Envision The Future To Unlock Business Value

How to please your consumers and prepare for your future world of work

I never set out to be an envisioner, in many ways I just got lucky. I joined the world of work at the perfect time, a time when the personal computer revolution had just begun. This was a world where computers were distant, sometimes obtuse tools of work, to be used only for formal, professional tasks – not frivolous things like playing games or swapping faces with a favourite celebrity.

When IT met business

By the time I hit the world of work in the late 1980s I had unlocked my own superpower. I and a handful of other nerds had figured out not just how these incredible new machines worked, but – by working with non-nerds – we could see how they might be applied to deliver incredible new value to organisations.

These were magic times. We spent our days not locked up in server rooms fighting viruses and outbreaks of “shadow IT” but instead in the wild, standing side by side with our business leaders, showing them how the technology could unlock even more value. In those days, our most challenging task was to help people engage with the technology and to try and open their eyes to the potential it had to offer.

Over time, we got complacent, frustrated even, about how hard it was to get non-believers to see the amazing potential on offer. We invented horrible terms like “dumb user” and would often delight in telling people to “RTFM” or ask the (sadly, still relevant) question, “have you tried switching it off and on?”

We retreated to our server rooms, hid behind our security policies and IT standards and started to prefer to hang out with other believers, wanting to talk technology only to other technologists.

We retreated from the “business” side of our organisations and spent most of the early 2000s largely in isolation, unaware of the revolution that was quietly taking place outside the walls of the IT department.

The death of the dumb user

While we were busy applying service packs and working out how to prevent “dumb users” from getting themselves into trouble at work, those same people were beginning to enjoy the spoils of the 21st century. Armed increasingly with high speed domestic and even mobile broadband, as well as a wide range of tactile consumer tech devices, they were gradually starting to enjoy a dizzying array of consumer services that were transforming their daily lives.

From building stronger relationships with friends and family through social networking, through to the transformation in their retail and lifestyle habits, for the first time ever, normal, every day people (not just nerds like me and my colleagues) were beginning to enjoy the opportunity of a world where technology is something that lifts our capability, helping us to achieve more in all aspects of our lives.

Slowly, the centre of gravity of people’s use of technology shifted from the world of work to their personal lives to the point where, certainly by the end of the last decade, most people had access to better technology in their domestic lives than they did at work.

They carried two phones – a crappy work device that for the most part had been rendered almost completely useless, but was at least “secure” in the eyes of someone, and a shiny new smartphone that had become a natural extension of their own body. They typically also carried two other computers, probably using (and certainly preferring) their sleek tablet more than the boxy piece of grey or beige plastic they were handed by their employer.

I remember sitting on the train into London and seeing this play out on table after table of commuters – each of them carrying four different devices (along with the obligatory rucksack full of 4 lots of charging cables and adapters) and thinking “where did it all go wrong?” This was never our vision of the future when we started out.

This was probably the point at which I decided to fulfill my calling as an envisioner.

What can technology do for you?

What I saw that day was not stupid people, bumbling through, ham-fistedly trying to press buttons, but instead people who simply cared more for the value the tool had to offer them as opposed to an appreciation of how it worked. These were people who no longer needed convincing that they should be using technology, but instead had an ever-increasing expectation of what technology should be able to do for them every single day.

With every great digital experience, their expectations would rise. More importantly, they would carry this enhanced expectation with them, not just for similar transactions but for every other experience they would have. If the dumb user had ever existed, (which I doubt) it died that day.

You must have experienced this for yourself, it happens to me every single day. My current favourite example was the recent discovery that the time it takes me to travel from dropping my son off at school to my nearest Starbucks is exactly the same amount of time that it takes Starbucks to make me a coffee and a sausage sandwich.

Sausage sandwich, great service

So now, when I drop my son off in the morning, I say my goodbyes and as soon as he’s gone, I whip out my phone and order myself some breakfast. I then drive over in anticipation of the brilliant experience I’m about to enjoy.

Because when I arrive at the store, I walk straight past the queue of people waiting to order. I also walk straight past the queue of people waiting to receive their drinks. Nonchalantly, I stride over to the counter, where waiting for me with a beautifully printed label with my name on it, awaits a steaming cup of joe and a piping hot sausage batch. The look on the faces of the queuing people is enough to tell me that once again, today, I have “won” the internet.

This is not just about me being smug, it is really about the feeling I now carry with me for every subsequent experience I have. If I can’t replicate the ease of use, or personal value offered to me by experiences like the one at Starbucks, then I will likely refuse to use the service. Worse still, I will begrudgingly use it but hate the provider forever as a result.

Of course it’s not just Starbucks.

There are hundreds of organisations out there offering similarly valuable experiences that you must have come across yourselves (but not you digital train tickets, unfortunately your time has yet to come…)

The point is, for the most part they are a normal aspect of everyone’s daily lives.

The birth of the Chief Envisioning Officer

Going back to my train journey epiphany, at that time I was working for Microsoft. As I sat there in the carriage, looking across an ocean of personal and professional devices, I realised that as an industry we had become stuck in a rut, talking about technology to technologists.

I was talking about new features of future products to people who also cared more about the products themselves than necessarily what the products might be used for.

