When you Innovate, Think About the Elephant in the Room

The concept of the life stack — the set of services which will feed your customers life in the future — came to me during a foresight exercise. During this exercise, I facilitated an ideation session where some of the top innovative minds in the enterprise had come together to develop a future vision of the world. As we went through the ideation process, many interesting scenarios and stories were told about this future world — what the world would be like, what the future customer would be like, what the industry would be like, etc. In this imagined world of the future, no one noticed, or mentioned, the absence of companies like the one I was ideating with.

They were imagining a future without them in it. And no one said a thing.

My first thought was that it would be unthinkable to them that their own company would no longer fit into the future that they had imagined. They simply omitted any thought of that, as they assumed that their firm, would, somehow, still be around, even though our discussions, it appeared that the entire industry would be disintermediated out of existence, or would have to radically change into something completely different, to survive.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the change required, it was akin to Ford getting out of the car business and instead providing gourmet meals by subscription. They would have to take on a completely different, and foreign to them, business model, to survive, in some form. A radically different form. They wouldn’t even be in the same business, as their entire business model would sink deep into the life stack, and be fully handled by smart machines and chatbots.

In short, a variation of not talking about the elephant in the room. You know, like Kodak did when they invented digital photography.

Too often, we dance around the big issues, or fail to address the big problems, simply because it is so much easier to just work with the proverbial “low hanging fruit”. Our typical short-term, lazy thinking, gravitates not towards the biggest, most painful problem (because it is usually the hardest problem to solve — but not necessarily) but the quick win, the rapid solution, the short-term success.

Yet, the elephant remains.

As innovators, we must be ready to take on the elephant, head-on. We must be ready, willing, and able to take on the tough tasks, to step up and engage in solving the most painful problems first. We cannot shirk the big problems, just because there are other, lesser problems, which can be solved more easily.

It’s so common, it’s almost sad. Organizations have a few elephants, and a lot of mice to deal with. They would much rather spend time dealing with the mice, because those are so much easier to deal with, than the elephants which are causing so much pain. Or maybe their excuse is that the tools to deal with the mice are available, accessible, and cheap, whereas the tools to deal with the elephants are more difficult to obtain and use, and more expensive.

You can deal with as many mice as you like, yet the elephants remain.

When you see a situation like the one I encountered above, what is the proper response? To sit back and allow the group to think that their firm will exist in the future world that they are thinking about — or challenge them by asking “In this scenario, where do you fit?”

If you ask that question, there is usually a quizzical glance. The simply assumed that their firm would continue, as is, in this new future, even though there was no longer a place for it — or it competitors. Then it dawns on them that they had omitted their firm — and the industry that they are in — from that future.

The next typical step is rewriting that future to include themselves and their industry, but that would be a mistake. The first vision was the right vision. The task is to figure out how they fit into that vision.

The vision doesn’t need to change. But the company does. The products and services it sells, the services it provides, and maybe its whole business model, may have to change for it to survive in the new future. You need to address the hard problem — what do you need to become to survive.

Sometimes it’s jarring and painful. But if you truly want to imagine a future with you in it, it must be done.

Originally published at thinkfuture.com on May 25, 2017.