, with improvements in employee test scores from VR-based training sessions. The company’s vice president of learning, Andy Trainor, highlighted the benefits of VR training, which include the ability to create safe, artificial scenarios that can’t be replicated on the sales floor. Walmart has found VR particularly effective for introducing new technologies and processes.
As a product manager looking to guide the evolution of HR technologies, I closely track emerging signals of change within the industry to expand my perspective and align our product roadmap with emerging workforce needs. I catalog signals I find and combine them with my research on HR tech trajectories. This approach provides crucial insight into how our products should adapt. For instance, the trends toward remote work and VR wearables suggest we should prioritize building collaborative and immersive training tools gamified through incentive systems tailored for distributed teams. By spotting these changes early and incorporating gamification, I can guide the development of next-gen HR technologies that embrace the future of work.
The Foresight Phase
IFTF provides a vast array of resources for the Foresight phase, but let’s zoom in on three particular elements: drafting a forecast, personalizing the future, and creating artifacts from the future. Engaging with these exercises allowed me to visualize future scenarios and uncover potential products and lifestyles.
At its core, drafting a forecast involves developing a plausible yet provocative vision for the future, anchored by your identified drivers and signals of change. This is an exercise best done with your product team and any willing stakeholders. For instance, my product and data team formed a working group to discuss generative AI, and we forecasted that in ten years, product managers will be “prompt engineers,” working three days a week from anywhere, using software that translates user stories directly into product features.
Another step in the Foresight phase is to create future personas or, as IFTF refers to it, “personalize the future.” This exercise breathes life into the forecasts we’ve developed by imagining the people living in these futures. Creating these future personas is akin to standard persona creation exercises, with a slight twist — we’re looking ten years ahead.
I’ve used future personas for a very detailed day-in-the-life narrative of future consumers, from waking up to bedtime. As a PM consultant at a leading Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) brand, I hosted a workshop with cross-functional teams where we looked into potential disruptions in the future of food ordering. First, we gathered press releases from major QSR chains showcasing their tech-enabled restaurant concepts of the future. These often included renders of self-ordering kiosks, cashier-less stores powered by AI, augmented reality menu boards, delivery drones, and real-time customer personalization. To bring these visions to life, we created future personas who had expectations of super fast delivery and service driven by AI automating. We drafted stories for future personas, envisioning the food experiences throughout their day, from when they thought about food (or were nudged) to the actual experience to what happened after the fact. The persona allowed us to paint a more vivid picture of the forecasts we developed.
This foresight informed our product roadmap for future consumers. For instance, it validated gamified personalized offers and loyalty programs in anticipation of demand for customization. We also explored drone delivery partnerships, knowing last-mile logistics would be a competitive frontier. It gave insight into how backend restaurant management platforms must handle the ever-evolving needs of customer-facing hardware and software.
Foresight from industry signals gave us a long-term perspective that proved invaluable. We anticipated emerging QSR innovations by scoping disruptive technologies in adjacent markets like retail and transportation. Our whiteboarding sessions aligned the team on product investments that would pay dividends as the market evolved. The exercise ultimately gave us a competitive edge in a rapidly changing industry.
This exercise is fun and illuminating, giving a grounded touch to the otherwise abstract concept of the future.
Finally, we bring our future visions to life by creating artifacts from the future. These artifacts are where our abstract visions materialize into something tangible. And with AI advancements, it’s easier than ever. You can use sketching, digital whiteboards or, as I prefer, AI-based image generation tools like Midjourney. In the last chapter of my upcoming book about gamification, I envisioned a future of extreme automation, with the purpose being that gamification could be everywhere. To showcase to the reader how the future could look, I created an artifact of a closet that 3D prints your clothes every day, eliminating the mundane chore of laundry but also creating lots of waste.
The artifact provides a tangible idea of a possible future of automated clothing. (Nike, if you want to hire me, contact my consulting firm.) Product managers can apply forecasts, future persona, and artifacts of the future when working on their product visioning strategy.
The Insight Phase
In the Insight phase of the foresight cycle we translate foresight into implications, and understand the opportunities we can pursue today and future threats we need to avoid.
Riding Two Curves, one Insight tool, is not your weekend cycling adventure, though it might just be as exhilarating. It’s a journey through time, drivers, and transformations. Buckle up because this ride might get a bit bumpy, but the insights you’ll gather are certainly worth it! Think of it as a dynamic rollercoaster ride where we can observe two curves, the rise of one way of doing things and the fall of another, allowing us to gauge their mutual influence and make informed decisions.
As an example, consider the curves of gamification adoption in human resource management and employee engagement. Over time, as gamification increases, so does employee engagement because the traditional ways of doing things have changed to more interactive and fulfilling experiences. By using this tool, we gain insights into how product developers can help companies smoothly “ride” or transition from the old way of HR engagement to the new disruption of gamification, including building strategies like developing prototypes and testing concepts with employees.
