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How to have all employees discover the future

by | Mar 13, 2018 | Innovation Culture

Leading companies have a strong habit of continuously discovering new opportunities and challenges.All employees discover the future with an open mind
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Common mistake: Being blind-folded

Human kind by nature tends to be fairly blind-folded, by its strong focus on opportunities and threats in the short term and directly related to its current situation. Companies often enforce this behaviour by:

  • Low adoption of the first three winning habits (Direction, Dialogue, Decision-making).
  • Not allowing time and resources in discovery and innovation, focussing on exploitation of the current business model.
  • Detailed and top-down control of exact discovery topics and assignments.
  • Leaving all discovery activities for dedicated and specialized teams close to the board.

The consequences are critical for the sustainable performance and business innovations we need to thrive in a disruptive world. We tend to:

  • Overlook longer term opportunities and issues and misinterpret the potential impact of these.
  • Overlook the real issue behind symptoms and fight the symptoms instead.
  • Limit our options for solving problems or pursuing new opportunities and get stuck.
  • Encounter resistance when developing and implementing new solutions.

In the past we have seen many businesses missing the boat – and we still do. Just imagine what would happen if:

  • Nokia and Blackberry did recognise that maybe, business-users at some point could expect touch screens, apps, multi-media and full connectivity.
  • Polaroid did consider that digital cameras would become affordable for consumers.
  • Airliners did understand that low-cost airlines could become attractive to business travellers as well.

The solution: All employees discover the future with an open mind

Leading companies drive their ongoing success with a strong habit of continuously discovering new opportunities and challenges.

Their discovery habits outperform the lagging companies, by:

  • Bringing the outside in
  • Using many sources
  • Involve all employees and many external stakeholders.

1. Bringing the outside in

Every company has an eye open to the outside. They investigate trends with customers, competitors and technology. However, many miss opportunities and trends as they tend be too focussed on:

  • Topics with an immediate impact on current performance, less on future performance.
  • Current needs of their best clients and less on future needs or on other market-segments.
  • Actions of competitors, less on what they potentially could do in the future.
  • Trends with clear signs and high probability, less on trends with less clarity or probability.
  • What they know for sure, less what they do not know. After all, staff are being paid for what they know”, not for what they do not know.

Leading manufacturers bring the outside in through the following practices.

Explore beyond business as usual

The key is to be looking for (potential) trends and changes which do not directly relate to the current business model and operations. These insights will help prepare the business well in advance and to be the first to benefit from the change.

Leading companies also address the following in their discovery habits:

  • Market
    • Current and future needs of market segments which they do not serve, particularly if they appear not to be so profitable at the moment.
    • (Latent) needs of their current clients, beyond the needs which they fulfill with their current products and services.
    • Current and potential future needs of the clients of their clients.
  • Competition
    • Changing visions and strategies of competitors, other actors in the value chain and potential new entrants into the industry.
    • Trends in adjacent industries and industries like data, algorithm driven industries.
  • New technology
    • Emerging technologies with low rate of adoption and application, like big-data, augmented reality artificial intelligence and how these will impact their (future) clients.
    • Obstacles which currently prevent rapid adoption of the new technology and how these obstacles could be solved in the future.
  • Economics, social demographics, politics, natural resources, workforce etcetera.

Explore weak signals

Many lagging companies make themselves vulnerable to disruption by disregarding the weak signals. They tend to assess emerging technologies on their current possibilities and threats. They often see many reasons the impact will not be that high, for example, because of poor performance, high cost and narrow practical applications. We tend to disregard the scenarios that these obstacles may disappear in the coming years and how the adoption of the emerging technology could accelerate rapidly.

Many disruptive changes take one or more decades of exponential development and growth. In the first phase the change and its impact seems to be insignificant. However, at some point, it quite quickly becomes significant and in a few years becomes main-stream. For many, this change comes out of the blue and is totally unexpected.

