One of the organisations I consulted for was a leading manufacturer of flavours and fragrances. They are one of the largest unknown companies in the world – their products are integrated in almost every household and luxury item you use. I was asked to help this company at a time when it was slipping from first to fourth place in the ratings. One of the reasons was the incredibly high overhead. Another was its inability to anticipate customer needs. I worked with the company during a three year period helping put into place processes that would help them anticipate, streamlining their innovation platform and increasing cross functional cooperation.
One of the anticipation processes we instigated was a widespread network of students and other volunteers who scoured their local markets, restaurants, and fashionable jaunts to spot the new flavour and fragrance trends in their city. After a short training by the company’s perfumers and flavour engineers they learned to input their impressions into an intuitive app. This raw data was then funnelled to the people in charge of creating new essences.
The most memorable experience I had was participating in a meeting of perfumers, who were using this raw data for the first time. I was in a room with 20 of their leading scent engineers when the head perfumer marched in: “We have to create a washing powder that smells like the happiest day in your life”. From where I sat in the back of the room this seemed an impossible task.
First they reviewed all the data that had come in from their anticipation scouts, in that particular geographical area. They identified a couple of trends. Then they started their introspective work. Each one of them talked about their happiest day, laughing, and sometimes crying together. The birth of a first child. A wedding day in summer. Their partner getting well again. After everyone had had their turn the head perfumer got up, wrote a chemical formula on the board and turned to the group: “So is this about it?” Yes, they all said. I left the room awestruck by what just happened – intuitive anticipation at its best.
What is intuitive anticipation?
Anticipation is the ability to visualize a future event, enabling you to take pro-active initiatives. It consists of two factors: looping and learning.
Looping means that there are organisational processes in place that enable the intuitive sensing of the environment. These processes enable leaders to collect raw data from stakeholders, competitors, customers and the wider market about future trends and developments. Aggregated judgements of many consistently beats the accuracy of the average member of the group. The key is recognizing that useful information is often dispersed widely with each person holding a different scrap (Tetlock & Gardner, 2015).
Learning means that an organisation has ways to create meaning from this raw data, and create transformative strategic scenarios. Linear approaches to strategic planning worked in the 1960-1970s because the environment was relatively stable. Given the rising degree of uncertainty linear approaches don’t suffice anymore. Scenario planning helps in all issues that involve complex dynamics, with a diverse set of stakeholders and varying knowledge bases, with a problem that requires interdisciplinary collaboration to address (Chermack, 2011). Scenario planning recognizes the unpredictable nature of the future as a learning activity.
Looping and learning processes are essential to design an innovative business.
Most entrepreneurs have a finely honed sense of anticipation. They can almost smell the newest trends and customer needs, sometimes even before the customer knows it. They are broadly interested, have a diverse network, share their thinking with like minded entrepreneurs. As a company grows the original founder spends more time looking inwards, throwing up protective barriers to the outside world. When you are able to keep these barriers open, look outside of yourself and the organisation, you can keep a strong connection to your intuitive anticipation.
Radical Agile Transformation Exercise – Train your intuitive anticipation
You and your team can train your intuitive anticipation process – you can improve your looping. Here are 17 quick ideas to help get you started, place a tick next to the ones you are already doing.
- Select or create good learning environment, relevant and exacting.
- Seek feedback actively and systematically.
- Impose circuit breakers, become mindful of automatic reactions.
- Acknowledge emotions, treat them as data.
- Explore connections, use narrative or images.
- Accept conflict in choice, every decision is a trade-off between using scarce deliberate system and incomplete information.
- Make scientific method intuitive: observe better, speculate consciously about what you see, test ideas, generalize carefully.
- Focus on questions where your work will pay off, so not clock like questions, not too far out.
- Unpack question into components.
- Distinguish between known and unknown.
- Leave no assumption unscrutinized.
- Adopt outsider perspective and put problem in comparative view. No problem is unprecedented or unique.
- Adopt inside view that plays up uniqueness of problem. Look for clashing causal forces at work in each problem.
- Compare similarities and differences between your view and others’.
- Synthesize all views into dragonfly vision.
- Express probability as finely grained as possible.
- Update forecast using many sources of information without under or over reacting.
For all that you haven’t ticked, consider ways you can start building your intuitive anticipation skills.
Bibliography: References & links
Granularity predicts accuracy (Tetlock & Gardner, 2015)
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Sari van Poelje has 30 years experience of innovation on the interface of leadership and organizational development, executive coaching and transactional analysis both as a director within several multinationals and as an international consultant. Specialization in creating agile leadership teams and business innovation! She is the author of numerous articles and books on leadership and change.