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5 questions you should be asking about the future

Thornton May | June 12, 2015
Things IT leaders need to be thinking about to prepare for what’s coming.

I recently have been sounding ahead-of-the-curve executives about the questions we should be asking about the future. Here are five of particular importance.

Do you understand that it's the transition, not the trajectory?

As someone who studies the history of the future (that is, how organizations have historically tried to prepare themselves for what comes after what comes next), I have learned that it is critically important to differentiate between technology trajectory stories and technology transition realities. 

Moore's Law and Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns are technology trajectory stories. Nokia's essential disappearance from the commercial landscape is a technology transition story. Nokia was a 60% market-share leader in a highly technology-intensive business. The consumer phone industry was characterized by high fixed costs and high returns to scale, and was highly regulated, fully global and complex. And yet in less than five years, a competitor with no phone experience came to dominate the global market. Nokia, I think it is safe to assume, did not ask the right questions about the future. Its leaders understood technology trajectories but seemed to miss the point of technology transition. 

What should you learn from Google Glass?

During the frenzied era, strategists and planners were told that we had entered a "new normal," where none of the old rules applied. It turns out that some patterns persist. One such persistent pattern is the adoption cycle associated with technology products. Historically, most technology innovations first see the light of day in vertical market applications (for example, video recording devices were prototyped and refined in professional markets before VCRs became available to the public). Google Glass was targeted at consumers at a price -- about $1,500 -- more appropriate for professional markets. As longtime Silicon Valley watcher Tim Bajarin points out, "While Google was playing with Glass, Apple brought out the ideal extension of your smartphone in the form of a watch." One of the questions to ask about the future is what not to do when creating a product for the consumer. 

What job are we hiring Products & Services to do?

The general consensus is that about 95% of new products fail. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen believes this failure rate can be significantly improved upon if product and service development teams start to look at products as a way to get a job done. In the professor's words, "We actually hire products to do things for us." Christensen suggests migrating away from "segment-the-market" questions and asking "jobs-to-be-done" questions.

"The fact that you're 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product," Christensen says. "It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn't cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what's correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, Oh, I've got a job to be done.' And it turns out that it's really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy." (See an illuminating discussion of what we really hire milkshakes to do for us here.)


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