Leading companies explicitly focus on the weak signals. They are the first to see changes accelerating and obstacles for adoption of new solutions being eliminated. At the right time, they assess if they are ready for the change and are the first to act on the new opportunities and challenges.

Thinking in scenarios

It is a challenge to tell in advance which trends and changes will really become real and have an impact on our business and which trends will only be hype or just stall. I think it is key that we accept the fact that we do not know. The challenge is not making sure you do know, but that we are prepared to sense and respond in time.

Leading companies continuously develop and maintain scenarios for potential trends, changes and alternative solutions to respond. They understand which signals to be on the look out for.

2. Many sources

Leading companies see their innovation and changes being fed from many different sources for in-depth and broad discovery.

Internal and external sources

People with different backgrounds and opinions add value to getting new insights and arriving at better decisions. The most successful companies actually include many internal resources, which traditionally the lagging companies tend to disregard, like:

  • Employees from other cultures, with different values, views and experiences.
  • Employees who have a lot of experience from other industries.
  • Employees from specific departments like R&D, service, finance, compliance and employees at lower ranks.

Leading companies also activate a broader network of external sources, including those they hardly meet during daily business. They actively seek to exchange insights with:

  • Peers from completely different industries.
  • Clients of clients of clients.
  • Peers from other companies serving the same value chain.
  • Experts and academics from different domains.
  • Other stakeholders of client-organisations, who are not talking about the products and services.


Leading companies not only talk and think about potential challenges, opportunities and solutions. That would lead to paralysis by analysis. They also learn by doing by:

  • Innovate and develop step-by-step, starting with a first minimal viable solution and running rapid cycles of learning, adjusting and taking the solution to the next level. These are the Lean Startup and Agile approaches.
  • Doing experiments, where we learn from what could happen in certain circumstances with certain solutions. These provide new insights which can be included in further decision-making on the direction and timing of a solution.

Experiences and failures

Leading companies learn from the things they did which did not work. They rapidly adjust and find new ways. They emphasise that it’s all about the learning, not about the failure. Their employees are more open to trying new solutions and practices, discovering and pursuing new opportunities, also when the results are not yet certain.

More and more companies cultivate the belief that failure is an option. For example, they organise failure-celebration-sessions, where colleagues present a failure, what they learned from it and how they would adjust their approach.

Another approach is not to use the word “failure”, but “discovery” or similar. Like Edison said: “I did not fail, I just discovered 10,000 things that do not work.” This seems to work better than only reframing “failure”, even more so in cultures where losing face is a major factor.

3. The power of everyone in some discovery-mode

The most dynamic businesses empower all employees to do research, explore and define new ideas to improve and innovate, not a small specialised team dedicated to this job.

Everyone contributes

Everyone in the organisation owns part of innovation and change, whether it is about implementation or identifying new ways to improve. They all have and search for the necessary insights. They all read, talk with peers from other companies and clients, do experiments, visit conferences, do external training and conduct their discovery projects.

This engages them to own the ideas and the execution.

Exchange and share

However, they do not discover everything themselves. They also exchange insights, experiences, opportunities and challenges they have discovered, hence learning from their colleagues and having their colleagues learn from them. This happens through collaboration tools, meetings within and amongst project teams and other in company events.

Bottom-up and Top-down

Everyone, within boundaries, takes their own initiatives to explore certain topics. Some discovery assignments come from higher management levels. This way they are committed to the effort it takes and to the outcome they and their colleagues generate.


These open and forward-looking discovery habits make an organisation much more adaptive to any new opportunities, challenges and solutions. They shape a huge army of open-minded, engaged and change-oriented employees. This is mission-critical for any company that wants to thrive in a rapidly changing and complex world.

The Essence

It’s not about having smart analysts and experts creating smart intelligence.

It’s about having passionate and engaged employees learning and discovering and making great ideas work.

How much momentum does your organisation have to thrive in a disruptive world?

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