Another Insight tool, Map Cross-Impacts, allows us to scrutinize how multiple variables can impact each other, influencing the trajectory of change. By understanding this complex web of influence, we are better equipped to forecast a wide array of potential opportunities and challenges that may surface.
In our gamification example, we can map cross impacts by examining how gamification might influence factors like job satisfaction, employee turnover, and productivity. Will more gamification lead to higher job satisfaction and, hence, lower turnover? How does the gig economy impact this? How does it intersect with technology and healthcare? This system’s view surfaces interdependencies I should consider when developing roadmaps and strategies.
It also reveals potential unintended consequences to prepare for. With gamification, I could examine the impacts of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation or its effects on different personality types. This mapping equips me to anticipate more comprehensive opportunities and challenges that may arise as we implement changes.
Ultimately, these frameworks provide product managers like me with structured tools to glean insights from multiple potential futures and align on strategic transitions to stay ahead of change. In a world of constant change and disruption, product managers can leverage these tools to steer products through increasing uncertainty and complexity.
The Action Phase
It’s time to take a deep dive into the action phase of IFTF’s foresight cycle where we transfer our far-reaching insights to the world of practical product development. This phase invites us to weave together the threads of possibility, testing hypotheses, and spinning out small-scale prototypes to trace our route to the future we have charted.
The “Catalyze the Future” exercise is an action tool that prompts us to take an inventory of technological capacity, business goals, and user needs or sentiment. As product developers, it forces us to question whether our technological reach matches our ambition, whether our business goals are aligned with the product’s potential, and whether the investment would yield a worthwhile ROI.
Consider the healthcare industry as an example. We envision a future where we can cure today’s most challenging diseases. The first step might be identifying what technological innovations this would require. This could mean building an innovation lab or investing in cutting-edge software and hardware. Next, we’d need to construct potential business models to support this technological leap. Then, it’s time to evaluate and prioritize, using a standard impact-versus-effort grid to rank your ideas.
Of course, this journey doesn’t unfold in a vacuum; resources are not unlimited. As a result, we must employ a “Test and Learn” model to validate our hypotheses. The trick here is to figure out the most cost-efficient ways to put your assumptions to the test. For instance, in our healthcare scenario, we might create a clickable prototype of the proposed solution to gather user feedback. Simultaneously, we’d draft a high-level business plan or a business model canvas and present it to stakeholders. This iterative process of testing, learning, and retesting keeps us anchored in the art of the possible.
With enough validated assumptions, you’re ready to transition from theory to practice. The “Build an Action Roadmap” exercise from IFTF provides a clear direction. But this roadmap is more than a simple to-do list; it’s a narrative that traces your journey from your preferred future back to the present, detailing every step along the way.
To paint the picture more vividly, imagine a future where chronic diseases are significantly curtailed by technological advances and targeted policy interventions to address social determinants of health. Working backward, we would identify long-term milestones, such as policy changes in preventative care and socioeconomic interventions. Next, we’d plot mid-term steps, like AI and novel hardware development. Lastly, short-term actions, like rallying support for the business case and creating an innovation hub, would fill the immediate landscape.
Large-scale innovation is daunting, but it’s manageable. Detailed road maps projecting far into the future can illuminate the path, aligning your vision with the concrete steps needed to make it a reality. And this, dear reader, is how we build innovative products and stay one step ahead of the competition.
The transformative potential of the foresight methodology in product development is indisputable. It’s not just a set of exercises or a list of tasks; it’s a way of reimagining the future, seeing possibilities, and igniting sparks of innovation. It propels us to venture into uncharted territories, to map out new worlds of opportunities, and to carve our unique paths within them.
In this intricate balance of forecasting and creation, we as product developers step into the role of future makers. We’re not just passive recipients of change but active shapers of the world to come. We seize the threads of potential spun in the Foresight and Insight stages, weaving them into a tapestry of tangible realities in the Action stage. Our daily tasks transcend their mundane form and morph into tools of future-building, each decision and innovation taking us one step closer to the envisioned tomorrow.
As we embark on this journey, let’s remember that it’s not just about bridging the gap between possibility and reality; it’s about creating a bridge that others can traverse, a pathway that opens up new horizons for users, industries, and societies. It’s about crafting a legacy of innovation, of shaping the course of the future, one product at a time.
Our ability to catalyze change and drive innovation is an indicator of our professional success and a testament to our role as future makers. So let’s embrace this role with the creativity, courage, and conviction it demands. After all, the future is not something that happens to us; it’s something we create. Let’s build it.
Mike Hyzy is a Senior Principal Consultant at Daugherty Business Solutions. You can read more about his work in gamification in his book, Gamification for Product Excellence: Level up Your Product Success with Higher User Engagement, Retention, and Innovation. www.levelupyourproduct.com
IFTF Foresight Essentials
Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon over 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.