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The Trendspotting Trend

There's nothing like being in the right place at the right time. Smart companies spend big money on research and development to ensure that their offerings are up to date — and to make sure they don't miss out on lucrative new opportunities. Traditionally, this practice has been the sole stomping ground of qualitative and quantitative research firms, but not any more. After all, nobody anticipated that trendspotting itself would become a trend.

Of course, forecasting and analyzing trends is not new. Automobile manufacturers have strategically planned the colors of new makes and models for decades, and fashion designers use forecasting to predict what we'll wear three or four seasons ahead.

What is new is the emergence and widespread adoption of trendspotting by organizations outside such industries. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Campbell's Soup, Lego, Marks & Spencer, Virgin, and ICI all use trend forecasting as part of their innovation processes and as a way to anticipate what their customers will want in the future.

Why is this happening now? Many business leaders have lost confidence in traditional consumer research methodologies, especially when applied to innovation. This also ties into a general decline of trust (itself a major trend), the increasing acceleration of business, and the quest for certainty and security.

There is also the belief that, in a scientific age, it should be possible to predict what's going to happen next. Companies are therefore constantly looking for new ways to ensure that they don't become the victims of change and end up with a warehouse full of unsold inline scooters. Remember the Razor?

That's why trends can be double-edged swords. On the one hand, they are very useful. They can provide a strategic framework for innovation and help organizations keep existing products and services relevant. But being aware of trends — developing and otherwise — is not foolproof.

There's the question of whether to do this yourself as an internal activity or employ an external trendspotter or consultant. The answer depends on why you're following trends in the first place. If your rationale is to keep existing products and services relevant (i.e. incremental innovation), then you can probably do it successfully yourself. Evolution favors specialization and experience.

However, if you're trying to increase the level of revolutionary innovation, you need to go outside your organization. To look into the future strategically and successfully often requires a certain level of disengagement and disinterest in the outcome. For example, if you want to look at alternatives to the automobile, the last people you should employ are people who still work in the automotive industry.

If you do want to identify some relevant trends yourself, it's quite simple. Just walk around with your eyes and ears wide open. Seriously. It's that easy. Despite all the hype, most companies don't spend much time talking to customers. Instead, they spend a large amount of money talking to people through other people, often asking the wrong questions or talking to people with nothing to say.

The first thing you should do is find some insightful, articulate customers and talk to them yourself. Find out what's troubling them. Problems are a great springboard for new ideas. Ask them what they'd be doing if they ran your company. They won't invent the future for you, but they will give you a few ideas.

Otherwise, if you want to spot the next big thing — before it's widespread — here are a few tips and tactics:

  • Be curious — and obsess — about everything.
  • Ask yourself why new things are happening — and leave no answer unquestioned.
  • Look for patterns. What are the links between new ideas, attitudes, and behavior?
  • Reach out to some thought leaders and ask them what they're thinking about.
  • Hang out at the edge of your market and watch what the upstart startups are doing.
  • Seek ideas and innovations from other industries — and countries — and apply them to your own.
  • Watch out for counter-trends and their opportunities and challenges.
  • Remember that the biggest trends are always a confluence of smaller trends. Don't miss the macro because you're concentrating on the micro — and vice versa.
  • Keep it simple — start with what's individually true and then look for the universal.
  • Don't confuse short-lived fads with major trends.
  • Use the history of products and markets as a guide to their future.

If you get all this right, there's good money to be made in second guessing the future. At the same time, good money can also be lost getting it wrong. And the really big money? Well, that doesn't come from following trends.

That comes from people with original ideas who create trends. People with the courage to build something — and then see if anyone will come. For everyone else, being a fast follower is probably the next best option.