The future cannot be predicted but get ready for it!

How to make prospective analysis an agile tool for business innovation

Aude Darrou, Affiliate Professor of Marketing - November 10th, 2015
L’avenir est impossible à prévoir, mais il peut se préparer : comment faire de la prospective un outil agile d’innovation en entreprise ? par Aude Darrou ©Fotolia

Prospective analysis has supported the strategy of the French State and large industrial groups for decades. This approach, which provides a vision of potential future contexts, may sometimes appear less relevant to the current issues that firms in highly responsive markets are facing, as these markets require fast-paced innovation and constantly-renewed inspiration. However, with the contribution of digital technology, driving the connected economy at full thrust, such an approach turns out to be particularly relevant because it broadens the horizons of innovation stakeholders and allows new innovative paths to be explored. 

Aude Darrou ©HECParis

An ESCP graduate, Aude Darrou is an affiliate professor at HEC Paris, and a consultant in innovation management. Together with Anne-Laure Frossard, a graduate of HEC Paris, she (...)

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Towards a prospective approach that is more agile and better suited to shifting markets

Initiated in the 1950s by Gaston Berger, the “French prospective approach” was developed in order to provide guidance in the investment decisions of the State and large companies. During the Trente Glorieuses, the 30-year economic boom period after the war, this involved planning major infrastructure and territorial development projects, and orienting France’s industrial and energy policies by identifying the most likely scenarios of change to the economic, demographic and technology-related contexts. The approach remains commonly used in sectors such as transport, energy and the armaments industry, but seems to be under-used in industrial sectors involving a more rapid innovation cycle (such as FMCG, services and high technology). This is because, as a method, it is complicated to implement and is better adapted to processes where the different stages can be measured in years. However, it is precisely in these “fast-changing” sectors that the need to renew innovative thinking and broaden the field of vision is greatest, as these sectors need to offer innovation that really will make the difference. The following question therefore arises: can the “classical” prospective approach be made more agile and better suited to certain sectors of the economy, without losing the added value it brings? 

Take a moment to extend the scope of possibilities, at a time when everything is speeding up

Using prospective analysis to identify new opportunities in sectors with a short innovation cycle above all involves adopting a position of openness in which thinking is renewed. It also involves the decision to give a fresh slant to tried-and-tested methods, based on a vision of “possible futures”.The method means not focusing solely on your own market, category and consumer, but instead building an overall and future-oriented vision. It means no longer concentrating on the consumer’s psychology, habits or problems, but considering consumers and their environment as an ecosystem, and reflecting on the possible changes to this system over time.

Propose a flexible foresight approach connected to the changing realities of businesses

In order to implement a foresight approach in a highly competitive environment, it is important to keep the structured nature of the “historical” prospective approach without letting it become too rigid, and ensure that it remains properly connected to the changing realities of the business. Therein lies the challenge. The key to success is to make use of the power of different creativity methods and rely on digital and collaborative tools in order to roll out the foresight process within just a few months.
This “adapted” foresight method, implemented by Tagea, combines three major tasks: 

- Detailed definition and framing of the topic the company wishes to explore, in order to guarantee that the approach can have a real impact on business.

- Investigation of varied yet complementary areas of expertise which all have an influence on the topic in question such as social, economic, demographic and political factors. The questions raised are: what are the underlying trends in each of these domains? What has generated disruptions? What predictions can be made about the future? For example, a leisure company setting up a foresight process to identify new services in the travel sector might, among other things, investigate the “relationship with time” factor. This would involve understanding how this relationship has changed in our society over the past decades and forecasting its development in the future: will time become a luxury, or will future generations intuitively know how to preserve their downtime in order to slow down? Understanding and anticipating these developments and comparing them with other changes with a bearing on the subject (household budgets, environmental concerns) will lead to a definition of the impact over the coming years of the time factor on lifestyles.

- Use of creative methods to think up scenarios that describe consumers of the future as well as their behavior, expectations and needs, followed by the identification of new concepts, or even new business models.

Agile foresight process thanks to digital technology and the connected economy

The collaborative, multidisciplinary and often international nature of the foresight approach is aided and accelerated by digital tools. A co-creation platform connects all the company’s innovation actors with external contributors (scientists, researchers, practitioners, experts etc.) in a smooth, interactive manner. It makes foresight project a driver of change that modifies working methods and leads the company towards more collaborative innovation with broader horizons. For example, an American expert in nutrition can discuss with a German sociologist in order to provide answers to a multidisciplinary international team working within a French company… now that’s a fine example of co-creation!

What result does foresight achieve?

Foresight can be used by company managements looking to redefine their strategic direction, by marketing departments in order to identify new opportunities within a given category, or by R&D departments to direct their research according to societal changes or future technologies…

Foresight allows the identification of areas for development, some of which may be highly disruptive. It leads companies toward new business models to be explored and it develops the current offering toward new benefits expected by the consumer of tomorrow. In broader terms, it changes the company’s outlook by fostering openness and confidence in the evolution of markets, allowing firms to prepare for the future, or even give direction to it.

By Aude Darrou, affiliate professor and consultant in innovation management.