(This wasn’t anyone’s fault by the way. It would be easy to say that it was the nature of the conversation my employer was expecting me to have to drive sales, but it was as much a symptom of the journey we had all taken to reach that point as a blinkered approach to driving IT product adoption.)

To rectify this, working with a handful of similarly driven individuals, we invented the role of the Chief Envisioning Officer, a name specifically intended to draw the satire of industry commentators and even some customers. Yet while the job title may have been intended to poke fun, the role most certainly was not.

We were deadly serious about the opportunity that existed if only we could reconnect with where we started our careers, standing side by side with the business, helping to unlock even more value for customers and employees alike.

Our prime directive was to focus not on the technology nor the process, but instead to work with the business to “envision” the outcome that could be achieved. At the time this represented a Copernican shift in the approach to conversations about unlocking business value with technology.

Predicting the future?

People often ask what I do for a living, and of all of the answers I offer or get offered, the one I like least is “Futurologist”. Although it kind of makes sense, it implies that my job is predicting the future. This couldn’t be further than the truth – envisioning is more about pragmatic projection than it is perfect prophecy.

The thing is, all too often as humans we are led to believe that the future is always a straight line – usually extrapolated from where we are today in relation to where we were yesterday – and it’s almost always up and to the right.

In reality and now more than ever in our digitally connected society, it is more like a pinball, rebounding and ricocheting from a wide array of objects, obstacles and opportunities. If we want to “predict” the future, we are better to think about the different trajectories the pinball might take than to simplify to a single truth.

And that is genuinely the only real secret to envisioning, it is simply about exploring the potential futures but in a way that is not bound entirely by past experiences.

Making the case with driverless cars

I often use driverless cars as a playful example to make this point to the organisations I work with. For my book The Rise of the Humans I researched all the claims I could find for the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles on our highways. While the predictions varied wildly, the average of all of them tells a really interesting story.

My research led me to conclude that we will likely only reach a point where 50 per cent of all miles driven are done so autonomously by 2040, and that we won’t reach 100 per cent of this total until 2070.

Personally, I find it almost impossible to believe that by the time we reach 2070, we will still think the best way to transport human beings around the local environment is inside a tin, robotic box on wheels.

I think the future of human transport is as likely to be autonomous drones as it is cars (and in fact if you look at the trials already underway in places like Dubai and with organisations like Airbus and Uber, it is likely to happen way sooner than 2040).

Why is this important? Well really it just means that if in this example, you’re charged with thinking about the future of human transportation, you need to be thinking beyond any single industry. What’s more, it shows that if you want the best starting point, you should really be thinking about what the solution would be if you didn’t have any starting point at all…

For me, the ultimate solution for human transportation is neither train, plane nor automobile (autonomous or otherwise) but is instead the Star Trek transporter. So why not start there and work backwards rather than to start with what we have and work forwards?

Of course, the Star Trek transporter may not be feasible for some considerable time but considering the value it would provide will highlight new ideas and use cases that you could never unlock by simply extending existing ways of working.

Unleashing your inner envisioner

If you want to be prepared for your future, there’s a few really simple things you can do that will put you in the best possible place to take advantage of whatever opportunities the future may bring.

  1. The first is you’ve absolutely got to get outside of your business. You’ve got to stop looking from the inside – out and instead look from the outside – in. Just like everyone else, you are a customer, an employee, and have a rich and varied personal life. You have your own experiences so try and tune into them and project them into the various personas of the people that matter to you. Think about what your customers might be feeling, what their expectations might be and then reflect on how you might be living up to them. It really doesn’t take much and I guarantee it will change the way you think about what’s important to you and your organisation.
  1. You need to get out of your industry too. If you think your customers (or even your employees) only think about you in the context of the industry you’re in, you’re dead wrong. My Starbucks example is as relevant to how your customers choose their suppliers or partners as it is to how they choose their hot beverage provider. Spend time away from the constraints of the straight-line future and instead spend a few fun hours simply pondering “what if?” Even if none of what you imagine comes to pass, you will be better prepared for what takes its place.
  1. And here’s the final and sometimes hardest trick to becoming a true envisioner… You have to keep not just your eyes and ears open but most important of all, you need to keep your mind open. It means you need to be able to invent and consider opportunities and experiences that you might not currently think possible or even relevant.

As an example, some of you may, like me, remember the first time someone stuck a camera inside our mobile phones. I remember thinking at the time (long before my epiphany of envisioning) “well great, now I’ve got a really crap camera and a sub-optimal phone that is larger and with less battery life than before”.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine a world where not only would that camera change the way I interact with loved ones, but would also unlock incredible new skills like instantaneous language translation or even helping visually impaired people navigate the world around them.

I couldn’t have envisioned any of what we enjoy today because I wasn’t able to open my mind enough to think about “what if”.

To conclude…

It’s been a long time since I sat on that train inventing the comedy role of the Chief Envisioning Officer in order to drive more productive conversations with organisations about the incredible potential that technology has to offer in almost everything they do.

But perhaps the biggest and best irony is that over a decade later, I no longer use the title as a joke to open doors to conversations I was previously unable to have, but instead cherish it as a calling card to find other like minded people help invent a future for all of us that is worth having.

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